Trump Voters, Current and Future

Three Big Questions: 1) How many of the nearly 73 million Americans who voted for President Donald J. Trump can be persuaded to support President Joe Biden? 2) How can Democrats connect with them? 3) Can we (not just Democrats) fix our schools so they don’t keep turning out angry and disaffected graduates who eagerly support demagogues?

I suspect that the hard core racists, the white nationalists, the anti-semites, the misogynists, Islamaphobes, and other close-minded bigots who voted for Trump aren’t persuadable, nor are greedy, selfish voters who care only about their finances.

But, as I see it, that leaves many millions of Trump voters who might be open to change. Let’s not scorn or mock them but rather try to understand their position.

To change the minds of adults who voted for Trump, we have to persuade them that their government works for them. Because actions speak louder than words, a call for ‘healing’ won’t cut it. Instead, we need drastic action, a modern-day GI Bill that includes action on at least these four fronts:

1) A National Service program that employs people to help distribute COVID vaccines and perform contact tracing, in addition to rebuilding parks and national forests and working in difficult jobs in remote places. These jobs must pay a living wage and provide for college/vocational training thereafter. Too many of these activities have been relying on volunteer workers, who have all but disappeared because of the pandemic, as the New York Times reported recently. (The full report is here.)

2) A serious federal program to rebuild our aging infrastructure of roads and bridges and build out broadband across the nation. This would create millions of well-paying jobs. One plan can be found here.

3) Grants to states to support free or low-cost vocational training in community colleges and vocational schools for those seeking career change or promotion. This is vital because the Democratic Party is becoming (or has become) the Party of the college-educated, which is not a compliment. Too many Democrats behave as if workers aren’t worthy. The words of the great John W. Gardner ought to be prominently displayed in every political office, and taken to heart by every political leader:

The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

4) A concerted effort to relieve student loan debt that is crippling so many young adults. The Biden Administration can act on its own in small ways (and candidate Biden pledged to forgive $10,000 of federal debt per student), but Congressional action is needed for anything major. Certainly those who successfully perform National Service for an agreed-upon time should have some portion of their student loan debt forgiven.

John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,” but this is not a Kennedy-like appeal to idealism. Nor is it a disguised form of charity, “make-work” programs for those who can’t find jobs. Rather, this is purely transactional: The United States needs you, and you need the United States.

Call it “US Needs US.” Done right, this will be a better deal for everyone…..And, since Joe Biden’s favorite expression is ‘Here’s the deal,” maybe he will decide to call it “A Better Deal!

At the same time we must fundamentally change our schools so they don’t keep on producing adults who will follow candidates like Donald Trump!

I taught some Trump voters in a New York public high school in the mid-1960’s. Since then I’ve been with them in thousands of classrooms during my 41 years as a reporter. I’ve seen up close how our public school system sorts students into ‘winners’ and ‘others’ by design. This creates adults who are disconnected, disaffected, resentful, xenophobic, and sometimes scared of the future. Many are an easy mark for a candidate who promises easy solutions and a return to what they like to believe was a far better world. IE, Trump voters in 2016 and 2020.

Joey Levy was either a sophomore or a junior back in 1965 or 1966 when I was his English teacher, so he would be about 70 years old today. His high school in Port Washington, New York, had placed him in the third level in its 1-5 system of tracking, and Level 3 was certainly not a winner’s track.

I was a rookie teacher, assigned to teach only 3’s and 4’s, and Joey was in my class. I knew nothing about tracking–and therefore nothing about how the Administration viewed my students. I didn’t see them as ‘losers’ or even as ‘others.’ They were my students, and I wanted and expected them to work hard, think, and write and rewrite.

“MacBeth” was part of the curriculum, and because I suspected that Shakespeare might be tough sledding, I got the Caedmon recording of the tragedy and played it in class. My students (including Joey) understood it and began arguing in class about MacBeth’s and Lady MacBeth’s guilt. Out of that came the notion of putting the two of them on trial for first degree murder.

Which we did.

Some students were lawyers, others were the defendants or witnesses for the defense and prosecution. They had to know the play backwards and forwards, of course. We had a jury of students and persuaded the Principal to be the presiding judge. I think I required everyone to write up each day’s proceedings as if they were reporters. It was a whirlwind week.

