For five weeks, Savannah State University political science and public affairs professor Robert Smith met with 15 students for an intensive summer course focused on quite possibly the most polarizing public figure in America – real-estate kingpin turned reality television superstar turned Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump.
“It’s clear in his writings and our analysis that we looked at that Donald Trump has always been about Donald Trump,” Smith said. “I don’t mean that in a pejorative way … it’s always been about his desire to make an impact beyond just making money.”
Indeed, after combing through reams of literature, Smith said Trump’s presidential aspirations shouldn’t be considered surprising in the slightest. After all, the Republican nominee has been at least hinting at a presidential run since 1988 – he was considered a potential candidate in 2004 and 2012 and a possible veep selection in 2008 – in addition to exploring New York gubernatorial bids in 2006 and 2014.
“Donald Trump has really been ‘running for office’ for a long time,” Smith said, “because he wants to to and has sought an impact beyond business and beyond just being an entertainment figure.”
Business tycoons (your Herbert Hoovers, your Harry Trumans, your Dick Cheneys and your Michaal Bloombergs) and Hollywood entertainers (your Ronald Reagans, your Arnold Schwarzeneggers, your Al Frankens and your Jesse Venturas) certainly aren’t foreign to the American political tradition. Nor have third party rabblerousers – think Ross Perot and Ralph Nader – been without their fair share of success on the campaign trail.
But never has there been a presidential hopeful, Smith said, that has accomplished what Trump has done. A Washington outsider riding a wave of populist, anti status-quo sentiment, he effectively used the “traditional party mechanism” of the G.O.P. to catapult himself into the presidential race – no small feat, considering he had to weather the rough and tumble of a 16-competitor field during primary season.
“At the time, Donald Trump was certainly doing so well in terms of his performance in the Republican primary process and the media attention just kept flocking to Trump,” Smith recollected. “It just seemed to represent, even at an early stage, a new phenomenon in American politics.”
Developing the curriculum
Smith said the intent of the special topics course – titled “The Trump Factor in American Politics” – was to bridge the gap between the theoretical aspects of political science and practical politics. With Trump the centerpiece of the course, that entailed examining the real estate magnate’s career and writings (the primary text being the 1987 tome The Art of The Deal, co-written by a somewhat remorseful Tony Schwartz) as well as some more contemporary fare from outlets like The New York Times and The Atlantic detailing the sociopolitical impacts of Trump’s campaign.
Most of the students were upperclassmen political science majors, with about a fourth of those enrolled from outside disciplines. He estimates a good 80 percent of the class participants had strong political leanings against the focal subject of the course.
“Savannah State is a historically black college and university, and in that regard, I would have to say that many of the students – certainly going into the class – were not Trump supporters,” Smith said. “I tried to avoid the use of labels and I tried to make this class as objective of a class as we could, despite some strong feelings on the part of my students.”
While the course sought to linearly explore Trump’s pathway to the political arena, quite a few subjects seeped their way into class discussions. Other topics addressed and examined included the primary process, how delegates are selected and the role of the media in making – and breaking – political contenders.
And there was much classroom debate about the significance of Trump’s “populist” platform.
“It always adds a smile to my face to think about candidates who are billionaires who are ‘populists,” Smith said. “Donald Trump’s themes about populists – the rank-and-file who he was appealing to in the Republican primaries and now now in the general election – clearly that has resonated with segments of voters across the electorate.”
The billion dollar question
Charting the chronology of Trump’s political ambitions – from an anti-Reaganite with mostly liberal leanings in the late 1980s to a Reform Party presidential challenger in the late 1990s to one of the foremost “birthers” of the early 2010s – was fairly cut and dry. Determining the factors thatled to Trump’s ascension in 2016, however, was a bit more challenging.
Smith said it is apparent that Trump’s success in the primaries stemmed from “segments of the electorate disaffected by the status quo.” While Smith doesn’t think the Great Recession directly paved the way for Trump’s bid, he does believe the economic downturn exacerbated the long-churning resentment many Americans held for political elites on both sides of the aisle.
“Despite our seeming recovery from that, many elements of the population had not been able to enjoy an economic recovery,” Smith said. “If you look at maybe wages being down and rates of unemployment and other socioeconomic indicators … voters are not just happy with things they way they are in terms of an economic context.”
Smith said Trump appears to have struck a nerve with white, middle-aged males in particular. According to a recent report by Sentier Research, while college-educated white men experienced nearly a 23 percent salary increase over the last 20 years, working class Caucasian men saw their inflation-adjusted income decline 9 percent from 1996 to 2014.
“Not all of the rank-and-file Republicans earn $250,000 plus,” Smith said. “When talk turns to the loss of manufacturing abroad, when talk turns to how to keep our borders secure so we can preserve our economic independence … I think it really rang true with those folks.”
While there are some differences between the ideologies of the Tea Party contingent and Trump’s new-wave populist base, Smith said there are enough similarities (disdain of domestic economic policies, dissatisfaction with foreign policy, etc.) to make the carryover from the yellow Gadsden flag to the red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap fairly seamless.
“In some respects, I think they saw government, in terms of its varieties of entitlement programs, perhaps going too far in one direction,” Smith said. “I think those have been threads that have been building certainly over the last five years, but I might even argue that’s been building for something like the past 30 years.”
The big takeaway?
Nestled along the southern Georgia coastline, the Savannah metropolitan statistical area comprises almost 400,000 residents. Taken as a whole, Smith said the M.S.A definitely leans Republican, with the city itself more of a political mixture, albeit with a slight tilt towards the G.O.P.
Among the Savannah State student population, however, Smith said there is a heavy preference for the Democratic Party. While the “Trump Factor” course may not have changed any students’ minds on who and what The Donald represents, Smith said the course did make students more “receptive” to understanding the mentalities of Trump supporters when it comes to specific campaign issues. And it especially helped them recognize the under-girding, anti-status quo resentment of the Trump base – something Smith deems “the anger quotient.”
Of course, plenty of intriguing developments have come about since the course wrapped up. In light of some of the more recent controversies surrounding both presidential candidates, Smith said he bemoans not expanding the class into a fall follow-up course exploring the dynamics of the general election. However, even with the gift of hindsight, he said he still wouldn’t have necessarily restructured the course or its modules to any great degree.
Whether Trump is or isn’t elected, Smith said the rising tide of populism isn’t likely to recede anytime soon. “Donald Trump has shown that rank-and-file voters cannot be taken for granted,” he said. “The voter matters, and to ignore some of the legitimate concerns of voters, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, I think that has tapped into a sentiment that will represent a fundamental shift in the future of politics.”
While Smith said it is a bit too early to predict a truly competitive third party emerging from Trump’s campaign, he does believe that his success in 2016 will goad Democrats and Republicans alike to select candidates who are “more in-tune” with the electorate.
“His impact has been to open up the political process beyond the party elites, frankly, on both sides,” Smith said. “Love or hate Donald Trump or love or hate what this political process is, if anything, what I hope this is doing is energizing the electorate and citizens at large to say ‘you know what, my vote really does matter and it’s really crucial to cast a ballot – that’s the only way that any fundamental change will really happen.'”