My colleagues and I were about to finish what had been a pleasant lunch discussion about the current state of literature, books and publishing. Somehow, the talk turned to the upcoming election. We issued a collective moan.
“I just want it to be over,” I said, and the others agreed. Then someone said: “Donald Trump is the first presidential candidate who speaks as if he is tweeting.” The comment brought me up short.
It’s true. Listen to his comments. They are all exactly the same as his tweets. If he utters more than three sentences in a row they are repetitious since, as tweets go, the latter two are superfluous. Donald Trump is not only a character formed by reality TV; he may be our first fully social-media-produced candidate for president.
This tweeting format allows him, of course, to avoid any serious discussion of issues — political or economic — and to simply move forward with the momentum of the one-minute quip. It also gets him more news coverage to engage in “tweeting” wars just for fun, as he recently did with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (what was she thinking?) or with anyone else willing to respond. After all, he comes out of entertainment.
This is a man who, as Steven Rattner pointed out in a New York Times article on May 13, got a $39.1 million tax deduction for donating a conservation easement on a New Jersey golf course, and who added goats to another golf course so it could qualify as “agricultural” land and be taxed at a much lower rate. Yet, as George Packer pointed out in the New Yorker (May 16), this man has attracted a “yuge” following of white working-class (mostly) males suffering from economic dislocation and dissociation from government. He is nothing like them, but they can’t get enough of him. This is a man who is a born charlatan.
So what can my alma mater, the University of Minnesota, do about Donald Trump? It’s complicated.
Democracy, uncertain and imperfect as it is, rests solely on the attraction for a majority of citizens of living in a loosely formed legal and cultural community. In our time, and our land, this happens to be a community based on some knowledge of our history, of our story (literature), of our Western philosophical tradition of individual freedom (expression, work) coupled with common welfare (laws, philanthropy, sustenance).
All of these areas — history, ideas, art, narrative — have evolved and are still evolving in our culture. Our educational institutions are the best containers for holding these, and for advocating for their free discussion as well as generating ideas for change. The U is a great university and our flagship educational institution.
Yet all of the recent stories in the news are about men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino’s jet use, the high cost of new athletic director Mark Coyle’s salary, and the criticism of certain units in the health sciences over drug testing and client responsibility.
But athletics, computer programming or engineering that will give us more toys to make our lives easier are not at the core purpose of a great university. The U’s primary purpose, as was the case for the original great medieval universities, is to contain the ideas, arts and philosophies that form the basis for our common life and to promote reasoned discussion and debate about them. Such an exchange of informed perspectives — whether in the press or on the campaign trail or in town-hall meetings — would lead to reasonable decisions instead of political rants or, worse, election by tweets.
The U is in danger of being co-opted: by athletics and money; by a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to the exclusion of the liberal arts; by losing interest in promoting that which makes our culture civilized.
So what can the U do about Donald Trump? Probably nothing in the short term. But over the years ahead, the U can recover an emphasis on its true mission, putting the humanities at the center of campus learning. The proposal to establish such a center in Pillsbury Hall — the oldest building on campus — is before the Legislature this week in the U’s bonding bill. Funding this center could be a good first step. It might even help save democracy in the future. At least in Minnesota.
Judith Healey is a professional in the field of philanthropy and a former senior officer of several area foundations. She is a member of the advisory board of the Department of English at the University of Minnesota.