But what I remember most clearly was a letter from Joey’s mother that arrived a week or two later. Written on lined paper in simple language and penmanship that reminded me of a child’s, the letter thanked me for keeping Joey in school. Joey’s Mom said that her son had gotten so frustrated with being talked down to and looked down on that he had given up on school. She wrote that she had to fight with him every day just to get him out of bed in the morning, but that now he couldn’t wait to get to school.

I had no idea what she was talking about, because Joey wasn’t indifferent or detached in my English class. He was an eager student, fun to teach. Why was she thanking me?

Of course, I cherished the letter because it made me feel great. Only much much later did I begin think about the system that Joey and I were part of: Here was a bright kid from a working class family who had been relegated to Level 3. A teacher came along who expected more and who respected his intelligence, and Joey responded.

Most kids respond. They live up or down to their teachers’ expectations, which is why sorting young children is a bad idea.

Make no mistake: This process of sorting is by design. Most public schools sort young children in two basic groups:  The minority, designated as ‘winners,’ are placed on a track leading to elite colleges, prominence, and financial success.  These kids get the most experienced teachers, varied and challenging curricula, and interesting field trips.

Although formal tracking has fallen out of favor, nearly all schools still have subtle ways of designating winners and losers, often based as much on parental education and income, race, and class as innate ability. By third or fourth grade most kids know, deep down, whether the system sees them as ‘winners’ bound for college or ‘losers’ headed somewhere else.  

And while these young people aren’t labeled ‘losers’ per se, they are largely left to struggle on their own. That experience leaves many angry, frustrated and resentful, not to mention largely unprepared for life in a complex, rapidly changing society.   Why would they become active participants in a political process that is directed and dominated by the now grown up ‘winners’ from their school days? 

Most of them stayed away–non-voters–until one day a candidate who seemed to understand their resentment came along.

I left Schreiber High School after two years, and I don’t know what happened to Joey Levy. Because the system rarely bumped students out of their designated track, it’s likely that Joey stayed in Track 3, along with the rest of ‘the others.’ I hope the young man caught a break, but it’s easy to imagine him growing frustrated, putting in the seat time necessary to get his diploma. Hanging out with his buddies, getting into trouble from time to time. Maybe community college, maybe the armed services, and maybe pulling the lever for Trump in 2016 and 2020.

Recent ‘education reforms’ have actually made matters worse for kids like Joey. Test-based accountability punished schools if most of their students failed to achieve a minimum test score. George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” led to a narrow curriculum without art, music, and even science; lots of time spent practicing how to take tests; no more recess; and what I call ‘regurgitation education’–especially for the 75-80% of students who hadn’t been sorted into the top tier. ‘Regurgitation education’ rewards parroting back answers, while devaluing intellectual curiosity, cooperative learning, projects, field trips, the arts, physical education, and citizenship. 

This fundamentally anti-intellectual approach also failed to produce results.  Scores on our National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have largely remained flat and in some instances have gone down. What’s more, students aren’t even retaining what we are demanding they regurgitate.  For example, a survey in 2016 revealed that one-third of Americans cannot name any of the three branches of our government, and half do not know the number of US Senators.

(Apparently our elected officials aren’t much better: newly-elected Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, a public school graduate and a Republican, recently incorrectly identified the three branches of our government as the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives.)

Reducing kids to test scores has produced generations of graduates whose teachers and curriculum did not help them develop the habit of asking questions, digging deep, or discovering and following their passion. Because of how they were treated in school, many Americans have not grown into curious, socially conscious adults.

While Donald Trump embraced those he called ‘the poorly educated,’ that’s the incorrect term. These men and women are not ‘poorly educated,’ ‘undereducated,’ or ‘uneducated.’ They have been miseducated, an important distinction. For the most part, their schools have treated them as objects, as empty vessels to pour information into so it can be regurgitated back on tests.

The sorting process also produces elitists who feel superior to the largely invisible ‘losers’ from their school days.  Arguably, those chickens came home to roost in the 2016 Presidential election.  Candidate Clinton’s calling Trump supporters ‘A Bucket of Deplorables‘ probably cost her the Presidency in 2016.  But in all likelihood she was speaking her personal truth, because, after all, her public school had identified her as a ‘winner,‘ one of the elite. It’s perfectly understandable that she had trouble identifying with people who had been energized by Donald Trump.

