Donald Trump was elected president of the United States on Nov. 8, 2016. Two days later, I walk into my Chinese university classroom unsure how my normally apolitical students will react. I’m halfway through the door when a student shouts, “Trump won,” and the class erupts in excitement. American politics has been the focus of the course ever since.
My students’ questions fall into four main categories. The first is about Trump’s victory. “Why do you think Trump won?” “Why did he win more states than Clinton?” “Is it true many Americans don’t like Trump?”
The second is more personal. “Will it be more difficult for us to study abroad and work in America?” “How will Trump’s policy influence immigration to the U.S.?”
The third is geopolitical. “Relations between America and China are tenser now. How will the relationship between the two countries change in the future?”
The last category is more tragic. “Do you think he will be the next Hitler?” “Will Americans lose faith in their election system?”
I do my best to answer the students’ questions, but by the time class ends, I’ve only explained basic concepts such as liberalism versus conservatism, the role of the Electoral College, and the anger of the American working class. The students need a firmer grasp of American culture before we can explore their more complex questions.
Geert Hofstede is a social psychologist who specializes in cross-cultural values. China scores an 87 on what Hofstede calls “long-term orientation,” classifying it as a very pragmatic culture. “In societies with a pragmatic orientation,” Hofstede writes, “people believe that truth depends very much on situation, context, and time.”
The U.S. scores a 26 in long-term orientation, which means American culture “prefers to maintain time-honored traditions and norms.” Americans believe certain truths are constant, and that key values transcend situation or context. As Hofstede puts it, “Many Americans have very strong ideas about what is ‘good’ and ‘evil.’”
“Why is this?” I ask at the beginning of the next class. “Why do Americans care so much about ideas?” The students shout out answers. “Christianity.” “The law.” “What else?” I ask. “How did America come to be?” The students are stumped, unsure how this is related. I explain American exceptionalism. “What makes you an American is not a specific religion or ethnicity. It’s agreeing to abide by a set of universal values.”
I ask what America stands for, and the students answer: “Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. Rule of law.” I make a list on the chalkboard. “And what did Donald Trump promise to do once he was elected?” A student answers, “Build a wall,” and the class laughs. I seize the opportunity and add “open immigration” to the list of American values. “Is America a land of immigrants?” The students, fluent in English and attending a joint Chinese-American university, think the question is absurd. They answer a resounding “yes.”
We go through the list of Trump’s campaign promises. I write “ban Muslims” next to “freedom of religion,” “build a wall” next to “open immigration,” and “sue newspapers” next to “freedom of speech.” I explain that half of America believes the next American president is “un-American.”
A student raises his hand. “If Clinton won more votes, why don’t her supporters ‘fight the government’?” I ask him to clarify “fight,” and he says “overthrow the rulers, like what happened in Thailand.” I return to the board and add “peaceful transference of power” to the list of American values. By the time class ends, I’ve added “majority rule, minority rights,” “civil disobedience,” and “mutual respect.” All things necessary for a functional democracy.
I begin the following class by reading an excerpt from journalist Neal Gabler’s post-election eulogy, “Farewell, America”: “They [Republicans] have regarded any Democratic president as illegitimate. They have proudly boasted of preventing popularly elected Democrats from effecting policy and have asserted that only Republicans have the right to determine the nation’s course.”
I draw an arrow on the board pointing left and another arrow pointing right. “What happens in a democracy when half the country wants to move in one direction, and half the country wants to move in the other? Can democracy function without a middle ground?” A student brings up the possibility of civil war. I expect the class to laugh, but no one does. Another student suggests liberals move to California. “It’s happening,” I explain. “I have a friend who moved his family across the country because he didn’t want to raise his kids in a conservative political environment. Americans are more divided than ever.”
Gabler argues that “Trump ran against the media, boomeranging off the public’s contempt for the press. He ran against what he regarded as media elitism and bias, and he ran on the idea that the press disdained working-class white America. Among the many now-widening divides in the country, this is a big one: the divide between the media and working-class whites.”
I ask the students why this wedge exists, why Trump has attempted to delegitimize the mainstream media. They answer: “Because he doesn’t like it.” “He wants to take control.” “He wants to create his own truth.” The irony in the room thickens dramatically.
We brainstorm the role independent media should play in today’s society. The class thinks the press should have a “free voice” and work to “discover truth.” I add “speak truth to power” to the list and explain Watergate: The Washington Post destroyed an American president because he betrayed our sacred American values.
I return to this idea of a civil war. “What if Trump sends the army to shut down every newspaper in America? Should Americans revolt? We all have guns. We can revolt if we want to.” The class laughs, and some students agree that yes, Americans should revolt if Trump sends the army to shut down the newspapers.
I come at them from a different angle. “What if during year one, Trump says that newspapers are liars. Then in year two, he decides that the government should monitor these liars. Then in year three, he decides that the public would be better served if government officials ran the newspapers. When should Americans revolt? Year one? Year two? Year three?” The students understand. A young woman describes it as a “poison.”
I read a tweet from President-elect Trump. “Wow, the @nytimes is losing thousands of subscribers because of their very poor and highly inaccurate coverage of the ‘Trump phenomena.’”
I ask the students if they’ve lost respect for American democracy. Some of them nod yes, while others shake their heads no. A defiant young man states that “democracy is still the best form of government.”
Some of my students think Trump will be good for China, that an isolationist America will shrink from the world stage and allow China to spread its influence. They discuss tectonic shifts in global power with the flat affect of realpolitik. According to Hofstede, their culture is pragmatic. They view Trump’s victory in terms of their current political situation.
But other students see Trump’s victory as I do, through the lens of a foolish idealism. They see American values as something worth striving toward, something worth defending. According to one student, “Trump being president is equal to the execution of Socrates.”
I appreciate the irony. Socrates’s death was put to a vote.
(Header image: A cardboard cutout of Donald Trump is visible as people watch the 2016 U.S. presidential election at an event held at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, Nov. 9, 2016. Jason Lee/Reuters)