Abroad in Trump’s America

November 19, 2016

Nothing like seeing the inauguration stands go up in front of the White House to bring home the reality of a Trump presidency. I'm at the Slavic meetings at the Marriott Wardman Park in DC. Last time I was here, for the APSA meetings in 2014, hundreds of political scientists and their families wound up on the sidewalk at 1:00 in the morning after some happy prankster set a series of fires in the hotel stairwells. Oddly enough, the next few hours were a moment of high productivity, as Tim Frye and I used the time to sketch out some list experiments intended to reveal if Russians are telling the truth when they say they support Vladimir Putin. (They are.) Kyle Marquardt and John Reuter joined the project soon thereafter.

Josh Tucker helped to get the word out about our research, and his post was picked up by…Donald Trump, who apparently had us in mind when told Meet the Press that "[Putin]'s got an 80 percent approval rating done by pollsters from, I understand, this country." An hour later came an inquiry from a reporter at PolitFact, who emailed to say that Donald Trump seemed to be citing our work. What could I say? "What Trump said is consistent with what we found." It was the first Trump statement rated True by PolitFact. That finding is still posted on Trump's campaign website.

Fast forward to last night, when Tim, Josh, and I had dinner on the roof of Perry's in Adams Morgan. (Great service, by the way.) My guess is that we were the only people in this culturally diverse neighborhood to have been used as rhetorical defense by the Trump campaign. I'll admit to feeling uncomfortable by that, but this is what should occasionally happen if we are doing our jobs. Our role as social scientists is to pose interesting questions that can be answered with the right tools, and then let the chips fall where they may.

And here’s the thing: Trump’s presidency is going to raise lots of interesting questions—in some cases, about topics that are more the domain of comparative than American politics. Recognizing these questions may require a bit of analytical distance, as if looking on a foreign country. For those working through the emotions of Trump’s election, such distance can be difficult to find, but therapeutic upon having found it. Trust me, I’ve seen it before: Russians who avoid despair by treating Putin’s Russia as an area of intellectual inquiry. Off the clock, it’s going to be a hard four years for many of us. But on the clock, it may be one of the most consequential times to be a social scientist.