Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eugene Robinson reflected on “Election 2016: Who’s Up, Who’s Down and What’s Really Going On” as this year’s Reuben A. and Cheryl Casselberry Munday Distinguished Lecturer Oct. 27 in the Africana Studies and Research Center.
In his lecture, Robinson discussed his columns and his experiences over the last decade. He began by recalling election night 2008, spent “with my interesting, often dysfunctional MSNBC family” and the emotional column he wrote the next day, “Morning in America.”
“I thought, ‘we’ll never see an election as crazy as this again,’” he said. “Boy, I could not have been more wrong.”
Robinson focused on Donald Trump in his remarks, recalling that in his first column about the presidential candidate, in June 2015, he called Trump “a farce to be reckoned with.”
“I stand by that definition,” he said. In a subsequent column, he compared Trump to Godzilla, since, like Godzilla, the traditional ways of taking down a political candidate seemed instead to be making him stronger.
Trump told Robinson he loved both columns.
“Entire political science departments are going to spend years and years trying to figure what this election was all about,” said Robinson. “Our job as journalists is to write the first draft of history.” Robinson summed it up in three words: race, class and culture.
“Overt racism has made a big comeback,” said Robinson. “I look at my email, Twitter mentions, how people interact with me, and never have I seen such old-style, unreconstructed, N-word racism.”
Trump expresses the feeling of people afraid of change, said Robinson. “’Make America Great Again’ is ‘let’s go back to the good old days,’ which is why his outreach to African-Americans will never go anywhere.”
Robinson said we are seeing the development of a working-class consciousness similar to what we saw in the early 20th century: “We are in the midst of a transformation from a factory economy to an information economy … Globalization is here to stay and has had real impact on people. It’s why Trump is doing better than expected in Ohio – it’s why he came up with a Rust Belt strategy.”
Neither Republicans nor Democrats have paid much attention to Americans for whom this economy isn’t good and who have no prospects of it getting better, said Robinson. The surprising success of the Bernie Sanders and Trump campaigns have delivered clear messages the parties should pay attention to: “One, free trade isn’t working for everyone, and the default position in either party can’t be that free trade is great, you’ll love it. And two, that the system is rigged against you, the middle and working class, who have seen the fruits of economic gains go mostly to the wealthy and upper crust.”
During the Q&A, Robinson briefly addressed Hillary Clinton. “I’m not the most popular person in the Clinton world because I was very critical in 2008,” he said. “But [the Clintons are not] the evil incarnate [that] Republicans like to make them [out to be]. My main view is that it’s simply unthinkable that Trump should be president, and that’s why I talk about him so much. I see him as a grave danger to this country.”
Robinson ended with a request: “Please vote.”
After the lecture, Reuben A. Munday ’69, MPS ’74, and Cheryl Casselberry Munday ’72 joined attendees at a reception hosted by the Africana Center. “It’s exciting to see students from across the university coming to hear a lecture of this quality. It’s really a privilege to be able to sponsor this,” said Reuben Munday.
The talk was co-sponsored with the Cornell Law School, Office of Faculty Development and Diversity, American Studies Program, Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Institute for the Social Sciences, Society for the Humanities, Department of Communication, Department of Government, Cornell College of Business, College of Arts and Sciences, and the Department of Policy Analysis and Management in the College of Human Ecology.
This article was also published in the Cornell Chronicle.