Trumpism at SAIS – A Roundtable Discussion

Welcome to The SAIS Observer Editorial Chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


Caroline (Caroline Yarber, Deputy Editor-in-chief): Welcome team and readers to our first coffee chat of the year. We are sitting down to chat from across SAIS’ three campuses to discuss issues that matter to all SAISers. Today, the topic will be how President Trump’s first year in office has affected our experiences as SAIS students. Over the past century, the U.S. has played a defining role in the international order, and changes in the U.S. have had the potential to affect the entire global community. The question we will be starting with is: how has the controversial Trump presidency affected academic dialogue at our internationally-focused campuses?

T.J. (T.J. Sjostrom, Editor-in-chief): Woof… awesome question. So, I think it has had at least an intangible effect WRT attitudes and perceptions of the American role going forward.

Issy (Issy Schmidt, Washington, D.C. Bureau Chief): Well, I think it’s important to consider the fact that none of us has a great deal of experience (if any) of SAIS without Trump. The second-years started here in 2016, so we only had a couple of months, all of which were dominated by the election, studying at an American graduate school under a different American president. That said, it’s noticeable to me that we’ve moved from quite clear discussions around foreign policy to a pretty open acknowledgement that Trump is a wild card. Most of my professors are willing to acknowledge that they don’t know what ‘Trump Administration FP’ is or how reliable it is.

Caroline: That’s a good point, Issy. As a second-year student in Nanjing taking mainly IR classes, I definitely noticed a shift in the degree of certainty with which my professors discuss the future. During the election, everyone seemed pretty confident that Trump would not win, and our classes discussed the future of U.S.-China relations with that in mind. Like Issy said, Trump is definitely being treated as a wild card.

T.J.: I think it’s kind to suggest that Trump has a foreign policy.

Caroline: Haha!

Issy: I actually just had my first class in which we were shown and discussed speeches made by Trump and Tillerson* and how they have affected/would affect U.S. policy in South Asia. None of my other professors have done that.

Caroline: Whoa, that’s neat. What did your class think about it?

T.J.: That’s been a huge problem; this administration is so personality-driven, there’s no ‘chalk’ policy to speak of.  On a personal level, it’s been very divisive, especially for the pockets of conservatives in our program.

Caroline: That’s kind of how it’s been in Nanjing as well. I’ve known someone to drop a course because they didn’t agree with or appreciate the way one professor talked about Trump and his supporters.

Issy: Really, Caroline? That’s so interesting! I know of a few courses here where the professors are openly critical/rude about Trump, but I don’t think anyone’s dropped the class (correct me if I’m wrong, Elizabeth).

Caroline: Well, that might not have been the only good reason to drop the course to be honest, but it was the tipping point for this particular student.

Julian (Julian Strachan, Bologna co-Bureau Chief): Yeah, I wonder how much anti-Trump biases have prevented objective examination of his foreign policy positions vs. genuine unknowability.

T.J.: It’s a good point Julian; because of how visceral the views of him are, it makes it harder to evaluate his ‘foreign policy’ on its merits.

Elizabeth (Elizabeth Goffi, Executive Editor): I haven’t heard of anyone dropping any class, no. But we did have some pushback in my language course about Trump as a discussion topic for a few weeks after the election… I think people were just very surprised and a little burnt out. SAIS isn’t exactly a hotbed of Trump support. The survey that went out last year said there were like six people who planned to vote for Trump? So, beyond the professors not wanting to try to guess how Trump era policy will play out, the students don’t really want to engage in an emotional discussion either, and the professors can probably sense that.

Issy: The Trump/election burnout was so real last year – everyone was walking around Bologna like zombies for weeks.

T.J.: I openly wonder for those of us in our first year at Bologna or Nanjing, if the visa process (just to get there) was slowed out more difficult in response to the administration.

Issy: Some of us had to get visas for America too! (but in fairness mine was super slick because everyone in the foreign service has a mate who went to SAIS)

T.J.: Not an intentional slight Issy, and yes there’s also effects on the inverse.

Issy: Lol, I just feel someone has to represent the non-Americans.

