Donald Trump isn’t just disrupting politics. He’s disrupting political science.
Since the 2016 election, the president’s unusual behavior has violated the ivory tower, forcing professors to rip up their syllabuses, rewrite textbooks, start new lines of research, and craft entirely new course offerings.
Professors say Trump has broken long-held assumptions about how presidential elections are won, as well as the unwritten rules that govern U.S. institutions and America’s relations with other countries.
Maurice Cunningham, a politics professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said Trump’s presidency forced him to greatly revise the syllabus for an “Introduction to American Politics” course for the first time since he began teaching it during the Clinton administration.
“I don’t want him to drown out 230 years of the American experiment, you know?” he said. “But you have to account for him.”
The Trump administration has also helped revive interest in topics like nationalism and the decline of democracy that they often skipped over or touched on lightly, academics say.
A survey of department chairs by the American Political Science Association, a professional association for academics, found that 49% more department chairs reported higher enrollment in undergraduate political science courses in the 2016-2017 academic year than the year before.
The Open Syllabus Project, which has collected about 7 million syllabuses for college courses from 80 countries, shows how the readings are changing.
Controversy Du Jour
“It just didn’t make sense to teach basically the same kind of class that I’ve taught in the past,” he said.
But Trump-focused classes can be difficult to teach. Whittington said he always feared that the president would tweet out some disputable idea just before class and he’d have to include it in the day’s discussion without much preparation.
So far, Blackman said the only Supreme Court case he’s added to his class was about Trump’s 2017 ban on visas for travel to the U.S. from a slate of majority-Muslim countries, and he already removed it from this year’s syllabus. He said he’s unsure if it will prove to be significant enough in the long run to merit inclusion in the next edition of a textbook he coauthored.
A Professor’s ‘Godsend’
Even as Trump has disrupted politics, professors caution that he’s not as known before as he might seem in some areas.
Gary Jacobson, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of California San Diego, said Trump has aggravated a long-running trend toward political polarization in congressional elections. He cited the 2018 midterms, in which Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives, as a case study.
But he said that Trump’s more unusual attacks on institutions — including the press, the judiciary and the Federal Reserve — are instructive for students during discussion.