Trump Persuadables: My Evolving, More Pragmatic Worldview

 Introducing 2016 Republican Gubernatorial Nominee Bill Bryant to my students last month

Introducing 2016 Republican Gubernatorial Nominee Bill Bryant to my students last month

When I was young I believed in magical adults. I was taught or convinced myself that there was this circle of elite, highly-educated folks out there who knew what was going on in the world and had answers to all the complex issues. I was born at the twilight of the Carter presidency so my “discovering what is happening in the world years” were largely during the Reagan & HW Bush administrations. Admittedly, I was an odd kid; I remember revering folks like James Baker, a Republican presidential whisperer, who served in several administrations. I may not have agreed with folks like Baker on policies, but they were at least smarter than everyone I knew (or so I thought) and they had life figured out (or so I thought).

Adulthood, time, reality, the War in Iraq, the 2008 Housing Collapse, the response to Katrina, the general dysfunction of the Democratic Party, etc. have all helped to disabuse me of much of this. Moreover, over the past few years I’ve paneled and met with state school superintendents, Senators, Harvard educated fancy-folk, and a couple of billionaires. I’ve found that my mediocre high school GPA, community college attendance, and state university education often stand up well against theirs. I’ve shed my belief in the cabal of wise, magical adults. If you’re dorky enough to read this, then the answers we need to the societal questions we face are within you.

That said, I’m still an institutionalist. I believe in the power of the state and in the importance of having thoughtful folks in important roles in our society. The anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism of the Trump Moment repulse me. Throw-the-bums-out-ism may feel good, but when the national fever breaks, I think it’ll be clear: we’re better off with “statist bums” from the ideological mainstream of either party than “outsiders” who govern by cliche, white-ethno-nationalism, and authoritarian populism.

At times, I feel like I’m shifting into an early stage black Andy Rooney--I don’t think we read enough; I feel like we don’t learn lessons from history. Post-election, I’ve diversified my news line-up. I’ve made it a point to read the Sunday paper. I’ve discussed with my students the need for active rather than passive news consumption--seeking out thoughtful journalism rather than passively consuming what shows up on their timelines. Via my podcast I’m trying to have more thoughtful conversations about the interconnectedness of issues (economics, politics, education, journalism, etc.).

I have a lot of concerns about our collective future. I’m not one of those “Trump voters are all racists” or “if you voted for Trump, you’re an idiot” people. I think the vast, vast majority of Trump voters really, really hated Hillary Clinton and really, really like the idea of massive tax cuts (but not the consequences: debt and deep discretionary spending cuts). In this moment, we have to differentiate between “Trump Supporters” and “Trump Persuadables,” and folks like us have to talk to folks like them about our collective future. Oh man, twenty-five-year-old me hates thirty-seven-year-old me for writing that sentence.

To that end, I’m going on a conservative AM talk show later this month to talk about my teaching. I hosted the GOP Gubernatorial Nominee as a guest lecturer in my classroom, and I plan to have some Republican electeds on the Nerd Farmer Podcast in May. We need a more thoughtful and engaged citizenship. In this era of political polarization we need to intentionally cultivate difficult conversations across ideological lines. And people like twenty-five year-old me have to become comfortable making common cause with folks they don’t agree with on every issue.

I think too many of us are taking an “it’ll all work out” approach. I don’t buy that. There’s a non-zero probability we’re headed toward a dark, violent, less prosperous future. Recently, while discussing Russia’s democracy-in-name-only-surveillance-state, Yale Professor Timothy Snyder said that "Russia is a possible negative future for the United States.” If we don’t know, teach, and understand our history and safeguard our norms and institutions, regression becomes as likely an outcome as progress. This is how the Visigoths sacked Rome. We aren’t guaranteed a hyper-egalitarian, Star Trek Federation, techno-fabulous near-future. We have to earn that.

My Resolution to Talk Like I Teach

 Photo from Flip the Media

Photo from Flip the Media

I think New Year’s Resolutions are dumb. I thought about joining a gym for about 15 seconds on January 1, but quickly came to my senses. That said, one of the major “learnings” I am taking from 2016 is about the power of the language we use in teaching, politics, and policy. The terms we use, or allow others to use, establish the realm of possibility and the space for policy negotiation.