Caroline: I didn’t hear about anyone facing problems with visas in Nanjing. U.S. and China only recently negotiated more generous visas, for tourists at least. But, more generally, U.S.-China relations have a lot of other issues to worry about, so I don’t think China penalized the U.S. on the visa front. Going back to the visceral reaction we’ve seen surrounding Trump, I think the emotional reaction to Trump is definitely real in American-taught classes. In Nanjing, our faculty is half Chinese, half international, so we have quite the mix of backgrounds. The Chinese professors are definitely less emotionally charged about Trump, and it’s been interesting to see how the Chinese professors talk about China’s rise, a major topic at our campus, and consider what they might be thinking about Trump.

Caroline: Liz, have you noticed any changes in your classes?

Liz (Elizabeth Witcher, Nanjing Bureau Chief): I have not, but most of my classes are focused on China’s domestic policies.

Issy: I’m curious, Caroline, considering how much Trump talked about the relationship with China during his campaign, have you seen that reflected in the news and in the way your professors are teaching?

Caroline: At least in my opinion, I think China doesn’t put a lot of weight on election cycle rhetoric. Since Trump has actually entered office, his tone about U.S.-China also seems to have shifted on some topics in a more positive direction. Overall, I think China may see Trump as someone China can negotiate with or even manipulate to their advantage, so our classes I think have talked about the U.S. and China as closer to equal partners/rivals, and have put more weight on China’s influence than might have been true previously.

T.J.: I wonder if that changes if Trump were to be (more) aggressive toward Kim Jong-un** and North Korea.

Caroline: There’s definitely disagreement on how to handle DPRK, but at the core the U.S. and China are on the same side of the crisis, and they’ve emphasized that to a greater degree as of late. China’s advocating for a more measured approach, and I think if Trump continues to escalate the conflict, China would increase its efforts to advocate for de-escalation. I totally agree, Elizabeth. Nanjing had the same reaction right after the election.

T.J.: While he might be a resource to the Chinese, I don’t think our European brethren share this sentiment. Between putting NATO on blast and scolding world leaders at the G20, he’s more unsettling here.

Elizabeth: To steer the topic in a new direction, has anyone else seen any changes in SAIS attitudes towards a career in federal service? In my experience, the Trump administration has been somewhat influential in pushing people away from a career in government, at least in the short term. I think it’s significant because I think a lot of people came to SAIS with rather clear ideas about what they wanted to do afterward, and all of that has shifted now.

Issy: Elizabeth, it seems to me as well that this new hesitance around a career in government service is also being compounded by increased difficulty in getting security clearances or passing name checks.

Caroline: Right after the election last year, we had A LOT of people voicing doubts about pursuing a career in the federal government under his administration. I think that has mellowed out some over the past year, but like Issy is saying, people are concerned now about the ability to get a job in the government in the first place. Every year, Nanjing gets several Boren Fellows, many of whom intended to take advantage of the Diplomacy Fellows Program to get into the foreign service, which is now suspended. I think some people have the feeling that they’ve spent their formative years preparing to be of service to our country and that our skills and potential contributions aren’t being valued by this administration.

T.J.: You can make arguments about ethics or practicality, but it’s harder to break into federal service or government work than it was in the Obama administration. The Trump presidency played a role in my getting out of the military and I think the ethical dilemma of supporting this administration is markedly harder. Practically, we don’t even have heads for all our cabinets. Critical roles aren’t filled (especially in the State Department***), and it looks like it’s irresponsibly run.

Elizabeth: Absolutely, I’d agree with both of you.

T.J.: Issy and Elizabeth, what was the atmosphere like during the election when you were in Bologna?

Issy: In the buildup, I don’t think many people saw much cause for concern, it was generally agreed that Clinton would win out in the end. Even to the point where we started election night with a pub quiz and I think karaoke.

Elizabeth: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’d say there was overwhelming support for Hillary combined with a sentiment that Trump simply could not win, so it was business as usual. People who enjoyed following the election did so. People who were less inclined focused on midterms and whatnot. As we said before, it was mostly afterward that people were really shocked and disappointed.

Issy: Yeah that’s very accurate. The aftermath was brutal – people cried, people messed up midterms, and it was all that got talked about for weeks.

Elizabeth: Yeah, it was a very exhausting time for everyone.

Issy: I can’t speak for everyone, but as a non-American it was odd to feel SO strongly about the situation – of course the U.S. president has a huge impact on the rest of the world, but it definitely felt like a Trump presidency was more personal.

