Strategies For Evaluating The Trump Presidency In A High School Classroom

President Trump with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte on Sunday. Duterte is widely accused of human rights abuses includ
President Trump with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte on Sunday. Duterte is widely accused of human rights abuses including murders while Trump has praised him and invited him to visit the Oval Office.

At recent meetings a number of social studies teachers asked me for suggestions on how to evaluate, with their high school students, Year 1 since the election of Donald Trump. This is especially important because some of their students will be eligible to vote in 2018 and most will be voters in the 2020 presidential election.

Most of the teachers I work with are outraged at political developments in the United States. Many agree with New York Times op-ed writer Michelle Goldberg who recently compared Trump’s election to the Biblical Apocalypse and who worries that democracy in the United States may be fatally damaged. But they also believe that their professional responsibility is to involve students in a thoughtful and non-partisan evaluation of Trump and Republican ideas, proposals, and “accomplishments.”

Some see hope in the results of Election 2017 with voters choosing Democratic governors in New Jersey and Virginia. But as Nate Cohn wrote in the Times “The Upshot,” in Virginia especially, “The overwhelming Democratic strength in well-educated areas did not cross the political divides of the 2016 election into white working-class areas.” He felt demographic analysis of the vote did not bode well for Democratic Party prospects in 2018 Congressional elections.

I recommend two classroom strategies for evaluating Year 1. One involves a “Face-Off” or simulated debate between pro- and anti-Trump “spokespeople.” The other is to have students select particular current issues, research competing positions, and write an op-ed piece explaining their own point of view supported by evidence. The strategies can be combined and after student complete their research and essay they can stage their own “Face-Off” in class.

An initial “Face-Off” between a left-leaning Democrat and a right-leaning Republican might just reinforce partisan positions. I think a more effective approach at this time is a “Face-Off’ between pro- and anti-Trump conservatives. My suggestion is an activity sheet that features quotes from Jeff Flake and Steve Bannon. Students can use the Flake-Bannon “Face-Off” to help identify the issues with the Trump presidency and confronting the United States that they want to research.

Teachers often ask if it is advisable for them to present their own views during a “Face-Off” or other classroom discussion. As a general rule, if a teacher’s views introduce students to ideas they would not ordinarily consider, I think it is important that they be included. If they would close discussion down, they should be held back. It is important for teachers, where possible, to model for students what it means to have a reasoned, respectful, position supported by evidence.

I do not to play “Devil’s Advocate,” presenting a position I do not agree with as if it were my own. Instead I look for material that offers that perspective for students to examine. An excellent article to review before the Face-Off is David French’s op-ed piece on how Trump supporters are responding to the Mueller investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 Presidential election. French, a senior commentator for the conservative magazine National Review, said they dismiss most criticism of Trump either as “fake news”” or because the “Democrats are worse.” Writing from the “right,” French sees this attitude as a major threat to social cohesion in the United States and Christian values. “The desire to think the best of Mr. Trump combined with the deep distaste for Democrats grants extraordinary power to two phrases: ‘fake news’ and ‘the other side is worse.’ ‘Fake news’ erects a shield of disbelief against the worst allegations and allows a person to believe that Mr. Trump is better than he is.”

Face-Off on the Trump Presidency: Flake v. Bannon

Steve Bannon (L) and Jeff Flake (R)
Steve Bannon (L) and Jeff Flake (R)

Steve Bannon (age 63) is a former an American media executive and investment banker. During the 2016 presidential campaign and the first seven months of the Trump Presidency, Bannon was Donald Trump’s chief political strategist and influenced Presidential positions and important decisions. Before working with Donald Trump, Bannon was a lead figure at Breibart News, a website he describes as a “platform for the alt-right” in the United States. Bannon’s opinions on Donald Trump and the Trump presidency are assembled from a series of interviews. In the first quote, Bannon discusses why he and Donald Trump work together well. The second quote is about foreign policy. The Third quote discusses his and Trump’s populism.

A) I’m a street fighter... I think that’s why Donald Trump and I get along so well. Donald Trump’s a fighter. Great counter puncher. Great counter puncher. He’s a fighter. ... I’m going to be his wing man outside for the entire time, to ... make sure his enemies know that there’s no free shot on goal ... The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

B) “The geniuses in the foreign policy elite, what they left on President Trump, is essentially the Bay of Pigs in Venezuela, the Cuban missile crisis in Korea, and the Vietnam War in Afghanistan, all at one time. President Trump didn’t do this. The deplorables that voted for President Trump didn’t do this. This is the geniuses of both political parties.”

C) “I’m a huge believer in the common sense and decency and judgment of what we call the common man. We were in Fairhope, Alabama, a few weeks ago for Judge Moore in an old barn with a sawdust floor. And I said at the time, I would take the first 100 people that came to that rally than the top 100 partners at Goldman Sachs. I want to reiterate that I would take the top 100 to form our foreign policy than the first 100 at [the World Economic Forum in] Davos.”

Senator Jeff Flake (age 54) is an Arizona Republican who served in the House of Representatives and was then elected to the United States Senate. He plans to retire from the Senate in 2018 rather than seek reelection. Flake is author of Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle. The quotes are taken from a speech to the United States Senate where he explained why he was not running for reelection.

A) “Nine months of this administration is enough for us to stop pretending that this is somehow normal, and that we are on the verge of some sort of pivot to governing, to stability. Nine months is more than enough for us to say, loudly and clearly: Enough... We can no longer remain silent, merely observing this train wreck, passively, as if waiting for someone else to do something. The longer we wait, the greater the damage, the harsher the judgment of history.”

B) “How many more disgraceful public feuds with Gold Star families can we witness in silence before we ourselves are disgraced? How many more times will we see moral ambiguity in the face of shocking bigotry and shrug it off? How many more childish insults do we need to see hurled at a hostile foreign power before we acknowledge the senseless danger of it?”

C) “I have been so worried about the state of our disunion that I recently wrote a book called ‘Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.’ I meant for the book to be a defense of principle at a time when principle is in a state of collapse. In it, I traced the transformation of my party from a party of ideas to a party in thrall to a charismatic figure peddling empty populist slogans.”

Questions to Consider

1) Steve Bannon admires Donald Trump’s combative style and populists appeal? Do you agree with his description of President Trump? Explain. In your opinion, are these good qualities for a President? Explain.

2) Jeff Flake describes the Trump Presidency as a “train wreck” and calls on people of goodwill to no longer remain silent. Do you agree with his concerns about the present and future of the United States? Explain.

Summary Question: Has Donald Trump unleashed a populist revolution that will restore the United States to prosperity and world leadership, or, are Donald Trump and his followers threats to constitutional government and global stability? Explain which view is closer to your own and why. Support your position with evidence as much as possible.

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