Professor publishes book on 2016 election

by Sunny Drescher | 6/22/18 3:00am

Many journalists and scholars have sought to explain what happened over the course of the 2016 election season, which culminated in Republican nominee Donald Trump winning the presidential election. In his new book “American Discontent: The Rise of Trump and Decline of the Golden Age,” Dartmouth sociology professor John Campbell looks at Trump’s victory through the larger context of trends spanning the past 50 years.

“Several trends developing in American society that stretch back into the late 1960s and early 1970s [created] a certain climate and enabled a guy like Trump to make a move on the White House like he did,” Campbell said.

The trends Campbell referred to include declining upward economic mobility, increasing partisanship and increasing globalization.

In the book, Campbell argues that a new form of politics has emerged both in the U.S. and abroad due to the rise of globalization. He said that a new dimension of being pro- or anti-globalization, which has been “percolating a long time and has now been institutionalized since Trump won [the election],” now bisects the traditional left-to-right ideological spectrum.

This new form of politics makes it harder for both Republicans and Democrats to navigate the American political landscape, according to Campbell. He added that he hopes his book can help people of both parties understand how Trump came to power.

“Most of what I’ve written in my career has been for an academic audience, but I wanted to write this one for the general public,” Campbell said.

Religion professor Randall Balmer commended Campbell for trying to reach an audience beyond traditional academic circles.

“Academics decided probably a generation ago that they would no longer deign to address the general public, and I think that has contributed to the mess we find ourselves in right now,” Balmer said.

Balmer added that some members of academia believe that writing for the public is “professionally ill-advised,” and that he hopes that more academics will follow Campbell’s lead and “understand their responsibility to speak to a general audience.”

Government professor Joseph Bafumi wrote in an email that it is not yet clear if academics are using their prowess to explain phenomena that may have influenced the election of President Trump.

Balmer added that though academic disciplines approach scholarship in different ways, it is important that academics try and understand the political, cultural and social phenomena that powered Trump’s rise to the presidency.

According to Bafumi, studying these phenomena at a macro level “gives us a sense of where we are in context and where we are going” and helps scholars and policymakers “isolate and try to solve problems.”

Campbell said that the idea for the book originated with a short paper written while on a trip in Europe during the 2016 primary season. He added that he had received many questions from Europeans who were surprised that Trump had made it that far in the electoral process. He subsequently wrote the paper as “a good clarification exercise for [himself]” but didn’t expect anything else to come of it.

“I figured that there was no way this guy was going to win the nomination, so I put [the paper] in a filing cabinet,” Campbell said. “I thought I’d never see it again, but of course Trump won [the nomination] and then the presidency.”

Campbell said he then decided to turn the paper into a book and began work in January 2017.

While it may seem like a large amount of scholarship has already been published about the 2016 presidential election and the rise of Trump, Balmer and Bafumi agree that the Trump administration will keep scholars busy for long after his presidency is over. But Campbell said he wanted to get his book published as quickly as possible.

“I wanted to write it as fast as I could because I was desperately afraid that somebody was going to scoop me and get this argument out before me,” Campbell said.

He said that each week over the eight months he spent writing his book he would walk to the Dartmouth Bookstore to see if there were any new books arguing his thesis.

Campbell said that the scholarship explaining Trump’s rise to power has come in waves. According to Campbell, the first wave was books published by journalists who had been reporting on the election; the second wave was comprised of “cheerleaders” for either Trump or Clinton who explained why things went well or poorly; the third wave was smaller and full of more academic works; and the beginning of a fourth wave is now emerging in which big picture explanations are being offered. Campbell said he plans to situate his new book at the beginning of the fourth wave, but thinks Trump-related scholarship is now heading in a different direction.

“Now everything has started to shift, and it’s all about the White House and what’s going on there. Why is Trump doing what he’s doing? What are the implications for US foreign policy and domestic policy?” Campbell said. “It’s been very interesting to watch this sort of evolution of these different sorts of books.”