Early in the primary season, when Trump was just starting to gain significant votes, I said to a friend, “I genuinely don’t understand the appeal of Trump.” He replied, quoting one of our favorite movies, “Some people just want to watch the world burn.” I remembered the line from The Dark Knight but didn’t really have an appreciation of how this relates to politics, until a few months later.
As any member of the CUNY community knows, the university has problems. Lots of problems. From its wildly bloated CUNYfirst, to its recent fiasco over its budget and handling of anti-Semitism on campus, the 24-school, 500,000+ student system is in trouble. Big changes are clearly necessary. When CUNY sent the students information about organized protests over tuition increases and professor contract disputes, my initial reaction was that maybe CUNY needs some tough love. In other words, rather than fighting for every nickel and dime, maybe we should “Let CUNY Burn.” In the same way that a healthy forrest ecosystem needs occasional forrest fires to allow for new growth, maybe CUNY needed the same medicine.
But after the fire, then what?
And that’s when I finally understood the enormous (yuuuuge) disconnect between Donald Trump’s appeal and the reality of the grown-up world. For Americans who perceive their situation as hopeless, with their jobs and their culture “disappearing” without any control, a cleansing forrest fire is appealing. Unlike a forrest ecosystem, though, a government or an educational institution does not naturally regrow once the fire has abated.
Does CUNY have problems? Yes. Does it have big problems? Yes. But in the real-world, problems _do _get solved by fighting for every nickel and dime, and then making incremental changes along the way. It’s not sexy, and it’s not exciting. It doesn’t make for good campaign slogans.
When The West Wing was still a well-written show (Make Bartlet Great Again?), there was a perfect moment when President Bartlet was debating his opponent. The opponent had a quick, canned answer to why he would reduce taxes. President Bartlet retorts about this “10 word answer”:
What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now…”
The CUNY system is large and complex. It encompasses everything from The Graduate Center, granting top-tier PhDs, to open-admission community colleges that have to accept literally anyone with a high school diploma. There are no ten words in the English language that can fix a system that complex.
Solving a problem has two components: 0.1% is naming the problem, and 99.9% is fixing the problem. The latter is frustrating and inelegant and often without immediate rewards. But this is how businesses, colleges and governments are built.
It’s not easy for a politician to get elected for being pragmatic. But as tough as it is, we have to try, bit by bit.