President Donald J. Trump!
My mind reels, stomach churns and spirit despairs. I’m disoriented and confused, as are about half the country. I’ve only met one Trump supporter in the three months I’ve been in the United States; who are the other 59 million people who cast their ballots for him? What just happened? What comes next? And what does it mean for us educators?
It’s hard to see this election outcome as anything but a systemic failure of the democratic process. Hillary Clinton was not an ideal candidate, but Trump? Here’s part of the editors of non-partisan The Atlantic summary of his candidacy:
…has no record of public service and no qualifications for public office. His affect is that of an infomercial huckster; he traffics in conspiracy theories and racist invective; he is appallingly sexist; he is erratic, secretive, and xenophobic; he expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself. He is easily goaded, a poor quality for someone seeking control of America’s nuclear arsenal. He is an enemy of fact-based discourse…
I’d add to that list Trump’s fundamental lack of respect for democratic norms, perhaps best captured by the chilling exchange in the second presidential debate in which Trump threatened Clinton with ‘if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation’.
In response, Clinton noted that ‘it’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country’.
‘Because you’d be in jail’, Trump quipped, to audience applause.
Similarly, he’s encouraged violence at his rallies, questioned the integrity of a federal judge on account of his ethnic ancestry, advocated barring Muslims from entering the U.S., sought to undermine the legitimacy of the elections (when it appeared he was losing), and embraced torture ‘even if it doesn’t work’. There’s plenty more – see for example Andrew Sullivan’s essay on the dangers to democracy of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies.
So what happened? Recalling the Brexit vote, it appears that a combination of identity politics, economic insecurity, fear of foreigners, patriotic nostalgia, and a loss of faith in government led white working class voters to overwhelmingly support Trump. Voters wanted an ‘outsider’ who would ‘shake things up’; Hillary Clinton appeared as the ultimate insider and continuation of Obama. Trump’s name-calling and lies undoubtedly contributed to Clinton’s troubles. Also, I fear, sexism and racism.
But understanding the Trump phenomenon requires that we go beyond the specific demographics, attitudes, issues and campaign strategies to consider the root conditions that enabled such a fundamentally flawed candidacy to develop and thrive. I have in mind, first and foremost, the media environment that legitimated and even rewarded political behaviors that the pundits considered to be candidacy-destroying.
To help think about this media environment, and its educational implications, I recommend Neil Postman’s extraordinarily prescient book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, about how television shapes our political culture. Though published over thirty years ago – before cable, reality television, social media, or smartphones – the book’s relevance has only grown with age. Postman argues that television is better suited to entertain than inform, better at communicating images than arguments, and better at spectacle than deliberation. Moreover, since its (economic) success is measured in viewer ratings rather than their enlightenment, spectacle, images and entertainment dominate our television culture. Postman argues that one consequence of this cultural change is a change in our relationship to the truth:
If on television, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude. I suspect, for example, that the dishonor that now shrouds Richard Nixon results not from the fact that he lied but that on television he looked like a liar. Which, if true, should bring no comfort to anyone, not even veteran Nixon-haters. For the alternative possibilities are that one may look like a liar but be telling the truth; or even worse, look like a truth-teller but in fact be lying.
No matter that Trump out-lied Clinton at a rate of 67 to 9 in the first two debates; he lied confidently and unapologetically, all the while dragging ‘Crooked Hillary’ through the mud of outlandish, false accusations.
Trump, the veteran reality television star grasped that image is more important than ideas, and that drama sells. Consider, for example, the ‘you’d be in jail’ incident: as democratic politics, it was an appalling threat to abuse presidential powers; as dramatic spectacle, it was riveting. Moreover, it further cemented Trump’s image as the straight-talking, no-holds-barred boss from the boardroom of The Apprentice.
When Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death, U.S. television was controlled by the three networks. Now it is fragmented into hundreds of cable channels, which are amplified and echoed by innumerable social media accounts. One consequence of this fragmentation is that Democrats and Republicans are getting their news, ideas and images from different sources, further eroding the possibility of achieving a common truth, a common good, or a public conversation. I’m crushed today by the outcome of the election, terrified by the prospect of the Trump presidency, but I’m also aware that had Clinton performed two percentage points better in a handful of states the other half of the electorate would have been equally crushed and terrified. American democracy cannot survive that divide.
The quality of public discourse is a democratic problem, of course, but it is also an educational problem. Who we are and what we think is to a large extent shaped by the discourses we participate in and are exposed to – on the television no less than in the classroom. Our sense of what is true and right, and conversely what is crazy and outrageous, is at least partially affected by the combative and ugly discourse that pervades the televised public sphere.
Six weeks before the U.S. election I joined over 250 teachers at the Teaching About the 2016 Elections conference at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Many participants were concerned about how to respond to the hateful rhetoric to which their students were exposed while also maintaining a neutral, non-partisan stance. Moreover, they were particularly worried about the ‘Trump Effect‘: ‘an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color… [and] an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail’.
At the opening panel at the conference, Professor Gloria Ladson-Billings advised teachers to fill the void created by popular culture: to shift the focus from the cult of personality to deliberating the issues, from the presidential race to local and congressional elections, and from the here and now to international and historical understanding of the elections.
Ladson-Billings’ advice makes sense as a way of teaching in the heat of the elections, constructively and in a non-partisan manner. But addressing the radical problems of a dysfunctional public sphere and a deeply divided electorate requires more fundamental rethinking of the form and aims of education for democratic participation. Learning how to live democratically is facilitated by, in the words of the Cambridge Primary Review, helping ‘children to become active citizens by encouraging their full participation in decision-making within the classroom and school’. This includes bringing into the classroom controversial issues, in order to learn how to discuss them democratically: that is, respectfully, with people we disagree with, based on evidence and argument, and with a genuine openness to hear, consider, and try to address the others’ concerns. Furthermore, if Postman’s analysis is on target, pupils also need to learn to look critically at the media environment: to become accustomed to assessing the quality of claims, to develop awareness of how they’re influenced, and to go beyond the identification of the features of different genres (as is currently popular) to assess their advantages and limitations. I suggest these practices not as another supplement to an already crowded curriculum, but as principles for the teaching and learning of existing texts and topics.
Unfortunately, the urgent need for this democratic and critical educational agenda will likely grow under the Trump administration.
Adam Lefstein is Associate Professor of Education at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA. Find out more about his book Better than Best Practice at www.dialogicpedagogy.com