“It is very, very hard to talk about anything else here,” confesses Colm Tóibín of the “political cataclysm” that is the US presidency of Donald Trump.
Often described as Ireland’s greatest living writer, the award-winning novelist is currently a professor of humanities at Columbia University in New York City, where, he says, classroom conversations are increasingly dominated by the latest controversial statement by the maverick Commander-in-Chief.
The temporary immigrant travel ban directed at seven Muslim-majority countries has caused particular disquiet on campus, says the Wexford-born author of Brooklyn, who has held professorships at Stanford and Princeton universities.
“Americans have not had the problems with religious division we have had in Ireland – asking about someone’s religion is simply out of bounds here,” Tóibín says, speaking to Times Higher Education shortly before being named chancellor of the University of Liverpool on 2 February.
He notes that the religious element of Trump's executive order – which many have claimed targets Muslims – “goes against the whole foundation myth of this country – it has really has people disturbed here”.
The ban on Iranian nationals is particularly egregious given the “extraordinary contribution to intellectual life in America” made by exiled Iranian academics and students over the past 30 years, he says.
Tóibín adds that as a gay man, he wonders “what legislation will be rolled back next week – will you be able to discriminate against a federal worker for reasons of sexuality?”
The author, who has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times, says he decided to tackle the Trump phenomenon directly in his literature classes at Columbia, the elite Manhattan-based private university.
“We were studying Irish prose of the 1890s in our first class after the inauguration and I had to say something about [Trump] at the start,” Tóibín recalls.
“I explained how this literature emerged from one of the darkest, nastiest times in Irish history, when Irish forces had worked with the British to remove someone – Charles Parnell [the Irish nationalist leader] – who offered hope for an entire nation,” he says.
Examining the poetry of W.B. Yeats and the plays of George Bernard Shaw and J.M. Synge could help students understand how great literature “can arise from the same kind of political cataclysm”, argues Tóibín.
Among the author’s fans are Barack Obama, who added his latest novel Nora Webster, about a widow living in 1960s Ireland, to his holiday reading list in November 2014.
So could Trump learn something from any of Tóibín’s novels, or literature more generally? The president claims his favourite novel is the 1929 classic All Quiet on the Western Front, although he prefers to read only “passages...areas [or] chapters” of books.
“We’ve had the exceptional presidency of Barack Obama, who read a lot, but I don’t mind if politicians don’t read novels or poetry,” says Tóibín, who adds that many Irish prime ministers have been “progressive without being literary”.
“I don’t expect him to quote Wallace Stevens or carry the collected poems of John Ashbery under his arm, but it is important for the president to have a trained mind,” he says.
Trump appears to have his “own use of language and own sense of public policy”, which has little relation to evidence, and he is “striking in his thoughtlessness”, according to Tóibín.
“There is a blankness about Trump that makes him very easy to influence,” he adds. Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon is, in contrast, extremely well read, he says.
“Steve Bannon can quote Shakespeare and has read a lot without it improving his liberal tendencies, so there is no point in saying reading makes you a good citizen.”
Tóibín says he hoped to use his role at Liverpool to champion international academic openness, which had been imperilled by Trump’s election and Brexit.
“Learning and culture should be blown on the wind – they should be as free as the air,” he says, adding that Liverpool and other UK universities had been hugely important in promoting a spirit of openness that had led to a more prosperous, culturally diverse and tolerant Europe.
“The extraordinary aspiration of those in the Republic of Ireland would not have been realised without access to British universities,” he says, explaining that thousands of Irish students and academics have benefited from UK academia’s “openness to Irish culture”, in turn helping to transform Ireland’s economy and society.
Attracted initially by the strong links between Liverpool and Dublin (“almost twin cities”), Tóibín says he was also drawn to his new position by Liverpool’s role in creating educational opportunities for low-income students.
“In New York I am constantly aware of the problems of access and just how privileged students are at Columbia,” he says. In contrast, Liverpool is a university that is “elite academically, but never seen as distant from the city”.
“My mother left school at 14, and when my father went to University College Dublin there were only three scholarships for the whole county of Wexford, so I have huge appreciation for the importance of access to university,” he adds.