Social Studies Opinion

Processing the Triumph of Trump

By Dave Powell — November 10, 2016 8 min read
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Well, folks, I’ve completed most of my journey through DABDA. No, that’s not some secretive big government initiative designed to reprogram me. Those are the stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Really, I’m through DABD. Acceptance seems unlikely to happen any time soon, if ever.

Why am I grieving? It’s not just because my preferred candidate lost the presidential election on Tuesday. We all lost, even many of the people who think they won. Let’s just be clear about that. I’m as worried for everyone else as I am for myself. I have a lot of advantages in this life, not the least of which are that I’m white and a man. I don’t think anyone in this new administration is coming for me.

I do, however, fear that something is coming for us.

I see a lot of people out there right now trying to justify their votes for Trump and it leaves me scratching my head. Oh, but Hillary was crooked, they say. She had no integrity. She was a liar. She disparaged people as “deplorable.” She was corrupt. It seems not to bother them that Trump is all of these things and more, and that his sins were of an order of magnitude so far removed from the perceived sins of Clinton that it’s laughable to even consider them at the same time. Remember this about Trump: he questioned the integrity of a judge because of where the judge’s parents were born, simply because the judge wouldn’t dismiss a lawsuit against him. He branded a whole class of people as rapists, then was caught bragging about his own career as a serial assaulter of women. He lied repeatedly—almost incessantly—and without compunction, and openly courted the votes of hate groups and white supremacists. There is simply no way to extract Trump from the hate and divisiveness he both cultivated and encouraged during the campaign, and no good reason to do it either.

The smarter Trump voters understand that their narrative has been handed to them on a silver platter by the supposedly liberal media establishment. Working class whites were screaming at us throughout the entire election, we’re told, and we just refused to hear them. They’re not necessarily racists, we’re told; they’re just angry about being left behind by the elites crafting a global economy on their backs. I have a feeling many of these people will be shocked when they realize that the politicians they just sent back to Washington with their new president believe that the way to “protect” social security is to privatize it, and the way to “protect” your right to health care is to take it away from you without a plan for replacing it, and the way to “protect” your freedom is to take it away from someone else. Thanks to these voters we all have to reckon with that.

But the people who really have bothered me in the past couple of days are the ones who say: I survived Obama, so you can survive Trump. The false equivalence here is bad enough—Obama is a decent family man who obviously cares about our institutions and actually tried hard to work with Republicans in spite of the implacable wall of resistance they threw up in front of him, while Trump seems to care more about himself than anyone else, has no experience in government, is proud of his anti-intellectualism, and openly calls our experiment in democracy a failure. Worse, though, is the suggestion that our institutions are strong enough to survive anything, even Trump. Trump’s warpath to the White House proves abundantly that they are not. At many steps along the way healthy democratic institutions would have at least forced Trump to modulate his rhetoric (which was horrifying), if not stopped him outright. They never did.

All of this tells me a couple of things. One is that Trump was uniquely positioned to take advantage of profound and rapid social and technological change, and that he didn’t even have to invent a new playbook to do it. He cribbed right from the last period of great cultural change in the West. Students of history will remember the turn of the 20th century as a period of intense social, political, and economic dislocation that eventually led to two world wars. Even if you haven’t studied history you probably know how that turned out. What you may not understand is that the world hasn’t always been as safe and secure as it has been for most of us throughout most of our lifetimes. It has been this way because of agreements forged in the post-war world (think NATO, a group Trump says he wants to disband) and because people in our government were largely able to come to consensus when they needed to protect our broadly shared interests. No, not everyone’s interests were protected (those people stand to suffer the most under Trump, it appears), but in the past half century we have come a long way toward addressing many of those inequities. Far enough, in fact, to incite a “white-lash,” as Van Jones called it on CNN the other night. We’d better get a handle on the “new media” sooner rather than later or things will deteriorate even more quickly.