Sorting is inevitable, because students try out for teams and plays, apply to colleges, and eventually seek employment, but let’s postpone sorting for as long as possible. A new approach to schooling must ask a different question about each young child. Let’s stop asking, “How intelligent are you?”  Let’s ask instead, “How are you intelligent?”   Every child has interests, and those can be tapped and nurtured in schools designed to provide opportunities for children to succeed as they pursue paths of their own choosing. Giving children agency over their education—with appropriate guidance and supervision—will produce graduates better equipped to cope with today’s changing world.  And a larger supply of informed voters!

While a clear majority of voters preferred Joe Biden over Trump, we aren’t out of the woods. The COVID crisis is also an opportunity to reimagine public education. Let’s not spend valuable energy trying to “get back to normal” in education, because, unless we create schools that respect and nurture our children, we run the risk of once again electing a quasi-fascist demagogue. That, I fear, would be the end of the American experiment.

12 thoughts on “Trump Voters, Current and Future

  1. Your question # 3 about fixing schools is a critical one. Our current school models and curricula are woefully inadequate and not up to the challenge of turning out an “educated” citizenry. What we’re seeing and experiencing are years of what you call “mis-educated” and I would add the variable of parent education since so many kids parrot parental preferences. We have several generations of ill-informed, uninformed,
    mis-informed, whatever you want to call those who cannot think for themselves, do not know the meaning of or how to think critically and cannot find any reason to learn, grow and change. I touched on this in this short piece: garygruber.com/a-failure-to-educate
    It is our failure, not only theirs.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As you so eloquently point out, separation into winners and others has serious downsides. But I clearly remember being disappointed that I didn’t have algebra in the seventh grade. I was ready for it and it would have accelerated my careers as a physicist and software engineer. Instead I was taught repetitious calculations that were mostly a waste of time. I think it’s key to challenge students just as you challenged Joey. Maybe with today’s extensive online education opportunities, students can be challenged without separation into winners and others, but I suspect it takes very creative teaching.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Murray. Yes, it takes creative teaching, and we would see a lot more of that if we eliminated the micro-managing in public education. I have long believed that we need to make it much harder to BECOME a teacher but a lot easier (and more rewarding) to BE one.

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  3. “A teacher came along who expected more and who respected his intelligence, and Joey responded.” I believe education is all about CHALLENGE and RESPONSE I have taught English-learners most of my career. Most were Spanish-speakers and many were very competent readers and writers in Spanish. So that did I do? I taught Spanish for Native-Speakers and had them enroll in the AP Spanish class. In over 40 years no one at my high school had ever taken an AP test. The first year six students took the test and all passed with a little tutoring and test prep with 4’s and 5’s. Soon we had on average 50 passing AP tests in Spanish and also student passing in Spanish Literature. We read world literature in translation (including Moliere, Shaw, and Shakespeare as well as the Spanish masters and Greek and Roman mythology). From there the program grew to AP Calculus and AP US History. Not evey student passed the AP test in these subjects but in all the years I taught I never had a single 1 in Spanish or US history. Students often would get a 2 (possibly qualified) in part because on a timed test they didn’t have enough time to finish their essays or MC tests. Yet most of these students were A or B with me in AP. But it wasn’t a waste. Those with 2’s went to the local JC where they were better prepared than most and became A students in US history. Some became high school US history teachers. I am now in the twilight of my career and I have volunteered to teach ESL 1 (two periods) EDL 3 and ESL 4. I have high expectations for all my students and give them regular assignments. They have to read and write every day. My theory is if a student can write sentences then he or she can write paragraphs. If a student can write paragraphs they can write a five or six-paragraph essay. But first, they have to read and write guided essays. They have to learn roots, synonyms, homophones, homographs and recognize cognates and false cognates To enrich the curriculum I start every day with a famous literary or philosophical quote with subtitles such as the Stoics, Longfellow, Poe, Shelley Frost, Kipling or Shakespeare. I think it important that they get exposed to authentic literature. These are read by professional actors of different nationalities, American, British, Canadian, Irish, Indian. I encourage them to listen to them multiple times. I think inspiration quotes and great poetry are ideal for repetition. We hear the poem or quote or speech. Then I analyze it for its rhetorical or literary devices. Students get bonus points for responding to the literature with a short paragraph OR writing sentences with new vocabulary. I also give students bonus points for sharing vocabulary from outside readings (most are also in a regular English class). I also gladly revise and edit their essays from their English or history class, I still tutor students after school hours via zoom but to tell you the truth I only tutor a fraction of the students I tutored previously. Before Covid-19 I tutored in the AM during lunch and after school so I might have tutored 10-20 students a day outside of class but now I only do a few during the week. Most of my communication with students is via email. So distance learning is tough but it is better than nothing. But I fear in this environment the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I still have the same percentage of A’s and B’s but the C students have diminished and so have the D students. Some students just switch off. Already in live classes, it was difficult to compete with iPhones and earbuds and video games but now withour monitoring, I fear this is how a lot of students spend their computer time. Without me hovering over them and exhorting them some follow the siren call of fantasy and escape. The category that has grown the most is the F category chiefly for students who are absent. When a student misses a block class it is like missing a week of classes. Some students get so far behind they just give up. I will give my district credit though. Every student and every teacher has a chrome book and students are given hot spots to improve their online connection. There are also cohorts of students at school with teacher aides and computer labs if needed. One thing is certain one must keep pitching. Teachers have to teach and students have to concentrate, persevere, and complete all assignments. If kids stay in school even virtually they will learn. Students who stay in call learn literacy and numeracy in English. It’s the drop-outs who reallly are the concern. They are the ones who will be embittered and alienated from American society. In my experience, they hate the system and they hate and mistrust both political parties. That is something that should worry all American citizens be they Independents, Republicans or Democrats.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. John,
    With a lump in my throat I can say that your experience brings back many of mine own, yes my very own and later the students I taught. We all want to feel valued. Many of those 72 million who voted for Trump are stigmatized as “3’s” and “4’s”, somehow less worthy. I think Biden may be the Democratic candidate who best understands this. I hope so.
    Doug Allen

