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The 2016 election will shape voters for generations

Image: Jnn13 (CC BY SA 3.0)

After the election I spoke over the phone with a friend of mine—a teacher at a progressive school in a progressive city in the U.S. She told me of the morning after, when all the faculty arrived early for a last-minute gathering. Their task: to figure out how to speak to children about the election of Donald Trump.

Teachers came in rattled, some in tears, but unified in their sense of tragedy. This particular school, in this particular city, interprets its educational mandate broadly. There is equal emphasis on teaching compassion and critical thinking as there is on teaching subject matter. For a community that explicitly promotes equality, social justice, and selflessness, Election Night upended most of the curriculum (the multiplication tables were spared; climate science was not).

These teachers in this school are not that different from teachers across the country. Educators will always be the first to tell you that children are wildly perceptive. The values they observe today—via television, overheard conversations, or discussions with their peers—shape their worldview and nascent understanding of the social contract. As with any adult, a child’s inability to express the magnitude of this impact does not mean that they are somehow insulated from the tectonic rift in values that was on full display last week.

Yet even in families that condemn meanness, bigotry, and deceit, children watched on television screens as America held a referendum on what these values mean to our collective identity. No doubt many saw their parents cry. Many, especially children of color, saw their parents scared. Students at this particular school were worried that some of their classmates would have to leave the country.

Whatever values these young people grew up with, the election results blasted apart any impression that racism, sexism, dishonesty, and brutishness are universally condemned. Above all, children watched as a character with all the qualities of a Disney villain was given power over them and their families.

Election Night upended most of the curriculum

But perhaps the greater tragedy of Election Night is the scene that played out in pro-Trump homes, which we may assume are roughly as numerous. No doubt the children with parents who beamed on Wednesday morning also felt some cognitive dissonance. In class and church they are taught that bullying is bad, women are equal to men, and people of color make America great as much as white people do. But children will defer to their parents on these matters. What’s more, simple words are no match for televised crowds cheering on the hateful and selfish values radiating from the loud man.

Few would argue that Tuesday night unmasked a previously hidden perspective on the median American voter. Many Trump supporters are loving, compassionate, and deeply caring people, but the scope of their care is delineated by race, religion, gender, and nationality. What’s more, their capacity for compassion is tempered by the subconscious fear that the traditional social hierarchy is under attack. Children in these homes watched their parents celebrate the diffusion of a grave threat to the social order—an order that their parents might call “America First.”

The soft nationalism of the American Right is here to stay. The proto-fascist inclinations of Trump supporters (e.g. requiring Muslim American to “register”) cannot be put back in the proverbial toothpaste tube. Beating back the cultural forces that shaped this year’s electoral map will require a generational shift. But where will the impetus for that shift originate if children born today—many of whom will vote through the end of this century—are already being exposed to the same values that brought Mr. Trump his unexpected victory?

Yes, Tuesday was plainly traumatic for young Americans in left-leaning communities. But for those children growing up in the shadow of the American Right, the impact should not be ignored. The election of Clinton would have permitted millions of young minds to question how the values that their parents share with Mr. Trump fit into the broader cultural fabric of the nation. Instead, the results reaffirmed the rightness of the dominant social order.

The Election Night scene in these children’s livings rooms is at least as tragic as the one in homes where young people cried with their parents. We must extend our love and compassion to both of these constituencies—as we learned last week, creating a more just and equitable America will require reaching out much, much farther, and with the promise of a future that is better than any past.

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