At Cornell, students held a ‘cry-in’. At Yale, they gathered for a ‘primal scream’. Elsewhere, Safe Spaces have been occupied; play-doh and colouring books brought out and therapy dogs petted. With ‘Fuck Donald Trump Rallies’, exams postponed and classes cancelled, it’s fair to say that American students are not responding well to the election of Donald Trump as president. The shocking news that, off campus, there are people who think differently to them has made students rage and weep.
It’s not just students. Administrators and academics have also expressed distress at Trump’s victory and rushed to accommodate student demands. At Virginia Commonwealth University, the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs opened a Safe Space for students, while at New York Law School, classes were cancelled so students could ‘grieve’ and ‘vent their feelings’. At the University of Michigan, an exam was postponed after students emailed their tutor to say they were suffering extreme stress over the election result. Likewise at Yale, an exam was made optional following students’ emails that they feared for friends and family.
Being passionate about politics and arguing for what you believe in have long been hallmarks of student life and campus culture. But the emotional meltdown that has greeted Trump’s success is not straightforward disagreement and protest. It is more akin to a toddler tantrum than a political intervention. Academia’s response to Trump illustrates the hollowing-out of politics that helped secure Trump’s victory.
Perhaps most notable has been the shock expressed at the election result. It seems that few predicted Trump’s success. Even at places such as Monmouth University, with its celebrated Polling Institute, academics were ‘blindsided’ by Trump’s victory. There are times when it is appropriate for scholars to make a virtue of isolating themselves from the rest of society in order to focus single-mindedly on intellectual pursuits. But when it comes to commenting on society, and in particular predicting voting intentions, knowing what people off campus think is important. The shock might also have been lessened if universities were more than a refuge for the likeminded and instead represented a diverse range of political viewpoints.
Beyond expressions of disbelief, students have discussed their feelings towards Trump’s victory in the language of psychological harm. One student who organised a campus walkout explains: ‘The gathering was intended to provide a space for students to talk or vent, especially for those who feel that their identities and safety are in jeopardy.’ The aim of such get-togethers is not political but therapeutic: ‘I don’t know if there will ever be a way to heal from this, but this is the first step.’ Another student describes how on the night of the election she received emails ‘from various campus groups, offering Safe Spaces, spots to pray, heal, talk, or decompress’. On social media, students reminded themselves ‘how important it is to love each other’ and posted phone numbers for suicide-prevention hotlines.