It’s become the norm for sitting US presidents to make the graduation-speech circuit every spring. Barack Obama gave 24 commencement addresses at American universities during his two terms, for instance, and started with Arizona State University.
Only a few months into office, Donald Trump is making his first tour of the circuit—appropriate, as he ran his own for-profit university for a time (until it closed and he was forced to settle lawsuits over the quality of its teaching for $25 million). Trump will make his first presidential graduation speech at Liberty University, a private, evangelical Christian college in Virginia.
Enrolling 15,000 students on its campus as well as 100,000 students online, the school bills itself as the “largest Christian university in the world.” Trump’s choice is a careful, deliberate one: the university’s president Jerry Falwell Jr. was a key figure in drumming up evangelical support for Trump during his campaign, and he told the AP he was offered—but eventually turned down—the job of US education secretary, now held by Betsy DeVos.
Trump’s “supporters, including over 80% of the evangelical community, are thrilled with president Trump’s actions so far,” Falwell said to CBN News, a Christian news network. Trump has also spoken at Liberty’s students twice in the past, in 2012 and 2016.
While it’s unusual for a president to select a religious, selective-interest university as his first graduation stop, the demand for Trump to come to other universities—a signature feature of Obama’s time—has not exactly been loud. What’s even more telling of America’s tenuously fractured political climate—in which an appearance by any speaker from the right at the moment seems to descend into violence—is the fact that many of the country’s most elite universities are choosing to eschew political speakers this year, perhaps acknowledging that bringing any politician in front of a massive, multi-generational crowd runs the risk of descending into chaos.
Yale spent the last few years inviting politicians like Joe Biden, Cory Booker, and Samantha Power to campus; this year, its graduation speaker will be baseball executive Theo Epstein. Harvard’s speaker is Facebook CEO (and Harvard dropout) Mark Zuckerberg. MIT invited Apple’s Tim Cook.