Democratic glee about the ongoing disintegration of the Republican Party is tempered by the same prospect that has the Republican establishment tied in knots: fear of a Trump presidency.
Smart money would probably back the Democratic nominee if Trump wins the Republican nomination, but if the country faces another major terrorist attack before the election, or if the economy dips again, we might face a different ballgame. History shows us that average citizens turn to candidates who present themselves as tough, even belligerent, when times are hard. Never mind the fact that the nativism and racism in which the apparent toughness often is wrapped are ideologies born of cowardice.
The candidate who is dismissed as a joke, as an absurdity, starts to look appealing when the fear quotient of the electorate runs too high. The blowhard becomes the guy who “really speaks his mind,” and then it no longer matters that what he says is incoherent on just about every level imaginable. He both evokes and then speaks to the fear he helps to create.
Democrats will be quick to point out that this is the bed that Republicans have made for themselves. For years now, Republicans have been telling their constituents that they can ignore evidence and expert opinion. They have been stoking the fears of the electorate with apocalyptic language regarding the Obama administration. They have courted racists with what, up until now, had been carefully coded language, which they have used ever since the Democrats aligned themselves with the civil-rights movement.
While Republicans surely bear some of the blame for the Trump phenomenon, we should pause to note two things.
First, it is not time to run screaming into the night yet: Trump may win the nomination, but he has yet to attract more than 50 percent of the votes in any of the Republican primaries. To be clear, he has not even gotten a majority of Republicans to vote for him yet, much less shown that he could win the general election.
Second, there is plenty of blame to go around for Trump’s success, qualified though it may be. His candidacy is the natural outcome, one could argue, of the American penchant to conflate nearly everything in the public square with entertainment. It isn’t only Republicans who give people the impression they can believe anything they want or who elevate authenticity above truth.
We teach our students the fallacy that tolerance and respect for other perspectives means “Do not challenge. Do not engage.” We use the freedom of the Internet to gaze into the mirror, not to explore new horizons but to seek only the information that confirms the ideas we already hold.
At Greensboro College, we are addressing these issues head-on. This fall, we are beginning a campuswide initiative called “The Informed Citizen.” Borrowing from Thomas Jefferson’s notion that democracy requires a well-informed electorate to function properly, the program will have two curricular points of emphasis: information literacy and ethical literacy.
The two are mutually reinforcing. We need a moral foundation that gives us a platform to see beyond ourselves and enables us to deal wisely with the information that we retrieve. For Greensboro College, that means promoting a facility with the broad, multifaceted tradition of the Christian Church. But we also need good information, and the ability to tell the plausible from the ridiculous, when we are drinking from the fire hose of data that is directed at us every day. If our moral perspective is to become practical, if we are to develop a way of life that is good for us and those around us, we must be properly informed about the realities we face.
Each campaign season, we hope that our graduates will have the moral discernment to rise above their own fears and the fears that candidates are trying to sell.
We will give them the tools to look beyond the candidates who make them feel good, so they can ask which candidate makes the most sense.
They will develop the habit of checking claims against the available evidence. We trust that they will vote with an eye not only on their own advantage, but also on the common good.
The efforts of one small college are hardly enough to turn the tide against the broad cultural trends that have given us Donald Trump. But we see ourselves as returning to the roots of the liberal arts in a new era. We hope to start our own trend, enlisting our fellow liberal-arts institutions in an intentional effort to produce well-rounded citizens. We are convinced that this is not a Republican or Democratic goal, but a deeply American one.