In my class, I decline to use the loaded political terms like “pro-life” and “pro-choice”. The people who support the death penalty, oppose even modest gun control laws, refuse to condemn excessive use of force by law enforcement, and cheerlead calls to bomb half the nations in South West Asia (I also teach them not to use the Euro-centric nomenclature Middle East) do not deserve to be called “pro-life”. Instead, we use the more accurate and neutral terms "supporters of abortion access” or “supporters of abortion restrictions”.

I think about this often when reading the news. Much of our political discourse happens in terms created by and to benefit those with power and wealth. We unblinkingly use the term “right-to-work” to describe laws designed specifically to weaken unions and their power to collectively bargain. These laws have led to the hollowing out of the middle class and have directly contributed to lower standards of living and wages among “economically anxious” workers in the Rust Belt--the same Rust Belt that Donald Trump swept in the election.

Arguably, the biggest failing of the Obama Administration was conceding to the GOP’s use of the term Obamacare, rather than the Affordable Care Act or ACA. The administration called it Obamacare, the media called in Obamacare, Democratic strategists called it Obamacare, and public approval for the program consistently hovered around 47%. A recent poll showed that approval for Kentucky’s implementation of the ACA is thirty points more popular than “Obamacare” among Kentuckians, even though they’re the exact same thing.

President Obama (unwittingly) allowed a program that provides healthcare to 20 million Americans to become a referendum on him. Now, GOP zeal about repealing the ACA is largely about handing him one final humiliating “L”. All this, even though the individual mandate was originally a Republican policy, even though the program is modeled largely on Massachusetts’ health care program, created by Republican Mitt Romney. They hate Obama, so they hate Obamacare… even if they’re on it. The administration should have seen that coming.

We have to get smarter about the words we choose and how we engage those we seek to persuade. When coastal, college educated, know-it-alls (points finger at self) traffic excessively in jargon we are talking over the heads of folks we need on our side and who share our interests and aspirations.

There are lessons to be learned from the classroom here, dear reader. One of the reasons I am an effective humanities teacher is because I convey complicated ideas in an easily digestible manner; I constantly introduce gestures, create analogies, explain metaphors from pop culture, and on a rare occasion break out a rap. Once understanding is established, I codeswitch to introduce the academic vocabulary for the concept. I teach freshmen about the different types of migration (chain, forced, asylum and labor) by giving historical examples and then assigning each a gesture. Simple language first, then the technical follows.

I plan to keep my classroom in mind this year when talking about education and tax policy. For example, Washington State has the most regressive tax system of any state in the nation. According to The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the poorest 20% of Washingtonians pay 16.8% of their annual income in taxes; for the wealthiest one percent of Washingtonians the number is 2.4%. This creates an unfair burden that harms already struggling low to moderate income families.

Every single person working in the Governor’s office and every member of the Washington State Legislature knows this is true, but for a host of reasons--overly wonky communication by advocates, a slew of corporate campaign spending by opponents, partisan opposition to "all things tax" by one party in the legislature--the sensible solution, one embraced at the federal level, and by 43 states--a progressive income tax is off the table and our schools suffer as a result.

This is at the core of the school funding issues we face in Washington State. But saying our taxes are “overly regressive” is just economic jargon to most. This needs to be put plainly: “If Washington State had Idaho’s tax system (and rates) our schools, mental health and transportation infrastructure would be much better funded.” Y’all, Idaho. This is my begrudging resolution this year--to plain-talk to folks about matters of education, justice and economics that impact my students and my community.

I thought about joining the gym this year, but I think this suits me better.

Trump: My Glass is Half-Empty

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If your Twitter handle begins with “Deplorable” this post probably isn’t for you. If you believe that Confederate iconography represents some mythical, noble, lost-cause heritage, rather than a treasonous, white-supremacist misadventure, you should press Ctrl+W. If you are willing to explain away the rise in racial and religious attacks, especially those targeting students, in the post-election period, please, for both of us, move along.

