On Wednesday, November 9, 2016, I woke up to see the temperature was 33 degrees, on its way to a balmy 66. The sky was mostly cloudy. My wife had some church work to tend to that afternoon. And Donald Trump had just been elected President of the United States of America.
I got dressed for work. I was a substitute teacher that day for an American History class at a local high school.
It occurred to me as I drove to work that nothing discussed in the classroom that day was likely to be more historic than what had transpired the night before.
At the beginning of each period we talked for a few minutes about the election and the ugliness of the campaign from both sides. Since this wasn’t my first presidential rodeo I expressed relief that (1) it was over, and (2) we could now get on with the business of supporting our new president, as we should for every president. His successes, after all, are our successes.
But these young students weren’t quite so ready to forgive and forget. Like their parents, many of them were angry. Clinton supporters were dismissive of the winner, who, in their judgment, lacked personal integrity. Trump supporters were counting down the days until the former first lady’s incarceration.
For all of these middle-teens, this was the first election they had really paid attention to. They were finally old enough to have at least a basic understanding of the issues, and almost without exception they had watched the debates, the attack ads, and even the poll numbers.
We had a thoughtful and respectful discussion. But at one point I made a comment that drew only blank stares. It was when I told them that in my entire life, I had never seen an angrier or more divisive campaign.
My comment didn’t register. All they saw at that moment was an old guy in front of the class suddenly talking about the old days, which, of course, didn’t mean squat to any of them.
And that’s when I realized what had happened, and I felt truly, genuinely sorry for them.
This was their first presidential campaign. So for them all the insults, the digs, the lies, the constant apocalyptic rantings of what would happen if the other was elected, the uncivil discourse, the race to see which contestant could be the most effectively annihilated by the other, the sheer ugliness of it all—for these students, just moving into maturity, the campaign was already being locked away in their psyches as business as usual. It was, for them, normal.
In my opinion, this is not good news for the development of the next generation of America’s citizens. As these young political observers become tomorrow’s voters they’ll now enter every campaign with the assumption that the candidate who does not belong to their party of preference is a liar and likely a criminal, that political seasons are a regularly occurring civil war, and that people with different political beliefs are fundamentally un-American, leaving you no obligation to support any of them if they’re able to lie their way into office. As soon as “they” are elected, the only moral plan is to grind the government to a full stop so your opponent can accomplish nothing.
Naturally, this plan of attack will create a government which is perpetually dysfunctional, since there will always be millions of aggrieved voters who believe each election was stolen by the buffoons, louts, and criminals on the other side.
And to our newest generation of Americans, this behavior will be the normal, day-to-day way the public’s business will be conducted. Because for now, it’s the only way of doing things they’ve fully internalized.
I told the students that day that I was truly sorry for them to have been imprinted so early in life with such a sorry excuse for the democratic process, but none of them had any idea what I was talking about. Nor did I expect them to. The future is their battleground, not the past. They just know there’s an immoral enemy out there who must be crushed. Let the civil war begin.