The danger of ignoring Trump’s rise

As a result of some of the comments made to me over the past few days, I am going to begin this piece with several disclaimers. First, I am a progressive who is committed to ideals that many Swarthmore students value, such as social justice and equality. In addition, I have spent the past six months working incredibly hard to get one of the most progressive politicians in Pennsylvania, Leanne Krueger-Braneky, re-elected. I recognize the legitimacy of students choosing to protest the presence of Charles Murray on our campus. Lastly, I am most certainly not a white nationalist, as some involved with protesting the Charles Murray lecture claimed.
I grew up in the conservative state of Nebraska, where I was constantly challenged for my religious beliefs (or lack thereof) supposed sexual orientation, and political leanings. I came to Swarthmore because it was portrayed to me as an intellectual community in which students challenge each other and engage in meaningful dialogue. While this is certainly true of the faculty at Swarthmore, I have been largely disappointed by the one-sided discourse among students.
While I am a progressive Democrat, I joined the AEI on Campus group to bring perspectives that are too often discarded on our campus. Acting under the assumption that Hillary Clinton would win the Presidency, we decided to bring a lecturer to talk about how Donald Trump possibly could have won the Republican nomination. Students began to plan a protest the moment they heard Dr. Murray would be coming campus.
In light of the events of the past week however, this lecture became a hotly charged topic on campus. Donald Trump shocked the country, winning the Presidency with a campaign fueled by racist rhetoric and a cult of personality. There was discussion among our group of cancelling the lecture, but ultimately, we decided it was more important now than before.
We need to wake up. As I introduced Dr. Murray, hoping students would recognize that we must listen to the other side, my peers scoffed. As Dr. Murray spoke about the creation of a new elite, cut off from the rest of America, many students in the audience chose not to listen to him.
Dr. Murray pleaded for us to recognize our position in society. It is ironic that students at Swarthmore College, one of the most elite institutions of higher learning in the country, are for whatever reason, unwilling to recognize that we are part of the problem. Professor Cindy Halpern, one of the most fantastic professors I have had, told my Intro to Political Theory class on the first day: “You might not have been an elite before you came here. But you are now.” Regardless of background, we all have been given the privilege to learn from some of the best academics in the world.
With this privilege, we can make several choices. We can continue to live in our own reality, and this is the choice I believe many Swarthmore students are actively making. Alternatively, we can recognize that Donald Trump is going to be President, and prepare ourselves to fight. Do you think his millions of supporters will give us a trigger warning before calling us slurs? How effective do you think asking for a safe space will be, when the President is a thin-skinned bigot?
Several protesters last night asked Dr. Murray if he thought his work had been “well used,” knowing that white nationalists had adopted a perverse version for their own agenda. I will remind you that intentional misinterpretations of academics are not new phenomena; the Nazis did the same with Friedrich Nietzsche. We have a responsibility to critically engage with the other side. We do nothing for the progressive cause by dismissing their viewpoints; we only fuel their argument that we are spoiled and sheltered.
We cannot pretend that over 60 million people did not vote for a dangerous, inexperienced, racist last Tuesday. If we abandon the liberal ideals of free speech and discourse on which our country was founded in order to make ourselves comfortable, the other side will win the culture war and subsequent elections. We are not living in comfortable times, but challenging ones. We must therefore, challenge ourselves with the very ideas that make us uncomfortable.


