Stop the Trump Calamity

I published this opinion piece at Inside Higher Education this week. I take seriously the fact that a university should be a place where people from a very wide spectrum of political opinion can discuss their ideas in a context of non-violence. In the past, I have urged students to vote, but I have not played a public role in any election. This year is different, and I don’t think even a college president should be a mere “bystander.”


Over the past few years, Wesleyan University, like many across the country, has provided incoming students (and sometimes staff and faculty members) with classes in bystander intervention. The idea is simple, really. We want to give members of the campus community the tools to act in situations where somebody is at risk: when you see something amiss, do something so as to protect others from harm and make the campus a safer place.

I’ve been thinking about bystander intervention lately in the context of the presidential race. As the president of a nonprofit university, I am advised by legal counsel that I should not take public positions in elections. I know this makes a lot of sense, and over the 15 years or so that I’ve been a college president, I have encouraged electoral participation without being overt about where I stand in regard to any particular candidate.

This year is different. Donald Trump has been using the tools characteristic of demagogues and fascists to do the only thing that really matters to him: gaining power. He will say anything that he thinks will help him win, and there is no telling what he will do if he is successful.

Does he really believe that the “Mexican heritage” of a judge disqualifies him from a case? Does he genuinely condone “Second Amendment people” using violence to stop a newly elected president from making court appointments? Does he actually feel nostalgia for the days when you could beat up protesters?

He does affirm his intention to build a wall and ban Muslims from entering the United States, and he repeats a contention that Barack Obama is the founder of ISIS. You don’t need a fascistic theory of government to use the inflammatory tactics of fascism. It is clear enough: given his rhetoric and behavior, Donald Trump’s election would undermine the foundations of the republic and cause fundamental harm to the country.

Now, I can imagine that some readers will be rolling their eyes and thinking, “What a surprise … another liberal academic trying to use the university to push his own ideological agenda!” And I know that some people would prefer I not opine on politics at all lest I give the impression of speaking for the university and compromise institutional neutrality. Finally, in political matters, university presidents may have a megaphone but not necessarily, so the criticism goes, the relevant expertise.

I agree that my academic position gives me no special skills when it comes to electoral politics. Even though I am a historian, I don’t have much confidence in my profession’s capacity to offer sage counsel in contemporary political matters. But when we ask bystanders to intervene in an unfolding medical emergency, we are not calling on their knowledge of biology. We are asking them to call for help, to sound an alarm. When we ask a student to dissuade friends from binge drinking or other risky behavior that makes them vulnerable, we don’t expect them to be experts in a field. When we encourage people to stop a sexual predator from acting, we don’t need them to have law enforcement experience. We want them to be aware and feel responsible.

I also agree that many colleges and universities suffer from political biases that distort the educational experience of our students. At my left-leaning Wesleyan University, I have found it important to support Republican groups and faith-based clubs. Although I identify as a person on the left, I am developing programs to bring more conservative intellectuals to the campus to teach classes in a variety of fields and to present points of view not heard often enough in the liberal campus bubble. Intellectual and political diversity is a pressing problem in undergraduate education, and teachers have to be much more aware of the dangers of using their classrooms as a platform for ideology.

I do not believe that presidents or other university leaders should normally throw their institutional weight behind a specific public policy or a candidate. But despite my worries about institutional biases, this year I feel strongly that I need to intervene more directly, to join others in sounding an alarm about the grave danger to our political culture. I’ve done this in speeches and in the press, but I don’t think I am intervening enough, given the gravity of the situation. That’s why I am publishing this piece, and why I will continue to call out the dangers that the Trump campaign poses to our political ecosystem. I urge other higher education leaders to do the same. Some of the damage has already been done, as the bar for racist, hate-filled public discourse has been lowered in ways that would have shocked us just a few years ago. Even many who support candidate Trump are revolted by his intemperate, cruel and dangerous remarks.

When we teach students the skills for bystander intervention, we want them to feel empowered to make our campuses safer, more humane places. If faculty, staff or students see a dangerous situation unfolding, we expect them to act. After all, if someone on campus sees sewage spilling into a classroom, detects a noxious odor in a residence hall or simply sees a hallway filling with smoke, we don’t want them just to hope that someone with expertise and responsibility will arrive. We want them to feel responsible for bringing attention to the developing calamity. At the very least, we expect them to sound an alarm when danger threatens.

Donald Trump is a developing calamity for our polity. Whether from conservative, libertarian, religious or leftist positions, we should protect our culture from further Trumpian pollution. Even university presidents, as citizens, must use the tools available to us to sound the alarm as long as the danger threatens. And threaten it does.

