Trump as History

In the months leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, The New School for Social Research Professor of History Oz Frankel proposed a new course named simply “Trump as History.” It’s quickly become one of the department’s most popular courses among Eugene Lang undergraduates. Research Matters spoke with Professor Frankel about how he developed the class amid one of the most shocking electoral upsets in history.

“I was convinced it would never happen,” says Frankel, reflecting on the unexpected victory, “and [U.S. President Donald] Trump would be consigned to history” Hence the history course. Needless to say, things turned out differently. But while its initial framework had to change, the course took on a new purpose and significance.

The contemporaneous nature of the subject presents interesting challenges for a historian. “The problem is that Trump is a current event, he is a work in progress,” explains Frankel. This gives rise to a crucial methodological question: “Perhaps it’s too early to historicize him?” Instead, Frankel harnesses that very lack of historical perspective to demonstrate to students the value of thinking historically.

“I actually make the argument that the media is already thinking of Trump historically, but perhaps in the wrong ways,” Frankel says. The most popular of those ways is drawing historical analogies. “Trump is like…insert your preferred historical figure here. There are continual attempts to find some historical precedent, from Richard Nixon to Pat Buchanan to PT Barnum,” he explains. “There was also a drive to dig up — especially before the election — prophecies from the past that somehow predicted the rise of Trump, like the Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving Our Country, or that Carl Sagan quote.”

Frankel sees these approaches as symptoms of a state of crisis and public bewilderment that pushes society to look to the past in order to grapple with the present. However, these efforts rely on a narrow conception of history and miss the important structural and historical roots of Trumpism. “Analogies are accessible, but they often reduce history to a succession of personalities. I address these popular comparisons with my students and we discuss why they constitute problematic ways to engage the past.”

In other words, bigger questions of how we think about history today, and what kind of historical consciousness is cultivated among the public, guide the course. These questions concern popular perceptions of history as well as “the kind of historical imagination propelling people like [Steve] Bannon or Stephen Miller” and “the influence in these two cases of [early 20th-century German philosophe Oswald] Spengler, with his organic and cyclical conception of history. It’s a very pessimistic, reactionary view.”

Frankel encourages his students to move past Trump as an individual and to think of Trumpism as a historical and political phenomenon. “Trump is a tool for thinking about patterns of American history we didn’t pay much attention to in the early part of the 21st century.” Specifically, Frankel guides students to narrow in on “the history of American populism, of racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and its historicity, issues of masculinity, politics and spectacle, as well as the subject-position of the businessman as a cultural hero. We also have the history of ‘fake news.’” Weaving these historical threads together allows the students to map “what was in the DNA of American democracy that was conducive to something like Trumpism.”

Drawing on a variety of sources, including journalistic articles, academic publications, films, and blogs, Frankel leads students through an exploration of each of the key themes that contribute to Trumpism such as populism. “During the election, Bernie [Sanders] and Trump were both being labeled as populists,” Frankel recalls. “In class, we explore the long historical arch of populism in U.S. history, which brings us to late 20th century, the Tea Party, current reflections on the idea of the white working class and the question of why people are ostensibly voting against their material interests.” Another theme is racial dynamics, especially the often ever-defensive identities congealing around whiteness. Frankel comments, “Why do whites feel threatened? Whiteness is usually ‘transparent,’ but when whites feel threatened, then they become white. There is along thread of paranoia and fear in American history.”

Related concerns about social and cultural decline — cross political divisions. Frankel assigns his students George Packer’s The Unwinding (2013), which weaves together short biographies that document familiar themes of de-industrialization, the demise of institutions, the unraveling of the American social fabric, and the ascendance of “organized money.” While the book’s thesis comes from the political Left, it also overlaps with Bannon’s bleak view of the trajectory of American history, encouraging students to think beyond entrenched political distinctions.

In addition to considering historical continuities, Frankel encourages his student to consider what is new and unprecedented about the Trump moment in American political life. While Trump’s seemingly improbable political victories throughout 2016 could be cast as a series of flukes that might have ended very differently, they also show us the importance of accidents and of individual agency in history. “Trump certainly has the capacity of creating a new political reality; he already took over the Republic party and introduced new dynamics into the American public sphere.”

Trump is titillating, and students — many of whom were not necessarily interested in history before — are eager to grapple with these issues, including their own role in the current political moment. Frankel insists upon it, remarking, “I ask students to reflect on our complicity in the Trump phenomenon, the near-addiction that we have all developed to Trump, something that’s become so ingrained in our daily existence.” And, for many, the very reason they signed up for the class.

Anthropology Publications: 2015

Faculty in the Department of Anthropology shared thoughts about their recent work.

Nicolas Langlitz

Nicolas Langlitz, Associate Professor of Anthropology, recently published the article “On a not so chance encounter of neurophilosophy and science studies in a sleep laboratory” (History of the Human Sciences, 2015) and “Vatted Dreams: neurophilosophy and the politics of phenomenal internalism” (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 2015).

Langlitz shared thoughts about this recent work:

“While anthropologists have long been interested in cultural otherness, we often seem to feel closer to an Amerindian shaman than to the reductionist philosopher down the corridor. This led me to take an ethnographic interest in neurophilosophers and to explore the common ground between anthropologists of science and empirically oriented philosophers of mind who have both been  frequenting brain research facilities since the 1970s without ever talking to each other.”

Other publications include Neuropsychedelia (University of California Press, 2012), and Die Zeit der Psychoanalyse (Suhrkamp, 2005).