  1. Ben,
    I am writing this out of a serious place of respect for you as a person.
    I think that your evaluation of Swarthmore students is unfair and unhelpful. I think you are looking very unfavorably and through over-determined narratives at a student body that is really struggling to ask itself, what does engagement mean now? I think the problem for a lot of us is that we are overwhelmingly used to intellectualizing problems and not acting against them. For me, this criticism falls mostly on the people here in relatively privileged positions, like myself, who talk the talk and don’t walk the walk. I am talking about individuals creating a plan of engagement, but I am talking about those individuals who are not already engaged daily by experiences of aggression, micro and macro.
    I know you are engaged in the political system. But so many other people on this campus are asking themselves, how do I engage with this, how do I get out of the classroom. That is a productive and positive process, and you are not seeing it. The night before the Charles Murray Protest and the night after there were huge meetings in the Schuyer room because hundreds of students on this campus, with varying levels of privilege, want access to concrete participation but do not know how to get there. I think the Charles Murray protest is a part of that process. I think that, insofar as the Democratic Party is concerned, a lot of the people who are trying to figure out how to get involved will actually disagree with you, Ben, about what the best ways to engage are. I do not think this means that they are not going to engage at all, even if they are not as experienced as you are. I think that you should take those disagreements seriously. I know that you are proud of your candidate, but do you believe the Democratic Party has what it takes in its current formulation?
    I think that we need to learn how to engage strategically with the problems that the Trump presidency represents (we talked about what this dynamic is with Halpern in MPT, I think we agree on a lot of that background explanation). I don’t think that intellectualized engagement with bad intellectuals is a strategically important way to fight Trump and bring something new to American politics. Maybe we can learn personally as aspiring politically-involveds by attending this Q&A. But to be honest that benefit seems limited and un-special, and whether it exists at all varies from person to person. Even for me, Leo Elliot, a white student with a tendency towards the overly-intellectual, this benefit seems limited. Am I going to understand the people that Charles Murray says I don’t understand by listening to Murray talk? I turned my back on Charles Murray as a white student participating in that protest, but I would not refuse to talk with white Trump supporters. Can’t you understand why folks wanted to say ‘fuck you’ to this, to engage with this particular narrative of how-we-got-here with a “NO”? Why can’t that be a ground and a starting point for politics? Is that really a symptom that we are not going to “recognize that Donald Trump is going to be President, and prepare ourselves to fight?” How are you considering the differential privilege of different people at the rally in reading this as a symptom in that way?
    I was there as an upper middle-class white person because I think organization needs to be a bigger part of our campus culture. For me, Charles Murray was a step in that direction. Other people, many who are not white men, were at that protest for other reasons as well. I cannot speak to their reasons for being at and supporting the protest, but they are as valid and as political as mine.
    I think far more than we need to challenge ourselves to work through bad ideas in the removed world of debate, we need to challenge ourselves to concretely contribute to an actually existing moral-political narrative that can replace the ones current in our public sphere. That is a very hard thing to do, and it is actually much harder than sitting through a lecture.
    In my Latin American Politics class last night, there was a frank discussion about the protest that I also thought was very valuable. The sentiment was stated, “I get that we need to start protesting, but why Murray?” My answer to “why Murray” is that his ideas are toxic and inexcusable, and it was important to me to say that clearly in a way that waiting for the Q&A would not allow (though I did stay, and wanted to ask questions). But I don’t even disagree with the sentiment expressed in class at a fundamental level. It cannot end at Murray. Listening does need to occur, and that responsibility needs to be distributed with some serious critical thought. I do not think it is fair to assume that it will end there, and I do not think it is fair to assume that those who do not think it is meaningful to listen to Murray are not listening in a wider sense. I want you to participate in the process on this campus that will ensure that it doesn’t end here. I don’t want you pathologize and corner into this narrative of “discomfort” so many of the people on this campus who are literally asking each other for ways to get involved and have an effect. Offer your concrete advice for what a new American politics looks like, and be open to criticism.
    In my frank opinion, Charles Murray and the discomfort narrative are a bad stage for you to choose if you want to get your experience and knowledge across to people on this campus who you claim to agree with in terms of broad progressive principles. This article could have had a paragraph about Murray, and another 10 about the knowledge that you do have that you can share.

  2. Your piece reveals that there are a few things you fundamentally fail to understand. Unfortunately, they are how to critically evaluate the worth of an academic writing and the difference between an opposing opinion and a rejection of the legitimacy of a group of people based solely on their identity. The alternative possibility to your failing to grasp these concepts is worse: an intentional and malicious attempt to undermine the position of women and students of color at Swarthmore. You are however, entitled to your viewpoint and I firmly believe you should not be persecuted for it. Despite that, your Op-Ed reveals that are unambiguously not qualified to lead SwatDems.

    • Malicious: (adj) full of, characterized by, or showing malice; intentionally harmful; spiteful.
      Ad hominem: (adv/adj) a logical fallacy in which an argument is rebutted by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person, rather than the position they are maintaining.
      In following Swarthmore’s tradition of thoughtful and meaningful dialogue, I encourage you to either reveal your name, or send me a direct message at for an opportunity to further develop your response. But, it is clear that your terminology has dissolved your argument into a logical fallacy. You claim that Ben’s intentions were “malicious.” But, by definition and per your own statement, you have attacked Ben’s personal character and motives rather than the substance of his argument. By attacking Ben’s character specifically, does this not undermine your own claim that he “shouldn’t be persecuted” for his own point of view? Wouldn’t this ad hominem attack make you, anonymous student, the malicious one?
      As Ben’s roommate, a queer woman of color, someone who has worked to elect progressive leaders and pursue progressive causes alongside Ben for hundreds and hundreds of hours, and as someone who has also worked to organize multiple student actions including yesterday’s Walk-out and September’s Trump protest, I completely understand the frustration Ben has expressed with certain groups of Swarthmore students on campus who failed to help us when asked. I fundamentally agree that political engagement and action can take many forms, and I agree that figures like Murray have undermined the legitimacy of my own existence. Regardless, I am here, and I disagree with the notion that Ben’s ultimate goal is to “intentionally and maliciously” attack students like me. In fact, Ben has sought my advice to better understand my experiences and transform them into meaningful action and leadership. Thus, I am deeply offended and disappointed that you would (anonymously) attack both Ben’s ability to lead and intentions toward individuals like me on campus, especially with a fragile, fallacious argument. Swarthmore students can no longer afford to do anything less than lift one another up, just as we can no longer afford to anonymously tear others down.

