One of the hardest things about college was explaining my major to people.
When I showed my freshman adviser the classes I was interested in for spring semester (Jewish mysticism, Chinese history and German literature in translation), he asked me if I was an Intercultural Studies major.
When I found out what that was, I realized I’d been headed down that path all of my young life. I wanted to know what the rest of the world was thinking, and why.
I’m sure that at 21, I had that all down pat. The problem is that things keep changing.
One of my favorite ways of keeping my curiosity about other cultures alive is by tutoring adult professionals from other countries in English. There are so many great opportunities for scholars to visit at both Duke and UNC, and they often bring their families with them. These are people who use English every day, but are keen to improve how they sound to others.
It never stops there, as culture is of course not limited to language. A Korean psychoanalyst wanted to understand more about the Christian books her neighbor was giving her. A Chinese doctor was curious about table manners, child discipline and basketball rivalries. And all of them want to know this: why Donald Trump?
In this they are no different from most Americans, but they certainly have firsthand experience of different political realities. From the outside, Chairman Mao seems like he was a disastrous leader and the Cultural Revolution a complete failure, but my Chinese students feel that it’s more complicated than that. Mao tapped into an important vein of cultural pride and unity, and they feel that needs to be weighted quite strongly when judging his legacy. With Trump, they feel that his business expertise counts for a lot, and describe him with words like “strong” and “clever.” Still, they do not see how there can be a complete crossover between entertainment and politics.
My students from Eastern Europe have had distinct experiences of communism, socialism and democracy, often at the same time and in different combinations, but the major trend in European countries right now is the popularity of far-right-wing interests. (The Austrian presidential election in May between a left-leaning liberal and an anti-immigrant populist was decided by less than one percentage point in favor of the former.)
When I lived in Poland in 1998-2000, the politics were largely center-right. Poland is currently controlled by a far-right party (Law and Justice, or Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – handily abbreviated as PiS), and my Polish students are not happy about it. The Polish foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, had this to say about the government that preceded him: “As if the world, in a Marxist fashion, were destined to evolve only in one direction – towards a new mix of cultures and races, a world of bicyclists and vegetarians.” Apparently that is his version of dystopia.
I think we’re all familiar with the use of rhetorical flourishes in politics. The difference between the PiS party and Trump, these students feel, is that Trump does not really believe what he’s saying, that he is simply riling up whatever audience is before him. They feel that entertainment is an important part of politics and Trump plays the role well, but that he would not make any serious policy changes. He’s all talk, they think. They hope.
I have no answers for anybody about why Donald Trump has become the phenomenon he has. He is inexplicable. But there are plenty of politicians, both world leaders and those significantly closer to home, who are equally puzzling in their attitudes to the people they represent. Why Donald Trump? Why not?
Amy Trojanowski lives in Chapel Hill and dreams of one day owning a pet goat. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.