Choose a publication below to learn more.


Bio | Langlitz received doctoral degrees both in medical anthropology (Berkeley) and history of medicine (Berlin). He is an anthropologist and historian of science studying epistemic cultures of mind and life sciences, especially neuroscience, psychopharmacology, and primatology. He was trained as a physician before conducting ethnographic fieldwork in two neuropsychopharmacology laboratories in Switzerland and California on the revival of psychedelic research since the 1990s.


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Sociology Publications: 2015

Faculty in the Department of Sociology shared thoughts about their recent work.

Carlos Forment

Carlos Forment, Associate Professor of Sociology, recently published “Ordinary Ethics and the Emergence of Plebeian Democracy across the Global South: Buenos Aires’ La Salada Market” (Current Anthropology, 2015). He remarked about this new work:

“While working on this essay on South America’s largest informal market, after publishing recently a second essay on worker-occupied factories, and preparing myself to study urban scavengers in Buenos Aires, it dawned on me that these and the other cases-chapters of my next book are emblematic of a novel and heterodox form of democratic life that is emerging across the global south and which I now call plebeian citizenship.”

Other publications include Shifting Frontiers of Citizenship: The Latin American Experience (Brill, 2012) and Democracy in Latin America, 1760-1900: Volume 1, Civic Selfhood and Public Life in Mexico and Peru (University of Chicago Press, 2003).

Choose a publication below to learn more.


Bio | Forment received his PhD from Harvard University. His research interests include governmentalized populations and plebeian citizenship across the global South; neoliberalism and public life today; civil society across the post-colonial world; citizenship: ancient, modern and contemporary; and, nationhood and selfhood in 19th-century Latin America. Currently Forment serves as Director of the Janey Program in Latin American Studies.


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Lara Golesorkhi addresses discrimination against Muslim women in employment

The Muslim veil is not only a garment demonstrating religious faith, but also a highly politicized symbol, as seen by the proliferation of policies that regulate its visibility. In Germany, for example, the “veil has been perceived as a tool for gender segregation … and most notably a marker of cultural dissociation,” writes Lara Golesorkhi, a doctoral student in Politics at The New School for Social Research, in her recent piece published on the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s website.

This summer, Golesorkhi was one of ten winners in an international competition, co-sponsored by the United Nations’ Academic Impact initiative and the UnHate Foundation, part of the Benetton Group, for her proposal addressing Muslim women’s employment rights in Germany. Winners were chosen based on proposals that aimed to end various forms of intolerance, and each will receive 20,000 euros for the implementation of projects over the coming months.

WoW Full Logo
Logo Design: Eliana Perez

In addition to raising awareness of the challenges that Muslim women face in securing jobs in Germany’s employment sectors, Golesorkhi’s proposal is “to promote tolerance, equality, and respect, in the workplace, and to increase the number of Muslim women in the German labor market.” The project, linked here, has several components: a program to prepare Muslim women for the German job market; a launch of two initiatives, the iPledge Campaign and the WithorWithout (WoW) Campaign; and a fellowship program to recruit leaders for the project.

The Initiative
Golesorkhi’s proposed initiative stems from her goal for Muslim women to become “the face of the solution we’re seeking.” The aim is to give Muslim women the opportunity to gain work experience, and to develop leadership and communications skills. The program’s “Job Ready” program will provide formal preparation for the German job market through a series of professional development workshops and trainings.
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Miriam Steele: Breaking Cycles of Neglect Using Attachment Research

“I never get to see myself from the outside, I’m always judging myself from the inside,” reports a parent participating in a New School-Albert Einstein Medical Center clinical research collaboration directed by New School for Social Research psychologist Miriam Steele and her colleagues. Steele suggests that stepping outside of the interaction prompts reflective functioning, a theoretical framework she developed with her collaborator and husband Howard Steele over a decades-long examination of parent-child attachment. They have used the lens of attachment research to examine everything from the intergenerational links in parent-child relationships, intervention approaches to address child maltreatment, adoption, and the development of body image. She describes her work as bridging “the world of psychoanalytic thinking and clinical practice with contemporary research in child development.” In the course of our recent conversation it became clear that, for Steele, to research is to learn, to teach, and to help people – and to discover the next big question.

Group Attachment-Based Intervention

Steele’s focus is a psychological intervention called Group Attachment-Based Intervention (GABI), and she assesses its impact in a randomly controlled trial, federally funded by the Human Resources Services Administration.  The research team – comprised of faculty and graduate students at NSSR, as well as clinicians and researchers from Albert Einstein College of Medicine – brings together parents and young children from the Bronx for a thrice-weekly session of a group-based clinical treatment. As described in her co-authored article, Looking from the outside in: the use of video in attachment-based interventions (Attachment & Human Development, 2014), GABI is designed “to reach parents with histories of multiple adverse childhood experiences and ongoing exposure to poverty, domestic and neighborhood violence and risk of child maltreatment.”  This intervention grew out of a community-based intervention, setting it apart from interventions conceptualized in an academic setting and then delivered to patients.

The project started with one fundamental assertion, said Steele: “We know from neurobiology that well-nurtured brains look different from those that are not. That’s been well documented. The question is, how can we bring about change ?” Steele thinks that such a transformation in a parent could be brought on in part by an important aspect of the intervention: a parent watching video footage of her interactions with her child and being asked to reflect on what she sees while also hearing the reflections from her peers in the group.

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