Faculty in the VCU Political Science department fielded questions from students last Thursday night about the scope of President Donald Trump’s power to reshape American politics and policy.
Questions discussed the new president’s constitutional authority to overhaul the immigration system, the realignment of the Republican Party and Trump’s new Supreme Court pick and the path to reversing Roe vs. Wade.
“This is a shift in the dominant political ideology around questions of reproductive health,” said Deirdre Condit, chair of political science at VCU.
Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s first pick for the Supreme Court, has never ruled directly on abortion, and his nomination wouldn’t alter the partisan composition of the full court.
According to Condit, Trump could use future Supreme Court picks to do exactly that, giving it the conservative cast necessary to overturning the landmark decision legalizing abortion.
Trump himself has indicated he would use his authority to set the party agenda to prioritize legal penalties for and restriction of access to the procedure. Condit said those priorities are already being realized in the Virginia state legislature.
“Under the Trump administration, there’s a pretty concerted effort to rethink what has happened on women’s reproductive health over the last 50 years,” Condit said.
The panel also discussed the contrast between the current and past administration in terms of higher education priorities.
Herbert Hirsch, a genocide scholar who has also studied political demonstrations, referred to protests at UC Berkeley on Feb. 1 to the planned appearance of a far-right commentator, which ultimately turned violent.
“Instead of rallying people to your cause, it causes a sort of reaction formation, and does just the opposite,” Hirsch said.
Trump himself responded by threatening to cut off federal funding to the school.
John Aughenbaugh, a constitutional law professor, responded to concerns from students and faculty that Trump could revoke federal funds from VCU for failing to provide a “full and robust” form for free speech.
Aughenbaugh outlined an expansive network of federal funding mechanisms through which the executive branch could ostensibly exercise power over public universities.
He mentioned an Obama administration letter in 2011 threatening to withhold federal funds from universities unless they expand their Title IX protections to include safety from sexual assault.
“The mere threat of that is usually good enough to change colleges’ behavior,” Aughenbaugh said.
The new president has also promised to repeal the Johnson amendment, a provision barring tax-exempt entities such as churches and nonprofit organizations from participating in political campaigns.
Charlie Schmidt, a lawyer with the ACLU, said the repeal of the amendment would undermine the separation of church and state.
But it wouldn’t be the only major shift precipitated by the unlikely businessman’s rise to power.
According to Bill Newmann, a presidential scholar and associate professor, Trump has already single-handedly altered the Republican party.
Fundamental GOP principles such as a belief in free trade, internationalist foreign policy, and limited government are unrecognizable in Trump’s party.
“We’ve already seen big, big shifts,” Newmann said. “That the parties to a certain extent aren’t even recognizable anymore from what they were 15, 20 years ago,” or even 18 months ago. “That’s gigantic, and we don’t know what the implications of that are going to be.”
John Froitzheim, professor of comparative politics, echoed Newmann’s assertions that, regardless of Trump’s policy record going forward, he’s already had an indelible effect on the American political system.
“How much of that element of conservatism that we associate with the Republican party really continues to survive?” Froitzheim said.
The event was streamed live on the VCU Political Science department’s Facebook page.
Jim Thomma, Staff Writer