    • You state your opinion as fact. It’s not. Western Culture is unique in that it is self-reflective and self-critical. We both engaged in slavery and then, after much angst, debate, bloodshed and eventual enlightenment, we acted to end the deplorable practice worldwide. Debates like those supported by the Mr. TerMaat are absolutely critical to determine not only the correct path for society, but also to convince the masses to buy-in. Yet in your response, you offer nothing but childish accusations, emotional coercion, and critical theory nonsense. Please so better.

  3. With all due respect, the protest the other day had NOTHING to do with Trump. We didn’t care that Murray was talking about Trump. We cared that he wrote the Bell Curve and dehumanized tons of people on the basis of “science” and “genetics” that had no actual root in reality. Forget how his work was used, the fact that it was written at all was a HUGE PROBLEM and continues to be. This protest was in the works before Trump even got elected.

  4. I think it says a lot that the best parts of the event happened when people actually took the time to engage with what Murray has unambiguously written in the past. When Murray was asked about his views on his article “Why Aren’t There Any Female Einsteins?” he was forced to actually defend his views and clarify them. He was held accountable for what he believed in and people in the audience may have actually had their views changed about the issue. That was the best point in the night and it’s sad to think that the protestors refused to even listen to it.
    What I’ve heard from so many people I’ve talked to is that by ignoring the talk itself the protesters actively undermined their own point. They said we don’t care about the arguments, we don’t want to know his side of the story, we don’t even want to know if he actually believes the stuff we think he believes. What they told me is that the protesters didn’t have credibility because they didn’t listen and when they did respond, they did so with few references to Murray’s actual beliefs.
    One of the most disheartening things I’ve heard about this entire experience is that many people didn’t show up to the event, not because they were afraid of Murray, but because they were afraid of the protestors. They thought they were going to be singled out from the crowd so they didn’t show up. It shouldn’t take bravery to listen to ideas, but that’s what it took at this event.

  5. This is the first comment on a article that I have written. I am in the habit of keeping my opinions to myself on sensitive matters, because my place of comfort is above the fray. BUT THIS WAS TOO IMPORTANT. If you have any other opinion of Benjamin Termaat than that he is a thoughtful, caring and noble individual, my guess would be that you are speaking from a place of profound ignorance. I have lived my life having called great many people friends but none – not a single person – has been as compassionate and selfless as Benjamin. I am proud, and I count myself blessed by God to be able to call such man one of my best friends. ALL THAT BEING SAID, at first I was not at all inclined to listen to conservative talk, so close to that day that brought all of us low. That night – election night (partially because I had been ill) I was too dehydrated to cry, too hoarse to scream, too exhausted to throw anything; I laid there, in the dark for 10 or so hours – sick and black and sad, because a man, who I believe is actually evil, is going to be the leader of my country. I felt this way the day my best friend asked me to come to his event, and initially I told him “no.” “I’m not ready!””I have not even watched her concession speech man.” “I just don’t want to.” But then I thought to myself. I thought about who I really believe that I am. Not only did I want to support my friend, but I wanted to be able to support people that had been newly made vulnerable by recent events. If you know me, if you talked with me, you then might know that I count one of my strengths as my ability to argue. I knew that if I followed my emotions and if did not go to that talk, if I not engage with Charles Murray and his ideas (which make me uncomfortable), I would have given up my power to critique those ideas in an informed fashion, and if I had made a habit of this behavior then, I would have rendered myself useless for too many of the causes I believe in. So I HAD to go, and I am glad I did. I feel like I followed the best of my principles, by giving someone with whom I disagreed the space to make his argument, and my giving a man for whom I would take a bullet, my moral support…in what is for all of us a trying time. I also found out that I did not disagree with what he had come to us to talk about that night, which was about a new upperclass. This is yet another reason to engage, because “no one is right all the time, and even a broken clock is right twice a day. ” I am glad Benjamin stretched me and acted as one of my mind’s better angels by encouraging me to do what was hard for me instead of what was easy. This is one of the characteristics I most value in him and I feel that I have been made better person by knowing him. And it is because of my friends of character like Benjamin that my mantra for these next fours years will be “With everything I am, engage. I have a country to win; I have people to support; and I have people to convince. Hiding will do none of these things for me.”

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