Of all the outlandish and absurd claims Donald Trump has made in the months since he announced his candidacy for president, the most recent -- that the news media and global elite are conspiring to rig the election against him -- is one that we take most umbrage with. Who are we? Two English professors at a community college who have spent the last year studying and teaching the difference between conspiracy theories and institutional critique.
As avid readers of Thomas Pynchon and viewers of The Wire, we’ve developed a pedagogy that asks students to analyze how institutions might or might not be illegitimate or criminal. And to us, Donald Trump’s claim seems weak. Where’s his corkboard? Where are his out-of-focus black-and-white photos? Where is his string connecting the evidence?
Yet, he’s right to focus our gaze on institutions. There are legitimate critiques to be made about the many forces, institutional and otherwise, operating against all of us. Having institutional knowledge and the ability to understand what competitive forces exist is required of any educated person. Polls have shown that Donald Trump’s largest support block are those with just a high school education. Those are, in fact, our students who have just enrolled in our English 101 composition classes.
It is dangerous to confuse comparatively uneducated with not smart. One doesn’t need a college degree to suspect and know that often, as Hillary Clinton has said, “the deck is stacked.” And many educated as well as uneducated people are likely to propose sweeping generalizations like Donald Trump -- such as “it’s all rigged” -- as evidence for their opinions.
But when we teach the difference between conspiracy theory and institutional critique to our students -- when they practice institutional analysis with corkboard, photos and string, and when they write essays that must have credible sources -- they are more likely to understand that social justice and consequential critiques are possible only if we study the details.
In our classes, most students grasp how a former House majority leader is profiting by doing things like trying to help drug companies avoid paying federal taxes. They also get how he may only be a piece of a larger problem, both in the way tax avoidance is lobbied for in this country and how an entire industry of consultants’ sole purpose is to help companies become more efficient at avoiding paying taxes.
They grasp the injustice when they uncover that there have been little to no consequences for financial institutions after the 2008 economic meltdown. They understand how police departments often reveal information about wrongdoing only in the wake of protests or public outcry. They understand that the complexity is vast, but in order to be authors of consequence, they need to have coherent evidence of the contrary. Stating that the system is “rigged” is a lie that becomes the truth by the power of acquiescence.
In their own investigations, our students have outworked Trump in articulating and supporting claims of institutional criminality. They have identified and investigated organizations and conspiracies that range from the local, like a Queens, N.Y., Wing Stop or Popeyes franchise, to the global, like corrupt government contracting in India and Italy. It’s unpredictable which institutions students will choose to investigate: the New York Police Department, for-profit universities, the Iranian leadership. But, if there is some suspicion of injustice, our community college students are on the case.
They have, on their own initiative, cold-called whistle-blowers at animal rescue agencies, walked into police stations and asked for the names and ranks of the precinct’s officers, and interviewed anonymous informants. In short, they have done the work of heroic investigators, the kind you would hope an engaged citizen in a democracy would undertake.
With those projects, students are engaging in the kind of work we witness in binges of popular television crime shows like Breaking Bad or True Detective, where investigators tack photos, maps, names, evidence to corkboards, office walls -- whatever they can find -- to allow viewers to vicariously sense that, yes, the rapidly connecting world that feels beyond our comprehension is being pieced together one bit at a time.
We ask, why leave these problems to television fantasy? Why not ask students to make sense of senselessness as an exercise of critical citizenship? Why not expect the same of our public figures?
In other words, if Donald Trump were a first-year community college student, all signs indicate he’d be a lazy one. We’d send him back to do more research. He has made a claim, but his critique would be classified as an empty conspiracy. If he presented this claim that it’s all “rigged,” we’d say, Mr. Trump, show us your corkboard, your photos, your documents, your works-cited page. Show us some work. You will not pass unless you do.
Jed Shahar and Benjamin Lawrance Miller are assistant professors at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.
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