Opinion

Williams: Trump and Schools — and the Lasting Damage to How Kids View Democracy

By Conor Williams | November 20, 2016

Photo: Getty Images
The morning after Election Day, sometime around 5:45 a.m., my kids tromped into my room with questions. They’d gone to bed after an hour of coverage, so they were ready to hear that Hillary Clinton had won more than just Vermont — that the threats they’d heard Donald Trump direct at their immigrant friends were finally over.
My wife and I had been up all night watching the unthinkable spill into reality. Through bleary eyes, as gently as we could, we explained how things actually turned out. It was an excruciating conversation, and not only because of the tears. The worst part, by far, was explaining how democracy works to defend the rights of a president-elect who has done so much damage to the workings of our democracy.
“NO!” one of the kids sobbed. “He cheated! He’s terrible! Somebody should go to the White House and put Donald Trump in jail!”
Read those lines slowly. Aside from the kindergarten verbiage, they’re Trump’s own. They challenge the basic fairness of the election and reject its outcome. They offer force as a resolution to political frustration.
Sure, we’ve heard a lot about how Trump’s hot, authoritarian rhetoric threatens democratic norms, but politicians say lots of intemperate, provocative things. Each time Trump questioned the electoral process, undermined expectations for a peaceful transition of power and introduced violence into the public square, the resulting furor lasted a few news cycles. It was just words.
But as I defended the legitimacy of Trump’s election on grounds that Trump himself rejects, it hit me: This is what damage to democracy actually looks like. When kids internalize his attacks on sacred American norms, the consequences could last well beyond our present catastrophe.
As it turned out, my kids weren’t the only ones. On Wednesday, teachers at our school sent home messages asking parents to help their families talk through the election results. They urged us to explain how elections work and — above all — to emphasize to the kids that they were safe. At our majority-Hispanic school, the note’s worried undertones were as palpable as the community’s anxiety.
And then the reports started to roll in from schools around the country. Traumatic as the election was at our school, it was nothing compared with these stories. After a few initial reports of hate crimes, harassment and violence, colleagues at The 74 Million started a page to capture them all. At this point, the list is a panoply of swastikas, death threats, ethnic slurs and Trump campaign argot.
What if this was our new normal? As my wife and I muddled our way through an unforgiving week of parenting, I called my friend, a New York City principal who’s one of the best, most committed educators I know. When I asked her if Trump’s election was upsetting her students, she paused.
“I’ve never wanted so badly to have a different job than I have,” she finally replied.
It was a painful, sobering conversation. She described a community already under enormous pressure consuming itself in fear. “Of course I can say, ‘As long as you’re inside this school building, you’re safe’ … but kids are not stupid, and they know that it’s not the reality.”
It didn’t help that her teachers are human. Like me, many were struggling to manage their own anxieties while simultaneously soothing their children’s. “I had to send one teacher home first thing in the morning — a Muslim teacher … Everybody else? Everybody else was just exhausted … I had two other teachers by midday who said that they had migraines. I had two people not show up.”
That’s not even the worst part. Her students had been following the presidential election closely alongside their own student council races. The overwhelming majority of her students are children of color who opposed Trump’s candidacy. But when the results came in, a shift occurred: “Students started to target each other by their race. Our Muslim students really started to get targeted.”
That’s critical. It’s something more than the normal disappointment at the end of an election. Across the country, the triumph of Trump’s vitriol has traumatized vulnerable kids who recognize themselves in the villains he’s promised to target. Meanwhile, it’s taught others that there is safety — and even success — to be found in attacking others who are different.
“Teachers were reporting that kids said things like, ‘You’re gonna get kicked out of the country,’ ” she told me. “A lot of kids were emotional for their Mexican friends. When [classes] did their morning meetings, a lot of kids were crying because they were worried that their friends were going to be forced to move.”
These students aren’t simply unhappy at the country’s choice of president. After months of hearing that their religion has no place in the United States, or that their parents’ country of origin is a breeding ground for terrorism, or that their cultural heritage is unwelcome here, they are justifiably terrorized to see those invectives validated at the ballot box.
So I asked other friends working with children. A Louisiana teacher confirmed that “the [election] results further a sense of disenfranchisement and disengagement” among his kids. These are students, he wrote, “who have already been systemically oppressed. In other words — this isn’t super-surprising for my high school students who have already felt hopeless based on how systems in their lives have already made them feel voiceless and powerless.”
