It is hard to get away from the news of Trump but institutions, although under fire, do matter and the American Politics Through Film course I’m teaching looks at a number of institutions and larger questions.
At the beginning of the course we talk about the nature of “Politics” and watch “A Special Relationship” exploring the very political lives of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. We move on to examine that most political branch of our government, the U.S. Congress and, through the career of Charlie Wilson, examine the motivations and strategies of a Congressman. These two very political with a small “p” sections are followed by one of the oldest questions of Political Theory; Why do we obey? Or, in a similar question, When should we not?. V for Vendetta and Into the Wild explore external revolution to change society as well as a more internalized revolution as Chris McCandless, the main character in “Into the Wild” attempts to leave society behind.
These three sections raise a number of contemporary questions. I don’t want to spend the whole blog talking about Donald Trump, but he is a kind of President Whack-a-Mole and everytime you try and capture one of his events he moves on to another so maybe asking older, more timeless questions, is a better approach. Here are some more contemporary questions to reflect on:
1) Will politics change under Trump or has it already? If we assume that politics is an agreement to disagree and to seek victory or compromise within an agreed upon set of rules has Trump moved us into what some have called a “post modern” presidency (see this article) where, instead of seeking compromise or working through institutions Trump seeks to create his own, often false, narrative, to build public support and take unilateral action in the hope that opposing institutions will be cowed or weak — or will even cooperate in order to get what they want.
2) Speaking of “what they want” where is Congress? I have a hard time believing that many congressmen, who do — like Charlie Wilson — know a lot about immigration — support the President’s wall or travel ban but they are willing to go along with it because of the normal, common motivations of congressmen. They want to get re elected and Trump may be popular in their district and they want certain policy outcomes — like the repealing of financial rules — and are willing to put up with some of the more outrageous measures to get what they want. Will congress ever begin to see itself as an institution and resist some presidential programs?
3) What to do in the age of Trump? V for Vendetta, along with our class readings in Hobbes and Locke, raise the very current question; “When to revolt?” or, in a less strong and more realistic question; “When to Protest?”. Into the Wild also poses an old question — “When to withdraw from society?” or “Is withdrawl possible?. This question is raised again later in the course when we explore some main differences between the Federalist and Anti-Federalists with one key difference is the Federalist faith in institutions to protect us from demagogues and the Anti-Federalist contention that only an engaged citizenry would protect us. The Anti Federalists went further by arguing that a “large, commercial, republic” would push people toward private pursuits (making money) and they would lose sight and control of a distant government. Is this a good description of our current situation?