American Democracy and the Rise of Donald Trump: An Interdisciplinary Symposium

The political rise of Donald Trump, and his ascendancy into the presidency, represents one of the most surprising and contentious events in American history. In this symposium, we will consider these dynamics from a number of distinct but related interdisciplinary perspectives, involving leading Washington University scholars from a variety of different departments, including history, political science, sociology, law, economics, and psychology.

Speakers will include:

  • Adrienne Davis, Vice Provost of the University, William M. Van Cleve Professor of Law
  • Alan Lambert, Associate Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences
  • Peter Kastor, Professor and Chair of Department of History, Professor of American Culture Studies
  • Steven Fazzari, Bert A. and Jeanette L. Lynch Distinguished Professor of Economics, Chair of Department of Sociology, Associate Director of Weidenbaum Center
  • David Cunningham, Professor of Sociology
  • Betsy Sinclair, Associate Professor of Political Science

Co-sponsored by the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy, the Department of History, the Department of Political Science, the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, the Department of Sociology, and the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement.

RSVP here!


Opening Remarks by Adrienne Davis, Vice Provost of the University, William M. Van Cleve Professor of Law

Peter Kastor, Professor and Chair of Department of History, Professor of American Culture Studies
The Historian’s Dilemma: How do you make sense of a President without Precedent?
My talk begins by acknowledging the fundamental problem facing everybody who studies the Presidency.  We all tend to look for ways that Presidents fall into patterns established by their predecessors, but everybody begins a discussion of Trump by emphasizing that his election, his actions, and his very persona appear to break all the rules, practices, and traditions of Presidential government and politics. With that covered, I then want to make the case for how Trump actually does fit into certain patterns.  And that even when he doesn’t, his disruptive nature only further reveals those patterns. To do so, I plan to situate Trump in three historical contexts (a) a short-term context that situates Trump alongside the last three Presidents (Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton), (b) a mid-term context that situates Trump within the politics and policies of the modern Democratic and Republican parties, and (c) a long-term context that situates Trump within a set of actions, tensions, and patterns that have defined the Presidency since its creation.

Alan Lambert (with Fade Eadeh, Stephanie Peak, and Emily Hanson); Associate Professor of Psychology
The Politics of Fear and Anger
As historians and political scientists have long recognized, the ability to evoke fear from millions of people represents a truly powerful force in politics.  This is especially true when this skill is wielded by a charismatic leader who is able to convince others that they, alone, are the only person who can keep people safe.  The ascendency of Donald Trump provides a vivid illustration of these dynamics, but his rise also owes much to the dynamics of anger, a correlated but distinct emotional state.  Anger (and its close cousin, frustration) represents a marker of perceived injustice, and can motivate people to rectify what they see as the original cause of that justice violation.  In my talk I shall consider the dual dynamics of fear and anger, with attention to the distinct—but partially overlapping–antecedents and causes of these affective states.

Betsy Sinclair (with Steven S. Smith and Patrick Tucker); Associate Professor of Political Science
“It’s largely a rigged system”: Voter Confidence and the Winner Effect in 2016
The presidential election of 2016 provided a unique opportunity to contrast two competing hypotheses for how voters establish their political preferences. On one hand, mass public opinion is believed to derive from elite messages. In the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump maintained that the election system was “rigged.” On the other hand, literature on voter confidence has established a ”hurrah effect” where voters who cast ballots for winners are more likely to believe their vote was counted correctly. Republican voters, then, are exposed to two theoretically-opposite effects. This paper establishes the degree to which the “hurrah” effect mitigates the effects from elite communications. This finding speaks to the degree to which voters establish political attitudes from their own experiences.

(short break)

David Cunningham, Professor of Sociology
Racial Extremism and Political Polarization in 2016 and Beyond
In his recent farewell address, President Obama declared that “if every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.” His point cuts to the heart of much of the divisive rhetoric (and, now, policy) associated with Donald Trump’s political ascendance. But amidst competing assertions that Trump supporters have been motivated primarily by economic insecurity vs. abiding racist and nativist worldviews, how might we understand the forces driving the wave of right-wing populism that Trump rode into the nation’s highest office? Recent research on the appeal and impact of hate groups promises to shed light on this phenomenon, and this talk will bring together that work and swing-state voting data to untangle the proximate effects of racial/racist politics in charged political cycles, along with the surprisingly enduring ramifications of racial extremism on electoral dynamics generally.

Steven Fazzari, Bert A. and Jeanette L. Lynch Distinguished Professor of Economics, Chair of Department of Sociology, Associate Director of Weidenbaum Center
Economic Conditions in the American Middle Class:  Will Trump Deliver?
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign tapped into concerns about job insecurity and wage stagnation among the American middle class. Trump blamed these problems primarily on global trade and immigration. This talk examines the source of economic weakness for American middle-class households, particularly in the aftermath of the 2008-09 financial crisis. I argue that the primary cause of the economic insecurity that Trump exploited is not globalization, but weak household spending after the consumer borrowing boom leading up to the crisis came to an abrupt end. This diagnosis of middle-class economic problems implies that most of Trump’s economic policy positions are misguided. Trade restrictions and massive tax cuts for the affluent are not the best solution to the economic worries of people who thought their votes for Trump would bring back a more robust labor market and faster wage growth.

Discussion/ Q & A to follow

A reception will follow the event.