This is why — and how — Trump’s atypical rhetoric matters for the health of American democracy writ large.
Successful democracies are much more than the mechanics of regular elections, universal suffrage and majority rule. Democracy is embodied by formal institutions, yes, but these rest upon organically developed patterns of behavior. French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, who closely studied American life, called them “mœurs,” usually translated as “mores” — the “habits of the heart” that shape how Americans go about living in their communities.
For elections to remain free and fair, voters need to be able to trust that being on the losing side won’t imperil their safety. They need to know that transitions will be peaceful, that political majorities won’t engage in vindictive action against members of the opposing minority.
Democracies need that stable, predictable rule of law. This is why democracy does not flourish without civil rights protections, which protect diverse, plural societies from collapsing into sectarian infighting. These protections ensure that everyone feels safe and valued in a democratic community.
These norms matter so much that healthy democracies develop unwritten rules of politics to guard the way we talk about them. As immoderate as campaigns can get, we generally insist that they pay deference to the value of the process itself. That’s why critiques of the legitimacy of elections are justifiably out of bounds.
The news from our schools suggests that Donald Trump’s attacks on Islam, his bigotry toward refugees, his misogynistic treatment of women and his general embrace of ethnic nationalism have significantly eroded those civic baselines.
In a very short period of time, he and his supporters have taught a generation of children that American politics rewards those who persecute the weak. He taught them that violent threats can be part of the electoral process. Finally, he taught them that losing an election leads to more than sadness — it results in humiliation and real-life insecurity. Altogether, he taught them to fear democratic elections.
In other words, he taught them to respond to opposition and disappointment like my kindergartner.
Unfortunately, it takes time to build — let alone rebuild — trust in the promise of American democracy. It will take more than a short aside in a television interview, for instance. After more than a year of furious attacks from Trump and his supporters, a simple “Stop it” from the president-elect will not suffice. A teacher in Massachusetts shared her students’ written responses to the election with me: “I really hope nothing happens to my family and my life,” wrote one. “[I] don’t want this guy to do stuff to us.”
How do kids unlearn this sort of lesson? How do they discover that their country does, in fact, still want them to be contributing members of the community? Even harder, how do they do so when Trump’s threats are echoed in their schools?
Since the advent of universal public education in the United States, schools have been a — if not the — primary venue for training and raising up citizens. They’re where we learn what it means to participate in our communities’ — and the country’s — shared life.
Here’s how it’s supposed to work. In a short 1937 essay, “Education and Social Change,” American philosopher John Dewey argued that American education was always about preparing students to live together democratically. He explained just what that would take:
Democracy … means voluntary choice, based on an intelligence that is the outcome of free association and communication with others. It means a way of living together in which mutual and free consultation rule instead of force, and in which cooperation instead of brutal competition is the law of life; a social order in which all the forces that make for friendship, beauty, and knowledge are cherished in order that each individual may become what he, and he alone, is capable of becoming.
That’s a meaningful vision for American schools. It’s always a difficult job, especially in light of our education system’s persistent inequities. But it becomes an impossible task when schools are embedded in a society that threatens some students’ right to participate in our “way of living together.”
So now, we are drifting. In many ways, the 2016 presidential election has been a test to see how much abuse our democracy can absorb without collapsing. Dewey was aware of the danger of believing that democracy was self-sustaining:
We have taken democracy for granted; we have thought and acted as if our forefathers had founded it once for all. We have forgotten that it has to be enacted anew in every generation, in every year and day, in the living relations of person to person in all social forms and institutions.
This is the question of the moment. Is Trump’s victory a single, remediable crisis? Is it a catastrophe that marks the beginning of the end of American democracy? Or, finally, is it symptomatic of deeper undemocratic currents that are already too strong for us to defeat?
I don’t know the answer. Neither do you. For now, the question is how long we’re going to let Donald Trump and his supporters continue to traumatize our children. We can’t begin rebuilding the key principles of our democracy — we can’t make it great again — if we don’t first undo that damage.
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