My parents came from Jim Crow Mississippi and Arkansas. I know the tales of their youth. I am reminded of these stories as I read the news today. The president-elect of the United States has stated his desire to deport the relatives of many of my students. In the post-election period, his supporters have suggested, because of their religion, registering many of my students in a national database. Before the election, the president-elect said that half of my students deserve to have their bodies violated, if it suits a powerful man’s whim. During a debate, the president-elect said to a quarter of my students, that the path to racial reconciliation in America was through “stop & frisk” and more aggressive law enforcement in black communities. This is opposite of progress.

This isn’t a partisan take. I have voted Republican before. I voted for two Republicans this fall. The Trump administration, his proposed policies, his juvenile temperament, all represent an existential threat to the America that I love—and that I served for six years.

I spent the last two weeks trying to get my head around election night. It fits the historical pattern, but it’s still disconcerting. Every major period of racial progress in America has begat a reactionary retrenchment: Reconstruction saw the rise of the Klan in the South; Johnson’s War on Poverty, Civil Rights Act, and Voting Rights Act preceded Nixon’s landslide victory via the Southern Strategy and dog whistles; now, the first black President, first black First Lady and first two black Attorneys General will be replaced by Donald, Melania, and Jeff Sessions respectively.

The nomination of Jeff Sessions is especially emblematic of the regression that the Trump Administration represents. In 1986, Sessions was nominated for the federal bench by President Reagan, but he was deemed too racist then to be confirmed by the Senate. In the interim, the voters of Alabama have elected him to the US Senate (several times) and he is now a confirmation vote away from becoming the chief law enforcement officer of the nation. I thought we were better than this.

I used my role as 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year to talk about uncomfortable truths and realities for students of color and students in poverty all over my state. The election hits even closer to home. Many of my students are deeply concerned: Will he deport my mother? My brother has ongoing health issues; will we lose our health care? Will he deny me the right to marry another woman? Will he make me register, since I am a Muslim? These are a few of the questions I have fielded over the last two weeks. Will he? Will he? Will he?

In my government class, we often talk about how the most consequential presidencies are the result of one party rule. Republican rule, Lincoln through Grant, led to three Constitutional Amendments (13-15). Democratic rule gave us The New Deal, Glass-Steagall, AFDC (welfare), and Social Security. Again, Democratic rule, under Johnson brought us the Civil Rights Era. We have handed to Donald J. Trump—the only person ever elected to the presidency without prior governing or military experience—unified government, a Supreme Court nomination, and nearly enough state legislatures under control of his party to amend the US Constitution and cement his policies into our most revered document for generations. We have slept walked into a full blown renegotiation of the social contract—a New New Deal or the Old Deal—if you will.

I can’t look my students in the eye, lie to them and say it’s all going to be okay. I don’t know that it will. We live in dangerous times, particularly for communities of color and those on the economic margins of our nation. In his book “War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning” Chris Hedges described the descent into ethnic cleansing and genocide in post-Soviet Yugoslavia. Data from exit polling shows us we have entered an unprecedented era of tribal voting. Trump won the white vote by larger margins than Ronald Reagan—Ronald-effing-Reagan. The president-elect has a white-nationalist leader working as his senior adviser. Brietbart and Fox News could serve as Eastern Bloc style quasi-state news agencies. Neo-Nazis and leaders of the Klan have heralded his election. The attacks and violence we have seen across the nation echo the early pages of Hedges’ book. I’m not suggesting we are headed down that path to Milosevic, but it is now a non-zero probability.

I have no time for your pleas to “wait and see.” You can keep your false equivalence arguments. I have no interest in any of it. We have entered an age of uncertainty. The sole check on Trump’s authority are the Federal Courts and Congressional Republicans. That thought should send a shiver down your spine.

Throughout US history, teachers (especially black teachers) led struggles for justice: guiding freedman in the transition from the agrarian to the industrial after Emancipation, leading and modeling democratic citizenship in protests during the civil rights movement. My teaching license literally says “Humanities Teacher.” I will not sit idly by while the very humanity of my students is questioned and renegotiated. This is the work ahead.

We must lead.