* * *

That leads me to the second lesson I take from all of this, which is that there is, in fact, an educational failure happening right now, but it’s probably not the one you think it is. To the extent that he even has ideas about education, Trump mostly just parrots the standard lines handed to him by his fellow Republicans: more school choice, less Common Core, no more federal interference with “local control” in our schools. Here’s the thing about that: more choice for whom? School choice, as it exists now, is largely a prerogative of more affluent Americans, not a real chance to choose better schools, and it never will be as long as school choice really functions as the ability to choose who your kids go to school with, not what they actually learn there. In the absence of clear standards we leave that up to chance. I’ll believe that people like Trump really support school choice when they come out in support of busing kids out of inner cities to the high quality suburban schools that surround them. Until then, it’s all just politics.

And federal involvement in education? To the extent that the federal government is involved, we should remember that it promotes equity via grants made in support of programs like Title I. Obama ran an activist Education Department, no doubt about it, and I believe he overreached. But, for the last time, Obama did not create Common Core, let alone force it on schools. He trusted “data” too much and failed to recognize the damage done to the nation’s educational psyche by No Child Left Behind.

He extended the playing field bequeathed to him by George W. Bush, our last self-described “Education President,” and, like Bush, he waded into a policy area that seems easy to apprehend as an outsider but is actually enormously challenging to understand. I hated No Child Left Behind, and still do. But behind the obsession with measurement and testing were the old financial supports for underprivileged students that are the cornerstone of federal influence in our schools. At least the law’s heart was in the right place, even if it seemed to lack a brain.

So Trump wants to roll all that back. What I see emerging is an education policy that favors provincialism over open-mindedness, pushes kids who need the most help back to the margins, continues to constrain the independence and professionalism of teachers (make no mistake about it: conservatives may want to destroy Common Core but they have no intention of letting teachers decide what and how to teach), and brings yet another round of austerity budgeting to public education. If the promise is to support school choice while also lowering everyone’s taxes it’s hard for me to see how teacher salaries improve, how public school construction and maintenance continues, and how real innovation in education can be supported.

I want to believe that if more Americans understood what we just did on Tuesday we’d be doing everything we could right now to undo it. But there’s a willful ignorance in this country that is celebrated as “common sense,” and it encourages people to invest more time looking for ways to support the claims they already believe—no matter how specious those claims may be—instead of educating themselves about things they do not know. Many commentators have already said that we’re in this fix because schools have failed to provide the civic education our democracy depends on. That’s true, but not for the reasons they usually give. Many of those critics want a curriculum that narrows and limits what can be taught by specifying exactly what teachers can and cannot do. I don’t doubt that most Trump voters have no idea of the damage they’ve wrought, but their ignorance isn’t rooted only in misunderstanding of how government works. It’s rooted also in an inability to see that we’ve been had by people who recognize that destroying public spaces creates precisely the kind of ignorance that is the source of their power. Not knowing how to argue constructively with others or look for contradictory evidence or challenge your own assumptions is political suicide for every voter. We can fix it if we want to.

The central lesson of this election is that the people who will be joining Trump in Washington next year to run a unified Republican government will stop at nothing to win. They accepted Trump’s outrageousness even as they denounced it, and they certainly did nothing to stop it. They have discouraged others—including teachers—from bringing politics to their work even as they actively and maliciously politicized everything. When everything is political, see, it’s easier to keep people divided. It’s just that simple. If we want to do something about it we’re going to have to all be willing to be more politically engaged—in a real and true and committed sense—than most of us are used to. We’re going to have to have uncomfortable conversations. We’re going to have to push past ignorance to get to the truth. We’re going to have to engage in ways that take us outside of our comfort zones.

In short, we have to double down on democracy. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that democracy and populism are the same thing. They’re not. One lifts up minority voices and protects them; the other crushes dissent under the guise of “majority rule.” If we do not act we cannot change, at least not in the ways we need to. Let’s all commit—all of us, even those of us who voted for Trump because they thought he represented change—to building a better society by protecting the people who need our help the most. As George Counts once said, “A society lacking leadership, as ours does, might even accept the guidance of teachers.” Let’s all be teachers and let’s get out there and teach.

The opinions expressed in The K-12 Contrarian are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.