Berkeley’s ‘Ethics in the Age of Trump’ course asks if Trump's presidency is 'threat to democracy'

The University of California, Berkeley offered a new course during the spring 2019 semester called “Ethics in the Age of Trump.”

Public policy professor David Kirp, who taught the course, said that the class was not about “Trump-bashing,” but instead explored the “ethical implications of Trump-ism” by “discussing topics like lying, self-enrichment and the pros and cons of resignation and whistleblowing,” according to a piece the professor wrote for The Washington Post.

“I fantasized that I’d start by announcing, dead pan, that this was a very short course because the topic was a nonstarter — there was no ethics in the Trump world — and that everyone who left a red envelope filled with cash on the podium would receive an A,” stated Kirp, regarding the first day of class. “Then I would walk out of the room, returning a minute or two later to bedlam. ‘Just kidding,’ I’d say, and we would settle down to business.”

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Kirp’s course seeks to explore various discussion questions, including “How had the president’s words and deeds affected the way that issues like racism were understood?” “What were the impact of Trump’s assaults on the press?” and “whether Donald Trump’s presidency could represent a threat to democracy itself.”

“Mostly, the students dismissed the threat-to-democracy argument, believing that Trump, despite his authoritarian tendencies and disrespect for the Constitution, lacked the brainpower to pull off that transformation,” Kirp said about the last example question.

To help foster discussion, many outside speakers were brought in to teach the class, including former President George W. Bush’s ethics adviser Richard Painter, who has been an outspoken Trump critic and ran for the U.S. Senate in 2018 as a Democrat.

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“Early in the term, almost all the students favored impeaching the president,” Kirp said, before recounting that another guest speaker, “To End a Presidency” co-author and Georgetown University law professor Joshua Matz, changed some of the students’ minds.

“Coming from an immigrant family, I never thought I could have an impact,” one of Kirp’s students said in an email to the professor. “This class gave us a belief that our ideas were valid and that we have the power to make tangible changes should we choose to do so.”

Campus Reform reached out to Kirp and UC-Berkeley for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @ethanycai