U.S. President Donald Trump in January 2018 delivered his first State of the Union Address (SOTU). At first glance, he sounded more presidential than ever following his tumultuous first year in office. However, his careful words hid an agenda that is hostile to most of us, and to academics in particular. As scholars, we have a responsibility to take notice, and to speak out.
The SOTU Address – Trump’s doublespeak
During much of his SOTU address, Trump made an effort to reach Americans, beyond his more familiar, albeit dwindling ‘base’ of support, composed of evangelicals, the elderly and whites without a university degree. His presentation was peppered by American proverbs and even managed to come across as compassionate.
But gaps and contradictions blatantly revealed Trump’s doublespeak. While Trump refrained from referring to countries as “shitholes” as he had done a few weeks earlier, his contempt for foreign nations was evident. He praised the Iranian peoples’ “struggle for freedom”, while failing to mention the travel ban in place against all Iranians.
Trump also praised his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a decision condemned by most nations in the United Nations General Assembly. Trump said that “friends” of the US would receive support, while “enemies” would not. While these were not explicitly specified, there was a clear reference to how nations voted at the UN concerning Jerusalem.
Capping off a dizzying array of international law violations, Trump insisted that the notorious detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, associated with torture and indefinite detention without trial, would remain open. He affirmed that the US military would continue its operations in Afghanistan, ominously, under unspecified “new rules of engagement”.
So how is this all relevant for scholars?
The overall response from media commentators to Trump’s SOTU address was disappointing. Most focused on its tone rather than its content. In the Netherlands, some even referred to Trump’s address as “brilliant” and “politically, very clever”. The NRC Handelsblad offered perhaps the best commentary, emphasising its ‘polarising’ content, but this was an exception.
The fact remains that a significant majority of Americans have consistently disapproved of Trump’s job as president. There has been a public outcry in countries around the world, particularly after Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. So why have there been so few critical analysts, particularly in the mainstream media?
In my own observations at academic gatherings in the US and abroad, since Trump first came to office in January 2017, it appears that most academics tend to dismiss Trump, rolling their eyes, ignoring his statements, mocking him, or even suggesting that he doesn’t really have all that much power. A handful of academics have even openly supported him.
There are, of course, notable exceptions. Those in the immigration law field have written persistently on the Trump administration’s persecution of immigrants. Apart from the alternative media, such as Mondoweiss, Democracy Now and MSNBC, The Conversation has produced in-depth articles by scholars condemning the Trump administration’s policies. But even critical media outlets, such as De Correspondent in The Netherlands have acknowledged that, while news outlets have tended to reflect daily indignation, they have rarely produced sustained resistance to the policies of the Trump administration.
A position of ambivalence in these circumstances is not tenable. As Professor Harris Beider has poignantly observed: “we live in an age of volatility and scepticism … As academics we find ourselves in the dock of public opinion too … we as universities and academics can also be part of the problem”.
Accordingly, with the rise of ethno-nationalist administrations in the USA and the United Kingdom, Beider has issued an appeal to academics to be less self-absorbed and “to question received wisdom and follow the people rather than expect them to follow us”.
What Trump says publicly should matter a great deal to us, if only in view of the vast military and nuclear arsenal at his disposal and the message to other world leaders that Trump’s behavior should in any way be regarded as acceptable.
Trump’s specific threats to academics
Alongside general concerns around Trump’s policies, there are at least three specific examples that are pertinent to academics worldwide.
First, Trump’s travel ban on nationals from specific countries has made it impossible, and even dangerous for academics from these countries, some of whom are regarded as scholars at risk, to share their knowledge and in extreme cases obtain safe refuge in the United States. Several vice chancellors (rectors magnificus) of Australian universities have protested Trump’s travel ban, joining thousands of other scholars worldwide.
Second, while Congress has so far pushed back on Trump’s proposals to slash health research, Trump’s refusal to accept the scientific consensus concerning a link between carbon emissions and climate change is having a devastating global impact in restricting access to crucial research funding. Research funding cuts in other areas are also likely.
Third, the harassment of scholars by right-wing groups has been steadily rising against scholars, particularly following the election of Donald Trump. Such harassment is even described as “becoming normal” by the American Association of University Professors, which has set up an on-line platform for reporting incidents of harassment.
This would not be the first time scholars have stood up in protest against regimes whose policies have threatened society at large, and academics specifically. This includes South Africa’s persecution of non-whites and critical scholars in the 1980s, the persecution of scholars by the government in Turkey and Israel’s persecution of Palestinian scholars.
Whether as scholars of climate change, international law, race relations or many other related areas, we should all be shocked. Alarmed. Indeed, appalled at Trump’s SOTU speech. And we should speak out at every opportunity, particularly outside our close-knit community that largely holds the same views we do.