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  5. Excellent commentary, John. You’ve put your finger on a huge problem. I want to comment on: “Make no mistake: This process of sorting is by design. Most public schools sort young children in two basic groups: The minority, designated as ‘winners,’ are placed on a track leading to elite colleges, prominence, and financial success.” Of course you are correct.

    The problem with the “reform” movement of recent years is not simply test-based accountability. As Jack Jennings, former Hill staffer, has eloquently argued, testing hi-jacked the standards movement. Beyond that the entire testing-standards-Common Core-accountability regime puts 100% of the students in American public schools on the first rungs of a ladder that leads to a tenured faculty position on an Ivy League campus—and considers the students who don’t progress up the ladder to be losers.

    It’s a big problem. The people in DC and state capitols setting education policy were all sorted into the “winners” circle very early in our school careers. We naturally think that what worked for us is what everyone needs. But the “college for everyone” approach has not worked. College attendance and the costs associated with it are looked on with suspicion in many working class communities, rural and urban. The attitudes associated with this approach (“buckets of deplorables” and people seeking refuge in “guns and religion”) are resented by families, including those in communities of color, that consider sending a child away to college as breaking the bond with the family and community. Meanwhile we blithely ignore outsourcing of jobs to cheaper labor pools overseas while preaching a gospel of college attendance as the way in which young people can protect their futures in a dog-eat-dog competition for the jobs that remain.

    And of course the testing companies that got rich measuring and surveying candidates for college produced research demonstrating, mirabile dictu, that the skills required for modern work parallel the skills required for success in college. But as someone who has trouble driving a nail, I can assure that I am in awe of the highly competent mechanics I see coming to my house to repair, install and calibrate HVAC systems, with the complex tasks associated with carpentry, electrical wiring, and installation and soldering of ducts and plumbing. I can deconstruct text and understand the hidden assumptions and contradictions buried within it that subvert its apparent significance. It’s largely a waste of everyone’s time. These mechanics actually have something useful to show for their work at the end of the day.

    You rightly point to improved vocational education as something that desperately needs attention. I calculate that the federal government spends about 12 cents on vocational education for every dollar it spends on the “college for all” approach. We need new thinking about this whole issue. Just as it is now understood that it is too late to counsel students for college in high school—it needs to start in middle school— we need to understand that it is too late to start vocational training in postsecondary education and community colleges. It needs to begin in high school. It needs to involve corporations and local businesses. And it needs to include paid apprenticeships with guaranteed jobs on graduation. Countries like Sweden and Germany have been able to figure this out. Why can’t we?

    Hopefully, if we go about this in the right way, more of the Joey Levey’s of the world won’t have to be dragged out of bed every morning and forced into the drudgery of a high school curriculum in which they have no interest and from which they see no future.

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