Teaching in the Age of Trump by Mike Jacobsen

How the deviance of the Donald could lead to the downfall of Democracy…if Americans do not act

It started less than 24 hours, less than 1 day, after Donald Trump was elected president November 8, 2016. It was then that I officially heard (although I am sure it had probably been going on long before outside of my earshot) the first student taking Trump’s cue of vilifying immigrants by shouting, “Trump! Trump!” in another students’ face and then saying that the other student (who is an American citizen but has Hispanic heritage) should, “Go back to where she came from,” and “was probably an illegal anyway.” From outright, overt racism to covert, mumblings under students’ breaths the influence of Donald Trump on our nation’s youth is already being seen, felt, and heard and, I fear, could reverberate for decades on our democracy. So what must be done? Is it really so bad? Has our country not been through worse over the course of history? I will attempt to answer these pressing questions for our time below.
From Trump’s first comments on Mexicans, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” to making fun of a disabled reporter, to denigrating prisoner of war, U.S. Senator, and fellow Republican John McCain, to his comments on women, Trump has been tearing down the norms of previous political discourse and human decency (and these are just a few of the many examples before he was elected, let alone what has gone on after he has taken over the presidency). Trump typically engages others using three techniques which are deeply dangerous if the students of today consider these appropriate debate tactics and adopt them going forward. These include ad hominem (personal) attacks (“Crooked Hillary,” “Low Energy Jeb,” “Little Marco” etc.), generalities (speaking at the most shallow level on an issue), and superlatives (I’m the best, you’re the worst, etc.). Now Trump is certainly not the first politician to use these techniques in an attempt to mask insecurities or deficiencies but he does take these tactics to new levels of democracy-damaging ridiculousness. These three tactics do not allow for a full discussion and debate of the issues that matter most to the future of the United States and the further norming of these will do real damage to the future of this country.
Another real world example of this was in November of 2017 when my students wanted to have a mock election in our government class. I thought long and hard about allowing the use of these three tactics since, after all, if our own President was allowed to use them successfully why shouldn’t the students? However, reason and sanity crept back into my thought process and I realized we must teach how the world should be, not how it is. I decided to work the decision into class by putting it to a vote modeling how a bill becomes a law with the students acting as Congress and myself as President. I naively thought that a supermajority of students would not want to allow these things and, even if passed, I could veto the measure as President. However, it quickly became apparent that not just a majority or veto-busting supermajority, but more than 80% of the students wanted to allow personal attacks, generalities, and superlatives in their mock elections. I, unfortunately, had to turn my exercise in democracy into an exercise in dictatorship as I overruled their supermajority and said if they wanted to have a mock election they could not engage in these three tactics, less they wanted to fail the project altogether. Unfortunately, the real world of politics does not work this way with a supposed all-knowing teacher on high dictating what should and should not be allowed. But collectively the American people still have a say in this through speaking out, demonstrating, and, most importantly, voting! It should also be asked would students before Trump have wanted to do these things? My opinion is probably, but my bet is not in those extremely high numbers and with less vitriol for their potential opponents.
Despite the damage being caused and horrible precedents being set for students in this day and age our country, I believe, has been through worse. Just in the last 50 years we have been through and endured the Watergate scandal, Iran-Contra, Whitewater, and WMD’s (or lack thereof). We are currently going through the “Russian Collusion” scandal with Special Counsel Robert Mueller working diligently to get to the bottom of “who knew what and when,” and I believe will before another “Saturday Night Massacre” a la Watergate. Going back over 150 years we had Senator Charles Sumner beaten with a cane by Representative Preston Brooks in the Senate chambers. And over our almost 250 year history we have been involved in numerous military conflicts leading to a tremendous loss of life.
However, we should not diminish the trials and tribulations that we are now undergoing and the resolve it will take to overcome them. It is great as a teacher to see that students are leading the charge (and have always led the charge for change) especially with the “March for Our Lives” movement. Students while lacking experience make up for it with exceeding knowledge on the most important issues of our day and an energy and enthusiasm that is tough to match. Everyday Americans, including students, exercising their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, peacefully protesting, and petitioning their government, in addition to a healthy, strong, and relentless free press are what will be needed to make sure our democracy is not ripped apart by the tumult of Trump.

Mike Jacobsen is a 9-12 Social Science teacher at Keota High School in Keota, Iowa. He is an avid follower, teacher, and student of politics, history, geography, economics, sociology and psychology. He welcomes comments at jacobsenmike84@gmail.com.

Mike is a former student of mine so I’m very happy that he allowed his commentary to be printed on this page. The views are entirely his although I agree with about everything he says.