Jessica Lander, a teacher at a Boston-area high school and a good friend, published an essay in these pages the evening of Donald Trump’s victory that conveyed with subtle eloquence the anguish and disappointment millions of Americans woke up to on post-election morning. Her 120 or so students come from more than 30 countries, wear skins of multiple colors, embrace diverse religions, cultures, and sexual preferences. She found them afraid in the face of Trump’s triumph, fearful that they would be ostracized from the American dream or, worse, booted with their families out of the country.
Jessica raised exactly the right question: What can I tell my students?
In my view the answer is, plenty. True enough, during the campaign Trump often spoke like a vile and vicious lout and his election has emboldened hatemongers to bully many minority students. Nevertheless, his victory offers a perfect teaching moment, especially in a history class.
Here are some facts worth emphasizing:
A majority of voters rejected Trump and all he stands for. The Constitution is still in place, and so is the system of checks and balances.
Jessica, you can help your students understand Trump’s support in its full complexity. Trump polled about 62 million votes, only 46.7 percent of the voting electorate. Some large fraction of his supporters did not vote for racism, xenophobia, or misogyny. Poll estimates have it that he drew about 20 percent of the Latino vote and roughly 53 percent of the vote of white women.
Many of his supporters were simply angered by Hillary Clinton. I voted for her, but while she would have made a good or possibly even a great president, she was a far from perfect candidate (think only of the inept handling of the emails, the refusal to come clean about the Goldman Sachs speeches, the unseemly permeability between donations by foreigners to the Clinton Foundation and the apparent access they got to the State Department.)
Trust or lack of it aside, a large number of Trump voters have been hurting economically for years and live in small cities and rural towns that have been wasting away. So far as I can tell, Trump hasn’t a clue as to how he will restore their lives and communities; his promises to bring back their jobs strike me as empty. But he tapped a chord in these Americans the force of which Hillary Clinton failed to recognize, or recognized inadequately. Her campaign largely declined to seek the support of the white, blue-collar voters and rural discards whom Bill Clinton had courted and cared about so effectively. In fact, she insulted them with the thoughtless crack about half of them belonging in “a basket of deplorables.” So they turned to Trump or were reinforced in their commitment to him.
I could go on about all the conventional conservative reasons – a hostility to regulation, a hunger for lower taxes ― that swelled Trump’s vote. Suffice it to say that they have little if anything to do with racism, xenophobia, and sexism. Even if he offered no realistic plans, or any plans, for dealing with the Forgotten Man, as he collectively called them, borrowing Franklin Roosevelt’s phrase from the 1932 campaign, he gave voice to their seething resentments. As Salena Zito put it astutely in The Atlantic, “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”
To be sure, Trump’s campaign, especially its racism and xenophobia, combined with his arousal of the Forgotten Man echoes the rhetorical trappings of fascism. But we still have the Constitution, the courts, the press, and the Congress to counter any such tendencies. Even though Republicans control the House and the Senate, they are not monolithic. So another lesson for your students, Jessica, is how imperative it is that they help protect those bulwarks.
I think it would also be helpful to tell the students that the forces that put Trump in the White House have instructive precedents in our history ― moments when economic distress for some melded with the xenophobic racism of others to produce outcomes that tarnished the American dream. A dramatic and, for a time, seriously consequential case in point was the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which unashamedly discriminated against would-be immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. The run-up to it was marked by a vicious racism that targeted Italians, Poles, Jews, and other groups from that region, fear of Bolshevik radical terrorism, and the apprehensions of organized native labor that continuing to allow immigrants to flood into the country would reduce jobs and wages. A major supporter of the Act was the AFL. As for consequences: In the 1930s, the Act prevented the immigration of Jews seeking asylum from Hitler’s Europe, turning them away to perish in the Holocaust.
The most important thing you can tell your students, Jessica, is that we have worked through these upheavals before, and although the road forward was often rough we managed in the process to enlarge the reach of the American dream. How and why we did that would be a worthy topic for a history class. (You know the lesson plan: The immigrants and their children got educated, organized, pressed their interests, and integrated themselves into the political system. They allied with rural and native blue-collar workers to build the New Deal/Fair Deal coalition that established and sustained the welfare state until it began cracking apart in the late 1960s.)
We can work through this setback, too, if we understand what generated the upheaval, empathize with the legitimate grievances behind it, and seek to address them. You can tell your students, Jessica, that they have a crucial role to play in this cause – by turning away from fear, by getting educated, by organizing on behalf of their interests and beliefs, by engaging with the civic and political process, by remembering and seeking to ally with the Forgotten Man, by involving themselves in elections, and by voting when they become citizens.
What you can say to your students, Jessica, is that the future is theirs if they will face it with resolute eyes, savvy minds, knowledge of the tools available to them in this democracy, and a willingness to use them. You can assure them, too, that they have, and will continue to have, plenty of allies ― right now at least the 63-plus million people who voted for Hillary – all four-square behind their desire to secure places in the bright American sun.