It is, in all practical terms, impossible to feel indifferent about the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. And that, says Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, is a fantastic thing. Even — or maybe especially — if your feelings for the president are not happy ones.
Love him or hate him, Trump has managed something no political science major, no civics professor, no dean of American government studies, no institute of higher learning anywhere in the United States could pull off, Mandel says. He has gotten young people discussing politics voting, democratic processes, and governance in a way she has not seen in this country in decades.
Mandel will present “Politics 2017: A Teachable Moment” at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce business breakfast on Wednesday, April 19, at the Nassau Club. Cost: $40. Visit www.princetonchamber.org.
More than anything, Mandel says, Trump being elected to the White House shook the complacency off everyone. No one, including Trump himself, as he would later admit, thought he was really going to win. Barely half a year ago, everyone was expecting the electoral system to just follow its usual path.
At Rutgers expectations were no different. Mandel designed two classes a year ago that would take a look at the presidency from what she thought was going to be a history-making, seemingly inevitable happening: a woman in the White House. “I thought I knew how it would unfold,” she says.
The direction of the courses — in particular, the spring session that’s just wrapped up — obviously shifted. In the wake of the election, Mandel looked around campus and saw something interesting among those not in favor of the new president: shock turned almost immediately to conversation and questions about politics. And not bitter, angry conversation, but real conversation about the meaning of what happens when a volatile underdog suddenly lands in a position of power. The very system of government was in a spin, but rather than crying over it, students who were not on Trump’s side started asking about the basic tenets of American government.
The ones who came to Mandel’s class came in already engaged and ready to learn. In just a few months, she says, college kids went from talking mostly about video games and movies to having discussions about checks and balances and the roles of federal courts, Congress, and the president.
Why Trump’s election is a good thing for the left. Nothing makes people pay closer attention to how the system normally works than the moment it gets disrupted. And no one could have disrupted the system more than Donald Trump. Mandel’s “teachable moment” stems from this dynamic.
Since Trump’s election, Mandel has been “making a list of the positives” that have come out of the disruption. For Trump supporters, it’s obviously been a happy surprise and the positives of having their man in the Oval Office are self-evident. But for the anti-Trumps, Mandel says, there’s also been a lot to be upbeat about.
“Young people are reading the Constitution,” she says. “The election has resulted in engagement, it’s resulted in curiosity about aspects of the system that we say are taken for granted, but, frankly, we’re just uninformed about.”
These months post-election, she says, have been a reemergence of civic engagement not seen since the late 1960s. Students are conversing openly and at length about primaries, the 25th amendment, and the sheer brilliance behind the founding documents of the United States that somehow allow us to keep a working system within the lines, even after the lines have been blurred.
And now the news. One unanticipated side-effect of the Trump election beyond the campus, Mandel says, has been in the news. Outside the chaos of the Trump-driven news cycle, where literally every other day brings something else to cover, Mandel says news agencies have really had to reassess how they cover politics and government.
So far, she says, news agencies have done a good job. She also says she has come to understand exactly how hard it is to be a journalist, charged with telling stories as truthfully and completely as possible, amid a never-ending swirl of accusations, suppositions, and questioned facts.
You can’t teach that in class. For educators, Mandel says, it’s time to teach better. Right now is a perfect time to relate to history, particularly when looking at times of disruption. Take the Great Depression, for example. For people who lived through it, the experience had a deep and lasting effect on their lives. At some level, the realities of the Depression tinted everything people of that age saw and felt.
Or you could look at Europe in the 1930s, which is where Mandel is from. By the late 1930s, Mandel’s father, a shopkeeper in Vienna, and mother decided it was time to get out of Hitler’s way. Mandel was an infant then. She and her parents took a circuitous route to England, where her father joined the army.
While she eventually grew up in the United States, Mandel says her perspectives on life have always been colored by the realities of having Jewish family in Europe under the Nazis. Some made it through the war and some did not, and that kind of disruption of basic humanity has stayed with her decades later.
Mandel eventually earned her bachelor’s in English from Brooklyn College, then her master’s and Ph.D. in English/American literature from the University of Connecticut. She has been at Eagleton since 1971, when she founded the institute’s Center for American Women and Politics. She ran that until 1994, and a year later became the director at Eagleton.
From 1991 to 2006, Mandel held a presidential appointment to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which is the governing board of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Bill Clinton made her the vice chairperson of the council in 1993, and Mandel kept the title until 2005. She also helped create the museum’s Committee on Conscience in 1996, on which she served as founding chairperson.
While the Trump effect on the American political system is obviously less catastrophic than a world war, the similarity lies in the disruption to the norm. Trump has, objectively, been anything but mellow as president, and that’s the very thing that has gotten so many young people asking what it’s all about.
“What Donald Trump has contributed to this country,” Mandel says, “is that this generation of young people will never again think that national elections don’t matter. We couldn’t have taught them that in a class.”