11 thoughts on “Stop the Trump Calamity”

  1. Trump is indeed doing serious damage to our institutions. A college president making such an inappropriate, open political endorsement is yet another symptom of this damage.

  2. Just curious where you received your education. Now, this explains a lot… Too bad you only qualified for a 2nd rate school. Oh well! Hope that your children got a better opportunity…

  3. I am waiting to see your bystander intervention article and actions against Hillary Clinton, as well. In my opinion, she is even more dangerous than Donald Trump, and there is obviously no boundary she will not cross ethically.

  4. Let’s see now, the Roth comments on Trump were: inflammatory, labeled people who do not share Roth’s views as demagogues and fascists, misused university resources for political advocacy, served as a warning to anyone on campus who holds another view, and hypocritically used intemperate rhetoric just as he accused Trump of doing. But this is no problem to a person on the left. Such people believe they know it all, and must act to control what other people think and do.

  5. Bravo! President Roth for your brave, much-needed position.

    If I may, I would like to add–Artists such as myself are traditionally politically naive but for the past eight years, and now, I have been attempting at least to speak about differences. I found that during the Obama campaign cold calling, lots of folks wanted to talk about the issues. Many did not know, and were curious, I found.
    I believe now, yes vote for Clinton and contributing money is great, but can we do more? Little things, like the fellow at the gym who said he was afraid that Clinton would take away his guns and also asked what was Obama’s record on jobs. The next day I brought him the Democratic Party’s platform positions on guns and jobs (including Obama’s record).
    Personally, I was appalled and motivated by V.P. candidate Pence’s law requiring a funeral for an aborted fetus. Add this to Trump’s statement (to Chris Mathews, I believe) that yes, women should be punished for having an abortion.
    Should not all women know about the Republican party platform on such issues?
    Would like to finish with an old home lesson: you can’t complain later on if you haven’t done anything before.

    Anthony Valerio

  6. adding to President Roth’s important position a few details by way of information for those who may not know:
    “Democrats didn’t make the GOP presidential field back “personhood” laws that would criminalize some forms of birth control. They didn’t force the newly elected House GOP to make defunding Planned Parenthood their first legislative goal. And they didn’t propose the Blunt Amendment that would have allowed employers to withhold health insurance coverage not only for contraception, but for any treatment they disapproved of…”–Joan Walsh, on AlterNet:

    From the RNC’s platform:
    “Our laws and our government’s regulations should recognize marriage as the union of one man and one woman… For that reason, as explained elsewhere in this platform, we do not accept the Supreme Court’s redefinition of marriage and we urge its reversal, whether through judicial reconsideration or a constitutional amendment returning control over marriage to the states.”

    Conversion Therapy:
    An amendment offered by the RNC’s Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins in the subcommittee on healthcare, education, and crime offered support for the controversial practice of “conversion therapy” for children who identify as LGBT.
    “We support the right of parents to determine the proper treatment or therapy, for their minor children,” the amendment said. Perkins originally drafted a more explicit embrace of the practice, but amended the text after consultations with top RNC officials. Perkins’ amendment, which passed the subcommittee and subsequently the full committee, also calls for legislation to require parental consent for minor women to cross state lines for the purposes of obtaining an abortion.

    How much brighter the world is when we embrace our differences. AV

  7. This piece is very brave, Michael. Thank you. Historians may not be good at predicting the future, but they are very aware of what happened in the past when bystanders did NOT intervene. And they know that when people in the future look back at those impassive bystanders they think they too were responsible for what happened.

  8. Picking up on President Roth’s laudable position, I’d like to extend the notion of “bystander.” We are all participants. NBA’s star Dwyane Wade’s sister Deanna Morris killed while wheeling her baby could have been any of us wheeling our child. She was a citizen turned target. Citizen turned victim.
    The morning after this horrendous human tragedy, Trump tweeted: “Dwyane Wade’s cousin was just shot and killed walking her baby in Chicago. Just what I have been saying. African-Americans will VOTE TRUMP!”
    Yes, as President Roth says, We cannot stand by. Stop Trump.


  9. It is not surprising that President Roth would issue a call to action against Trump. He leads one of the most liberal schools in the country. The homogeneity of social and political thought at Wesleyan and its peers is extreme and shameful. Disguised by a false veil of academic legitimacy, Wesleyan is nothing but an indoctrination camp and Roth its commandant.

    No doubt Trump is deeply flawed. What is absent is any discussion of the profoundly unethical, and likely criminal, behavior of Hillary Clinton. Because she confirms Roth’s limited worldview, she gets a pass. Here’s a new motto for Wesleyan:

    “We don’t teach people how to think, we teach them what to think.”

Comments are closed.