In Charles Turner’s class “The Presidency,” he focuses on a number of the United States’ past Commanders in Chief—but none has provided as many front-page headlines and real-life lessons as the 45th president, Donald Trump. Turner—currently in his 21st year teaching at Chico State—strives to remain neutral while teaching the material, discussing the relevant news of the day, and leaving the critical thinking to his classes—whether it is a general education class with 120 students or graduate students in a smaller setting. With Joe Biden now in the Oval Office, he said there is one constant as a political science teacher: “No matter what’s going on in the world, when I tell people what I do, they always say, ‘oh, this must be an interesting time for that’—and it always is.”
How has teaching political science been fun for you?
I teach a lot of undergraduate general education students in the “American Government” class. Most of them probably haven’t considered this subject a particularly important part of their lives up to that point, until they’re in that class and reading about this in a textbook. I also ask them to pay attention to current events, and they make that connection for the first time. It’s kind of eye-opening seeing real-world examples of what we’re learning in school. With Trump—and his whole presidency—being such a big media story, it’s created a lot of opportunities to explore what a presidential pardon means, what impeachment is, and the Constitution in a way that’s otherwise harder to get students to really get excited about if they don’t have those contemporary examples right in front of them.
Turner Fact #1
His favorite presidents are John Adams, for doing what he thought was right even when people didn’t like him for it; Teddy Roosevelt, for his sheer willpower; Harry Truman, for his plain-spoken Midwesternism; and Jimmy Carter, for showing us the good a president can do doesn’t end with their term.
What’s it like when your students get excited about the material?
What I consider the biggest win is when students don’t just see it as me telling them stuff or them asking me or answering my questions, but when they turn to their peers and start having a conversation saying, “I think this,” or “what do you think about that?” That’s always the most rewarding, because at the end of the semester, I’m out of their lives, they’ve finished this class, and they don’t have to think about American government as a school subject anymore. But they do need to know for the rest of their lives that they can engage with friends and family members and coworkers in any way they come across about politics, because in a healthy democracy, you need to hear opinions that differ from your own, and you need to be able to defend your positions or be willing to change them if you cannot.
Turner Fact #2:
When not studying and teaching history, he likes to taking long walks and listening to his kids tell bizarre tales.
How do you think Donald Trump has impacted American and global politics?
Teaching the presidency at both the undergraduate and graduate level is one of my favorite parts of the job. Because the president is not only the head of the country’s government, but really the head of state in this more symbolic way as well—everybody identifies with and knows who the US president is. And, this particular guy has made it interesting in many ways, too, and is something we talk about in my presidency classes a lot, because there’s never been anyone quite like him. If you look at a particular characteristic, you could say, “we’ve had other presidents who were faced with a big crisis and then kind of fumbled the ball and didn’t really do anything about it.” If you think about James Buchanan at the outset of the Civil War or Herbert Hoover during the beginning years of the Depression, there have been other people who were in a leadership role who just didn’t exhibit very positive leadership qualities. Trump has been faced with the COVID-19 pandemic and has been really an abysmal leader, pretending like it doesn’t exist and ignoring what his medical advisors are recommending. Even on policy issues, he’s been marching to the beat of his own drum. I don’t think that before Trump there were a lot of Republicans who said, “let’s toss out all of our trade agreements,” for example. It’s definitely a great case study of how you can really do absolutely everything differently.
How do you think history will look back on Trump’s presidency?
All policy and partisan issues aside, there are just many, many things that Trump did very badly as president. There are reasons he was impeached twice. I think these largely stemmed from his personality and character, rather from any ideological belief. As for what he did well, from a partisan perspective, he passed a tax cut and appointed a significant number of conservative judges. For some other things, we will have to wait and see the longer-term implications. For example, establishing a Space Force might look like an excellent idea at some point in the future.
Turner Fact #3
A fan of entertaining, off-beat stories, he recommends books by authors Stephen King and Haruki Murakami.
What does the future of the presidency look like through Biden’s term—and are you hopeful?
One thing that Biden has as an immediate task is what 100 years ago Warren Harding called a “return to normalcy.” I think some of the immediate things he’ll do to signal that we’re getting back to normal will be to rejoin the World Health Organization, to put people in cabinet positions who are more qualified to run those departments. For example, Trump’s pick to head the EPA was Scott Pruitt, who had spent quite a bit of time suing the agency to block its enforcement efforts. Biden’s pick is Michael Regan, who has worked for the EPA and has served as a state level environmental regulator. We also saw Biden take action on his first day in office to have the United States rejoin the Paris Agreement. These are just much less cynical actions when it comes to the environment. I don’t think Biden is radical in any sense of the word—he’s a pretty moderate guy. That’s how he got the nomination, and by being somebody who we saw as a normalizing force, somebody who wanted what’s best for the country.
Turner holds a bachelor’s degree in institution and policy from William Jewell College. He also earned a master’s degree and a PhD in political science from Claremont Graduate University.