How Did Trump's Victory Happen? Crowdsourced Course Offers Clues

Trump Syllabus 2.0, an academic reading list circulating online, provides deep context for the billionaire's rise to power.

Where did Trump's electoral success come from? For many people it seemed to come as a shock or a surprise, but to historians, the meteoric rise of Trump was a pattern, borne of deep currents running through American history.

Part of the answer may exist in the reading list Trump Syllabus 2.0 put out by Public Books, a website run by editors and artists that compiles intelligent, accessible writings to encourage rigorous debate on issues like incarceration, sexism, homophobia and more. The syllabus consists of a list of books, including nonfiction and fiction, as well as reported articles, films and other media meant to be ingested over the course of 15 weeks.

To paraphrase Public Books' introduction to the syllabus, the readings introduce observers to the past and present conditions that allowed Trump to seize control of an American political party.

Trump Syllabus 2.0 is a revision to the syllabus Trump 101, put out earlier this year by the the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle's syllabus was modeled after other crowdsourced ones that had grown out of major tragedies and cultural events. There is a #CharlestonSyllabus, a #FurgusonSyllabus and an #OrlandoSyllabus among manyothers. But Trump 101 had been compiled by a few pre-selected historians, rather than being crowdsourced by the public.

"If you only rely on people with whom you can claim some kind of professional acquaintance, it creates a very narrow frame through which you can pull readings together," Nathan D. B. Connolly told Seeker.

Unhappy with the appropriation of the public syllabus form, historians decided to make a more thoroughly crowdsourced version. Connolly, a history professor at John Hopkins University co-edited the Trump Syllabus 2.0 with fellow historian Keisha Blain after getting hundreds of reading suggestions from their broader community on Facebook and Twitter. Within a day, they had the entire list populated with readings.

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"People tend to treat these moments as isolated incidents or incidents outside of history," Connolly said. "Historians in particular are always looking to provide deep context for contemporary events."

In this case, they wanted to reveal the deep currents weaving throughout history that had propelled Trump's campaign forward.

"Understanding the culture of the US that has allowed someone of Trump's character and questionable credentials to rise to the highest office in the land, that is something that needs to be understood in the long view," Connolly said.

They organized the Trump 2.0 syllabus by topic, with each week covering a specific theme. "We didn't want to make it seem like we were making up the theme that would ultimately go into the syllabus. So what we used to ground the units were statements from Trump himself," Connolly said.

Not many class syllabi have units headed around the statement, "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any voters," but this one does.

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The Trump 2.0 syllabus is already being used as a guide in undergraduate and graduate classrooms in several universities, and in at least one bookstore according to Connolly. A suggested list of assignments to accompany the syllabus was put together by the African American Intellectual History Society.

It's likely that there will be many more public syllabi compiled in the years to come, including ones about Trump's presidency, instead of his candidacy. But these public syllabi aren't a purely modern phenomenon.

"The effort to create these reading lists are themselves historical. There's a long history of encouraging people to read and learn in response to social ills that goes back into 19th century among minority peoples," Connolly said.

"One of the things that I'm proudest of is that this is a 21st century version of a very old response to political and social threats, and I'm very happy about that."