Caroline: Nanjing was about the same. We had a lot of build-up to the election. It’s an interesting experience to watch the democratic process from China (check out my article from last semester to hear more about it!). The point about the dilemma of supporting the administration is interesting. I think in Nanjing, there can be some (mild) nationalist tendencies between the American and Chinese students. With this administration, I’ve gotten more questions about the U.S.’ democratic process from my Chinese classmates for sure.

Issy: Oooh that does sound interesting, I’m definitely going to read that Caroline!

Elizabeth: Caroline, do you ever feel you have to defend or advocate for the U.S. position to your Chinese classmates? I think it would be much more difficult under this administration.

Caroline: Yeah, there’s definitely times when I try to take a positive outlook to advocate the U.S. position. However, I think many educated Chinese students understand the merits of the U.S. system, so I haven’t found anyone to be particularly critical of the U.S. (publicly). Usually my classmates are more polite and just ask what my opinion or the general American opinion is on different topics.

Elizabeth: It’s tough. At SAIS, you’d obviously have the self-selection bias of people who would still be willing to attend an American institution… but there would obviously still be people who disagree with the U.S. view to varying degrees. It can put you in a weird, semi-diplomatic space.

Caroline: Exactly. Our campus is equally run by one of China’s top universities though, so not everyone is there for the Johns Hopkins name.

Elizabeth: Of course.

T.J.: I’ll open up this can of worms…what are your guys’ thoughts on the Mueller investigation? More specifically, as it pertains to good governance and perceptions of America.

Caroline: The Mueller investigation and everything surrounding it has been interesting, but hasn’t been a huge topic of conversation on our campus that I’m aware of. The main thing is that the U.S.’ strength is in the stability of its institutions and this administration has to a degree undermined that strength. China in some respects is the opposite in regards to institutions. In my comparative politics class last semester, we contrasted authoritarianism and democracy partially on the basis of the role of institutions, so the current situation in the U.S. has been interesting.

Elizabeth: I’d agree with Caroline. It hasn’t been a huge topic of conversation in D.C. either. I think the average SAISer trusts the institutional process and just isn’t going to get too wrapped up in the day-to-day developments. We’d be interested in the outcome, but we’re not willing to speculate for now. How’s it been in Bologna?

T.J.: Not sure on a general consensus, but the strength of the institutions (and not just American – it’s a Western problem) have been undermined.

Caroline: Final thought: does the Trump administration matter in the long run? Do you think the Trump administration will have a lasting impact on America’s international standing? Is all this uncertainty warranted?

Issy: I think the rest of the world is getting a pretty clear picture of the effect the Trump administration is having domestically, and that will have a lasting effect on the international standing of the U.S. We can see the erosion of democratic institutions, we can see attacks on civil rights for minority and vulnerable communities, and we can see that no one in America expects Trump to be consistent in his words or actions. And I think that causes people to lose respect for a country that has positioned itself as a moral authority on the world stage (FYI not saying this is the same as America being a moral actor on the world stage). The U.K. parliament has voted to deny Trump a state visit – that’s a big deal considering we’re desperate for allies during the Brexit transition, and I think it’s reflective of wider feelings.

T.J.: Yes, yes, and yes. The Trump administration matters; at least for now, the U.S. still holds pole position on global matters, so by that simple fact, the one running the show matters. For Trump, it is for all the wrong reasons. Being that it’s only been a year, it’s hard to determine to what extent the American position is impacted on the aggregate but it’s certainly trending in the wrong direction – our relations with our partners are frayed, which inevitably makes multilateral activities more difficult. I do think the uncertainty is warranted – wrong moves matter, be it moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, or if Trump decided to strike North Korea, just as it’s increasing effectiveness and willingness to use its nuclear capabilities.

Editor’s notes:
*Rex Tillerson has since been fired as the Secretary of State.
**Donald Trump has since agreed to talks with Kim Jong-un.
***There’s even more vacancies after the firing of Steve Goldstein, Tillerson’s Chief of Staff

Thank you, Everyone!


Editor-in-chief: T.J. Sjostrom (tsjostr1@jhu.edu)

Deputy editor-in-chief: Caroline Yarber (cyarber1@jhu.edu)

Executive Editor: Elizabeth Goffi (egoffi1@jhu.edu)

DC Bureau: Issy Schmidt (ischmid1@jhu.edu)

Bologna Bureau: Rebecca John (rjohn9@jhu.edu) and Julian Strachan (jstrach4@jhu.edu)

Nanjing: Liz Witcher (cyarber1@jhu.edu and ewitche1@jhu.edu)