Over an intense five-week span, the students study Donald Trump’s biography, analyze excerpts from his speeches and craft policy papers on his campaign pronouncements. They delve into his media messaging, pick apart his social media rhetoric and project his long-term impact on electoral politics.
Their goal is to take a scholarly look, as the campaign is developing, at Trump’s march from anti-establishment upstart to Republican standard-bearer. Or as Smith puts it, how Trump went from “businessman to entertainer to candidate.”
“It’s time we took a serious look at the Trump phenomenon,” he said. “My students aren’t necessarily the biggest Trump fans. They are skeptical of his contentious statements and are hesitant about what he stands for. But that’s precisely the reason to have a class on this – to look a bit more closely at him.”
Smith bills the course as the first of its kind and the setting is certainly an unconventional one.
Savannah State University is a historically black college and many of the students look at the Republican candidate with suspicion. After all, if students at Emory University protested chalkings of “Trump 2016” on campus, an entire course devoted to his political rise could raise some eyebrows.
“I was so enraged when I saw that we were offering this course at first. I felt like we were hurting our image,” said Mia Robinson, a 22-year-old political science major. In the end, though, she said her “rebellious” nature drew her to the course – and so far she’s been pleasantly surprised.
“We’ve been dissecting him as a whole – how he was raised, how he got into business,” she said, adding that it’s only cemented her distaste for him as a candidate. The swell of support for him “makes me question the future of the country.”
The professor, a fast-talking former Democratic candidate for local office in New York, said there’s something liberating about teaching about a fast-moving campaign even as it unfolds.
“In political science we always look back – at past elections, at what polls say, at historical trends,” he said with a shrug. “But it seemed appropriate to dive right in.”
George Toth, a 67-year-old studying engineering construction, was so drawn to the course that he is sitting in on the lessons even though he’s not getting any class credit. He’s also invited Smith to speak about Trump at the luxury coastal golf resort south of Savannah where he lives.
“I want to know what makes him tick – he’s a phenomenon that needs further investigation,” he said. “What I really want to know is why he’s so appealing. That’s the mystery here.”
Smith also faces a different sort of challenge in teaching a course on this wildly unpredictable contest as it develops. In the space of a month, after all, Trump went from preparing for a fight at his party’s convention over his credentials to locking up the nomination.
“This is the type of class where I’ll be learning as much from the students as they learn from me,” he said with a smile, “because no one knows what will happen next.”