New Tisch College course explores communication in the Trump era

Phillipe Reines, former spokesperson and advisor to Hillary Clinton, teaches a course on communication in the Trump era. Courtesy Phillipe Reines

In a course sponsored by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life and the Department of Political Science, students sit around in a circle, some with President Donald Trump’s latest tweet cued up, others with South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s Instagram feed on their computer screens, preparing to contribute to the class discussion about media and politics. 

The special topics course, “Hindsight Might Not Be 2020 – The Upheaval of Political Communications in the Era of Trump,” is taught by Philippe Reines, a visiting professor and former deputy assistant secretary of state for strategic communications. 

Every Monday, the class spends its first hour discussing what happened during that week in previous elections in American history. Then, for the second half, Reines and his students analyze the current state of the 2020 election and whether or not today’s presidential candidates are effectively taking into account the lessons learned from past elections. 

Julie Dobrow, a senior fellow for media and civic engagement at Tisch College, oversees the class as a college representative. She described how the Tisch College determines which classes it will bring to Tufts.

“In the run up to the next election, Dean [of Tisch College Alan] Solomont wanted to have a number of different signature courses that are going to focus on different aspects of the political process. We’re trying to bring in a number of really interesting people, both Democrats and Republicans, who will be coming in and speaking with students, both in classes and also in a number of different events that Tisch College sponsors,” Dobrow said. 

Reines has been working in politics for around 20 years. Many of those years have been spent with former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, including during the 2016 presidential election.

“I had a unique role in 2016 in that I played Donald Trump in [Clinton’s] preparations for the debates, which meant I pretended to be him, and I sounded like him and we had full 90-minute debates standing behind podiums probably a dozen times,” Reines said. 

Reines said that he is able to take this experience and apply it to his course, which looks back at the elections of the past and forward to the upcoming 2020 election. The course aims to pinpoint why certain outcomes occurred and to predict what will happen in the future.

“There’s not a minute of those 18 hours Hillary thought that [Trump’s] message wasn’t powerful … There’s a tendency to look back and say Hillary lost because of things unique to her. And obviously there are things unique to her, but there’s something unique to everyone, and the Republicans have gotten very good at exploiting that. But a lot of what was going on in 2016 would have applied to anybody,” Reines said, referring to the 2016 election. 

“Being in the middle of something is not how to have clarity. Being above it is often a better viewpoint. And there are often very few people who claim to being right about 2016,” Reines said.

Reines said he hopes that he and his students can take the lessons from the 2016 and other previous elections and apply them to the 2020 campaign to gain a better idea of what is happening in the current political atmosphere.

“Now, we’re all on really thin evidential ice. So for this reason, at the beginning of each class, I give [the students] index cards and an envelope, and I make them write down … three things … Who does your head think will win [the Democratic primaries]? Who does your heart think would be the best president? And then the third is, do you think Trump will win or lose?” Reines said.

Eli Glass, a sophomore, shared some of his thoughts on the course. He said that Reines’ experience and the thoughts of his fellow students combine to result in lively, important discussions about politics in the U.S.

“[This course] has definitely changed my perspective in that I know more now, and I’m able to apply that knowledge to what’s happening now and current events,” Glass said.

Glass also touched on how he sees the relevance of the course in today’s political climate.

“A really valuable thing is what we’re doing in the class, which is talking about things and having this discourse about the political system today in an honest way … There is a very liberal lean, but there is also that attempt to bring in outside arguments that people might not agree with. Playing devil’s advocate is a big part of the class,” Glass said. 

Reines also addressed the fact that there is a skew to the class, but said that he is open and eager to hear the opinions of all sides.

“I do not assume that everyone in this room is of the same political mindset. The first day of class, I said a few things to them, but I said, ‘You all know who I work for. You don’t have to pretend you like her. You don’t have to pretend you’d vote for her. Just be respectful and constructive about it. I’m not going to pretend,’” Reines said.

Dobrow touched on how the theme of open-mindedness is carried into the work students are asked to do for the class. 

“In the first assignment, students were asked to deliberately expose themselves to the messages that come from a media source that they don’t normally follow … Discussions in class have been quite fascinating as we sort of step outside of our own echo chambers and try to explore a little bit more broadly what’s going on out there,” Dobrow said.

When asked what he hopes his students take away from the course, Reines did not focus heavily on specific ideas regarding the current presidential campaigns as he said many of the predictions both he and the class make now are not likely to be correct. Rather, he said that he hopes his students become ready to argue for the political ideas they believe in.

“To me, success would be them going home for Thanksgiving and expressing their views … I really do think that they could go home Thanksgiving and go toe-to-toe with their obnoxious uncle who either watches too much [Sean] Hannity or too much [Rachel] Maddow,” Reines said. 

Reines also works to further inform his students by bringing in guest speakers. 

“One of the things that is great about having somebody like [Reines] teaching the class is that he has a very deep branch of people that he knows and he has worked with, so [he] has been able to bring in some very interesting people who have worked on messaging and polling,” Dobrow said.

He also mentioned that the guest speakers are important not only for informing the students, but also for exposing the students to a variety of possible careers in politics. 

“Two weeks ago I had Joe Lockhart, who was former White House press secretary under President Clinton, as a guest. He was talking a lot about the differences in the Trump White House and previous White Houses [and] about how they handle the media, but he and I for the last six months have disagreed about impeachment,” said Reines.

The combination of Reines’ teaching, Dobrow’s guidance and support from Tisch College and the Department of Political Science, well-informed comments and questions raised by the students and the perspectives of guest speakers all contribute to the success of the course. Students, such as Glass, said they especially appreciate Reines‘ insight.

“To have someone who has held such an important role in our nation’s democracy, just to be there and have a casual discourse with him about politics is a really incredible experience that I definitely wouldn’t have had the platform to have if I didn’t take this class, which is awesome,” Glass said.


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