Williams: Trump and Schools — and the Lasting Damage to How Kids View Democracy
On the morning following Election Day, around 5:45 a.m., my children entered my room with inquiries. They had gone to bed after only an hour of coverage, eagerly anticipating the news that Hillary Clinton had triumphed, not just in Vermont, but in the entire election. They hoped that the threats Donald Trump had made against their immigrant friends would finally come to an end.
Through weary eyes, my wife and I stayed awake all night witnessing the unbelievable become a reality. We explained the actual outcome of the election to our children as gently as possible, though the conversation was arduous, not only because of the tears shed. The most distressing part was elucidating how democracy functions in order to protect the rights of a president-elect who has caused significant harm to the democratic system.
One of my kids sobbed, "No! He cheated! He’s awful! Someone should go to the White House and put Donald Trump in jail!"
Take a moment to read those lines carefully. Setting aside the vocabulary suited for kindergarten, they are Trump’s own words. They challenge the fundamental fairness of the election and reject its results. They propose force as a solution to political frustration.
Certainly, we have heard numerous concerns about how Trump’s fiery, authoritative rhetoric jeopardizes democratic principles, but politicians often say things that are rash and provocative. Each time Trump questioned the electoral process, undermined expectations for a peaceful transfer of power, and introduced violence into public discourse, the resulting outrage lasted only a few news cycles. They were mere words.
However, as I defended the legitimacy of Trump’s election on grounds that Trump himself denies, I realized something: this is what damage to democracy truly looks like. When children internalize his attacks on sacred American principles, the consequences may extend far beyond our current catastrophe.
As it turned out, my children were not the only ones affected. On Wednesday, teachers at our school sent messages to parents, urging them to help their families discuss the election results. They implored us to explain how elections operate and, above all, to reassure the children of their safety. In our primarily Hispanic school, the underlying concerns in the note were as noticeable as the community’s anxieties.
Then, reports started pouring in from schools across the nation. As traumatizing as the election was at our school, it paled in comparison to these accounts. After a few initial incidents of hate crimes, harassment, and violence, my colleagues at Million established a platform to document them all. Currently, the list encompasses a range of swastikas, death threats, racial slurs, and Trump campaign vernacular.
What if this became our new normal? While my wife and I struggled through an unrelenting week of parenting, I reached out to my friend, a principal in New York City who is one of the most exceptional and devoted educators I know. When I asked if Trump’s election had upset her students, she paused.
"I have never wanted a different job so badly," she finally responded.
It was a distressing and sobering conversation. She described a community already under immense pressure, now consumed by fear. "Of course, I can say, ‘As long as you are in this school building, you are safe’… but children are not naive, and they know the reality."
The situation was not helped by the fact that her teachers are human. Like me, many struggled to manage their own anxieties while simultaneously providing comfort to their students. "I had to send one teacher home first thing in the morning—a Muslim teacher… Everyone else? Everyone else was simply exhausted… By midday, I had two other teachers complain of migraines. Two people didn’t even show up."
But that is not even the worst part. Her students had followed the presidential election closely, alongside their own student council races. The overwhelming majority of her students are children of color who opposed Trump’s candidacy. However, when the results were announced, a shift occurred: "Students started targeting each other based on their race. Our Muslim students became prime targets."
This is critical. It goes beyond mere disappointment at the end of an election. Throughout the country, the triumph of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric has traumatized vulnerable children who see themselves as the targets of his promises. Moreover, it has taught others that safety, and even success, can be found in attacking those who are different.
These students are not merely dissatisfied with the president chosen for the country. After being consistently exposed to the notion that their religion has no place in the United States, their parents’ country of origin is a breeding ground for terrorism, or that their cultural heritage is unwelcome here, it is understandable that they feel frightened to witness these insults being validated through the election process.
To gain more insight into this matter, I reached out to other friends who work with children. A teacher from Louisiana confirmed that the election results further contribute to a sense of disenfranchisement and disengagement among his students. He explained that these are students who have already faced systemic oppression. In other words, this is not particularly surprising for high school students who have already felt hopeless due to the systems in their lives that have made them feel voiceless and powerless.
