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Trump Is Unraveling the Foundational Stitchings of American Scholarship

Trump is forcing academics to re-evaluate their roles as beacons of information.
President Donald Trump's hair shines as he speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, D.C., on January 10th, 2018.

Liu Cixin's science fiction novel The Three Body Problem, though a decade old, is quite helpful for understanding the conundrum scholars now face in the Trump years. Without giving too much away, one central plot point in the book revolves around scholars, in particular particle physicists, suddenly seeing their most foundational findings undermined. The idea in the book is simple: Those things that we assume to be constant are, in fact, highly variable.

The scholars in Cixin's novel are not aware that they have been the victim of an interplanetary conspiracy to rig basic scientific research. All they know is that their understanding of the universe has completely unraveled. Several go mad; some commit suicide. Others simply walk away from the academy.

What has happened to many scholars of American political life since the 2016 election has not, for the most part, been quite so dire. Still, it has been a disorienting era for a good many, causing academics and intellectuals to re-evaluate just what, exactly, their role is in society. Within political science, the nomination and subsequent election of Donald Trump defied many established theories and historical patterns. Political scientists are still struggling with whether 2016 should be treated as an aberration or whether this is the new normal.

THE PRICE HE WILL PAY: President Donald Trump's main legacy will likely be a series of new laws and practices designed to prevent someone like him from abusing power or even obtaining it in the first place.

What's more, his behavior, both as a candidate and as president, continues to fluster political observers. His flouting of democratic norms and traditions, his almost constant insults to demographic groups both parties have tried to woo for years, his apparent innocence of almost any knowledge of public policy, his preference for Fox News over the massive information resources available to the White House, his persistent defense of Russia against the collective judgment of the American intelligence community, and his continued service in office despite a range of scandals at least tenfold those that led to the resignations of Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich and the impeachment of Bill Clinton, have all undermined political observers' beliefs in what the presidency is and what it is supposed to be. More generally, Trump just seems to take the presidency less seriously than those who study it and those who have served before him, and scholars simply don't know what to do with that fact.

For some, this has meant a call to action. Many political scientists have long been disinclined toward trying to publicly influence the political system they study. But that may be changing. Some, like Jennifer Victor, are encouraging political scientists to speak out in defense of American democratic norms and engage with the public more than we have done in the past. Others, like Brendan Nyhan, are launching programs and initiatives of their own; Nyhan and his colleagues' Bright Line Watch tracks the health of American democracy. Slowly but surely, political scientists are finding it possible to adhere to a principle of avoiding outward partisan advocacy while still allowing themselves to write, speak, and demonstrate in defense of the nation's political institutions.

Political science is hardly the only academic discipline struggling with its role in this new era. Several psychiatrists have voiced concerns that Trump is unstable and mentally unfit for the duties of the presidency (despite his claims to the contrary). Other psychiatrists have clung to the so-called Goldwater Rule, which holds that it's improper to diagnose a public official's mental health from a distance. A group of psychologists recently argued that the Goldwater Rule does not apply to their field, and that those with such expertise may have a "duty to inform" the public about the mental unfitness of public officials in some cases.

Other scholarly fields, from economics to climate science to marine biology, have seen something of a new (or renewed) engagement in the political world. This isn't necessarily a massive departure from the past in some fields. The Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, has been working to sway policy for nearly 50 years. But for others, this is a period demanding some rethinking. They are echoing Trump's norm violations with some norm violations of their own. This may carry some risk of politicizing science's relatively non-partisan reputation. On the other hand, the sense of urgency many scientists feel today makes staying in the lab or the library simply impossible.