Trump’s unpredictability, anti-intellectualism raise red flags

Seven days have passed since Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States of America, assumed office.

And while the world looks on with numerous concerns over everything from accessible healthcare for Americans, women’s rights, immigration, minority and worker’s rights, international relations and the environment, the biggest issue might be the unknown, according to three Western professors with expertise in our southern neighbours.

“Here’s a guy who I doubt, very much, even understands the Constitution. But we’ll have to see how things play out; what else can we do? There could be a revolt in his cabinet, on Capitol Hill. There could be a call for a widespread investigation, articles of impeachment. Anything can happen,” said Political Science professor Don Abelson, one of Canada’s leading experts in American politics, U.S. foreign policy, interest groups and think tanks.

Seven days have passed since Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States of America, assumed office. And while the world looks on with numerous concerns, the biggest issue might be the unknown, according to three Western professors with expertise in our southern neighbours.

GAGE SKIDMORE // Special to Western NewsSeven days have passed since Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States of America, assumed office. And while the world looks on with numerous concerns, the biggest issue might be the unknown, according to three Western professors with expertise in our southern neighbours.

In the past week alone, Trump signed executive orders “to ease the burdens of Obamacare,” to impose a hiring freeze across the United States government and to renew a federal policy which prohibits non-profits receiving federal money from providing abortion services. Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and signed an order to move forward with controversial Keystone and Dakota oil pipelines. His plans for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are still uncertain. The Trump administration advised the Environmental Protection Agency to remove the climate change page from its website, and he signed orders to ban immigration from seven Middle East and north African countries. On Wednesday, he ordered the construction of the Mexican border wall.

And he’s just getting started.

“What happens to the complexion of the Supreme Court? Within his first 100 days, he said he’s going to fill the vacancy, and with a staunchly conservative justice. What happens if there are 2, 3 or 4 vacancies during his term? What if Roe v. Wade is turned back? This is unprecedented – to have someone assume the Oval Office, with the kind of background he has, with the kinds of connections he has with (Vladimir) Putin and others – this is rife for scandal,” he added.

At this point, the Canadian government is obviously concerned about what could happen, Abelson said. North of the border, concerns right now include the TPP and NAFTA, as well as the Paris Peace Accords on Global Climate Change, which Trump has opposed.

With respect to trade, with respect to the environment and, of course, with respect to foreign policy, Canada certainly doesn’t want to be in a position where it feels compelled to join U.S. forces in unpopular military interventions abroad. There’s really no shortage of issues we can turn to that should raise concerns among Canadian policy makers,” he continued.

And for at least two years, until the mid-term elections, Trump will enjoy a Republican-controlled House and Senate, Abelson noted. There’s really no telling what we can expect.

One thing Abelson is sure about, however, is Trump’s ability to usher in a period of anti-intellectualism. Trump isn’t interested in listening to experts, taking briefings and sees himself as a ruling monarch, Abelson said.

“It’s one thing to go with someone who is prepared to shake things up. That I get; there has been political paralysis in Washington for years. But in Trump, you have someone who thinks he can run the country like he runs his global empire. It requires a far more sophisticated understanding of global affairs, diplomacy. Trump does not have that personality or disposition,” he noted.

“Personally, I find many of his positions offensive and, as an academic, I worry about his assault on intellectuals and others deeply invested in the political process, fairness, rights and freedoms.”

Bryce Traister, a professor in English and Writing Studies, who is originally from California, echoed Abelson’s concern over Trump’s anti-intellectualism, something he regards as overwhelmingly, and dangerously, contagious.

While the rolling back of social and political gains is a major concern and effect of an “unrestrained Donald Trump tyranny,” the effect his presidency will have on facts, on education, is distressing, Traister noted.

“This idea that we have a president who is himself committed to the post-factual is not, in my view, quite as alarming as the number of people willing to go along with it. That’s where my concern about our inability to educate in a way that would at least allow us to land on the same page, when it comes to the evaluation of a known fact, comes in,” he explained.

“But the problem with Trump and his supporters is, I can’t even get past the man to get to a conversation about his politics with other people. He makes it impossible to enter into that discussion because every time I turn around, he’s doing something despicable, like personally attacking civil rights hero John Lewis, or tweeting on New Year’s Eve that he wishes a Happy New year, ‘to even all of my enemies.’”

Trump is the latest incarnation of a long history of anti-intellectualism in the U.S., Traister continued. It reigned in the 19th Century, organized around immigration and slavery, and it is frightening to see a resurgence in the 21st Century; the appointment of a racist like Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, is just one symptom of that, he added.

Trump’s anti-intellectualism “connects to the continued importance of the humanities and a need for reflection, thoughtfulness, introspection and conversation, and it might well indicate why Donald Trump wants to eliminate national endowment for the humanities,” Traister said, adding this is something that echoes north of the border.

“The funding for social sciences and humanities has become so distressed. The shrinkage in (Western’s) American Studies program is an unfortunate coincidence. It seems to me, this is exactly the time we need a robust, Canadian, intellectual engagement with what’s happening south of the border,” he noted.

“I would very much hope that one of the lessons we might take away from this is the increased, rather than the decreased, need to continue with effective and interdisciplinary programming that will bring students into conversations that will enable them to understand and guard against some of the tendencies we’ve seen south of the border.”

And while the world is seeing a resurgence of anti-intellectualism, white identity politics are making an adjacent comeback, as well, added fellow American Norma Coates, a professor in the Don Wright Faculty of Music and the Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

“I was listening to the radio, to CBC, and I heard an immigrant guy supporting (Conservative Member of Parliament) Kellie Leitch. As an academic, I’m worried it’s going to come up here. You listen to Leitch. You hear the idea that a businessman can do this and that, and I’m worried the same sort of knee-jerk anti-intellectualism is going to come up here. We’re underfunding the humanities in universities and the idea is we want people who do, not people who think,” Coates said, adding she feels personally offended by Trump on every issue.

“As a woman, I’m disgusted. I can’t tell you how happy I am that I got a job at Western. Living in Canada has been wonderful for me and my family. My daughter is at university, getting an excellent education at a fraction of the cost. When my husband had cancer, I think we paid a grand total of $79, and now he’s cancer free. But most of all, my daughter will always be a first-class citizen here. My biggest fear is for the people, for my friends, and the suffering that (his policies) will unleash.”