This is precisely why President Trump’s unique style of rhetoric has significant implications for the overall health of American democracy.
Successful democracies encompass more than just the mechanics of regular elections, universal suffrage, and majority rule. Democracy is embodied not only by formal institutions but also by the organic patterns of behavior that develop within a society. French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, who deeply studied American life, referred to these patterns as "mœurs," which can be translated as "mores" or the "habits of the heart" that shape how Americans live in their communities.
For elections to maintain their freedom and fairness, voters need to have trust that being on the losing side will not jeopardize their safety. They need assurance that transitions will be peaceful and that political majorities will not engage in vindictive actions against members of the opposing minority.
To flourish, democracies require stable and predictable rule of law. This is why civil rights protections are crucial, as they safeguard diverse and plural societies from descending into sectarian conflict. These protections ensure that everyone feels secure and valued within a democratic community.
These norms hold such importance that healthy democracies establish unwritten rules of politics to protect the way we discuss them. Despite the intensity of campaigns, it is generally expected that they demonstrate deference towards the value of the democratic process itself. Therefore, critiques questioning the legitimacy of elections are rightfully considered unacceptable.
The concerning reports we receive from schools indicate that Donald Trump’s defamation of Islam, his bigotry towards refugees, his misogynistic treatment of women, and his overall embrace of ethnic nationalism have significantly eroded these civic standards.
In a short span of time, both he and his supporters have taught a generation of children that American politics rewards those who persecute the vulnerable. They have taught them that violent threats can be included in the electoral process. Ultimately, they have taught them that losing an election results in more than just sadness – it leads to humiliation and real-life insecurity. These lessons have instilled a fear of democratic elections in them.
In other words, they have taught them to respond to opposition and disappointment in the same manner as my kindergartner.
Regrettably, rebuilding trust in the promise of American democracy takes time and effort. It cannot be achieved through a simple remark in a television interview. After enduring over a year of relentless attacks from Trump and his supporters, a mere "Stop it" from the president-elect will not suffice. A teacher from Massachusetts shared with me her students’ written responses to the election: "I really hope nothing happens to my family and my life," wrote one of them. "[I] don’t want this guy to do things to us."
How can children unlearn such lessons? How can they discover that their country still wants them to be contributing members of the community? Moreover, how can they do this when Trump’s threats find echoes within their schools?
Since the establishment of universal public education in the United States, schools have been, if not the primary place, where citizens are trained and nurtured. They are the institutions where we learn what it means to participate in our communities’ shared life, as well as in the broader life of the country.
This is how it is meant to function. In a concise essay from 1937 titled "Education and Social Change," American philosopher John Dewey argued that American education has always aimed to prepare students to coexist democratically. He outlined the necessary components of such an education:
Democracy entails voluntary choice, based on an intelligence that develops from free association and communication with others. It signifies a way of living together in which decisions are made through mutual and free consultation, rather than through force, and where cooperation, rather than cutthroat competition, forms the basis of our societal interactions. It is a social order in which all factors that foster friendship, beauty, and knowledge are cherished, allowing each individual to fulfill their own unique potential.
Currently, we find ourselves adrift. The 2016 presidential election has put our democracy to the test, pushing its limits and revealing its vulnerabilities. Similar to Dewey’s understanding, we have taken democracy for granted, assuming it was established once and for all by our forefathers. However, we must remember that democracy needs to be constantly reinforced and upheld in each generation, year, and day, in every interpersonal relationship and all social structures.
The pressing question now is whether Trump’s victory is a singular crisis that can be addressed and mitigated, or if it signifies the beginning of the end for American democracy. Alternatively, is it indicative of underlying undemocratic forces that have grown too powerful for us to overcome?
The answer to these questions eludes us. We cannot definitively say. At this moment, what we should be asking ourselves is how much longer we are willing to let Donald Trump and his supporters traumatize our children. If we want to rebuild the fundamental principles of our democracy and restore its greatness, we must first undo the damage they have caused.