It’s not every day that a hundred million people wake up to discover that the sky is falling.
This was the horrified, shocked reaction from American democrats on the morning of 9th November, when it became startlingly clear that Donald J. Trump was now the President-Elect of the United States. An event few felt was genuinely possible was, nevertheless, most decidedly upon us, and however you feel about this result, the implications are pretty overwhelming.
An ocean of ink has already been spilled describing the thoughts, speeches, business practices, late-night Twitter assaults and potential policies of the incoming 45th POTUS. At the time of writing, in early December, with the inauguration still six weeks away and Trump’s cabinet not yet fully formed, there is much uncertainty. However, I found myself fascinated by these transformative events, and planned several classes for my advanced ESL students which would focus on Trump and his advisors. The following, then, is an account of how I approached these topics with my students, and I hope it brings up useful ideas for your own classroom.
A Global Brand
When beginning one of my ‘contemporary topics’ classes, I often have to define a large group of new words, and feed in quite a lot of detail. Not so with Trump, as you can imagine; my non-cave dwelling students were very familiar with him, and immediately began to cite the many occasions on which he’d offended people. This, it seemed, was Trump’s chief claim to fame in Asia and South America; my students from these regions described a clownish buffoon with few original ideas but who nevertheless captivated the US and global news media in unprecedented fashion. Revealingly, my students had trouble defining what Trump stands for, except that he is determined to succeed in business and to help his family to thrive. He was described as anti-immigration, pro-business, and a climate skeptic; one of my students also connected him to the Alt-Right. I took this commendable platform of existing knowledge and set about examining specific Trump-related topics, some of which I hope will add usefully to your own classroom discussions of this divisive and singular figure:
6 Ideas for Initial Discussions and Analysis of the Trump Presidency
No less august an institution than the Oxford English Dictionary has labeled this expression ‘phrase of the year, 2016’. I put the simple question to my students and had them puzzle it out: What on Earth does this mean?
We were staggered to find that, in an age when information is more readily and abundantly available than ever before, facts were relegated to some kind of secondary role in the strange form of discussion which preceded the election. We watched sections of the presidential debates between Trump and Clinton, focusing on Trump’s altogether bizarre answers about abortion. His claim, for example, that US doctors were performing abortions on viable, 9-month old fetuses was wholly, patently and dangerously false. The same debate produced a list of areas in which Trump stretched, bent, and finally obliterated the truth in favor of his own exaggerated narrative. One of my students put it beautifully: “He lied on global TV, again and again, and no one stopped him”.
The very nature of information itself has changed. The extent that the public believe something is now a function of how these assertions (about abortion, foreign policy, immigration and other vital issues) felt in their gut. Facts are being set aside, lest they interrupt the creation of a persuasive and emotive argument designed to bring working-class voters to the polls in enormous numbers, and therefore trigger a Trump victory.
What, then, constitutes a lie, in this day and age? If a politician lies in order to secure a particular demographic of voters, is this truly dishonesty, or simply gaming a rigged and unrepresentative system? What can be done to more rigorously ‘fact check’ politicians and media figures?
The Echo Chamber
Try an experiment with your students by asking them what news sources they regularly use. Depending on their age range, it’s likely that social media will emerge as an important news source, and this leads straight into the controversial but vital topic of ‘fake news’. Facebook has come in for severe criticism for news policies which lend apparently equal credibility to a well-researched piece in the New York Times, and a piece of garbage journalism which is entirely devoid of legitimate facts.
Then, consider how our choice of news sources impacts us. Find out from your students whether a strong, prevailing theory is actually correct: we consume the news sources which most readily confirm our existing points of view. My students maintained that we simply enjoy the sensation of others agreeing with us, and it feels good when our reading lends additional support to our existing philosophical structures and views of the world.
There is nothing new in this, of course, and it’s a principle reason why the world has so many different titles on the shelves of our newsstands; variety of viewpoint is critical in a vibrant democracy. But if our viewpoints become rigid and unyielding, bolstered daily by new affirmations that we had it right all along, then our capacity for digesting and comprehending the events of the day becomes compromised. We make assumptions based on hearsay, rumor, guesswork (or, in the most dangerous cases, completely fictitious items of news which appear on the same side-bar as excellent, dependable coverage from The Guardian, for example) and this poor set of data inevitably leads us to questionable conclusions. In some cases, it has emerged, lies and half-truths led millions to vote for someone they otherwise might not have.
It’s also worth adding that, just recently, news broke that a man had entered a pizza shop in Washington, D.C. with an assault rifle in order to chase down an entirely dreamed-up news story that Hillary Clinton was operating a child sex trafficking ring out of the restaurant. These stories aren’t just giggle-worthy; some have become a threat to public safety, and the traction they gain is certainly a huge spoke in the wheel of media credibility.
Yes, I could give this sordid, expletive-ridden episode a more adult title, but I’m sure you know the incident I mean. Trump’s ‘locker room’ moment with Billy Bush was as vile and repugnant as it was unforgivable. Naturally, my students honed in on this as an example of Trump’s character, but also as a remarkable illustration of just how much the property tycoon found himself able to get away with. Any other candidate - for any kind of office, be it city council, school board, senator or president - would have been instantly destroyed by such a humiliating and stomach-turning revelation; paradoxically, Trump’s poll numbers actually received a slight boost, in some demographics.
Why, I asked my students, was Trump immune to the expected results of a major public gaffe like this? I can’t resist transcribing this part of our class, which I recorded as usual, for its illustration of my students’ growing confidence in handling these topics, and also for the complete confusion these incidents caused, at least for some:
Teacher: OK, so we all know what he said on the bus, right? Student 1: Oh, the thing about ‘grabbing’ someone? Student 2: Grabbing women, he said. Was very bad. Student 3: Disgusting, yeah. Teacher: Agreed. We don’t need to get into the anatomical details, do we? Student 2: But, he used a bad word for it, no? Student 3: Is common. Maybe the most common. Teacher: Yeah, sure, but this is a guy running for President. Doesn’t that change things? Student 2: His friends said that he’s different now. (All): (Laughter and disbelief) Student 3: Teacher, how do you…? Teacher: What’s my name, Jorge? [I hate being called ‘teacher’, as my students all know by now.] Student 3: Sorry, Mister Graham. Teacher: Just Graham, alright? [I don’t stand on formality, either] Student 3: OK, yeah. I will remember. [Wanting to move on.] But how do Trump keep going after this? Student 1: Because people don’t care! They think it’s funny! Teacher: I think they cared about it, but he was able to excuse it, wasn’t he? Student 4: The ‘changing room’ thing he said. But that doesn’t work for me. Teacher: Locker room, yeah, like a changing room. And it didn’t work for a lot of people. Doesn’t matter where you are… Student 2: But enough, right? Enough people forgave him for it. Student 3: This is what I don’t understand… Student 4: How can you forgive…? Student 3: I don’t understand how so many women voted for this man. Teacher: That is an excellent point. How can we explain that? Student 5: They hated Clinton even more than they hated Trump! Teacher: You’re onto something there, too. But why was she so unpopular that saying something so terrible didn’t really harm his chances?
Perhaps the greatest paradox of the campaign has been the way in which Trump aggressively seized upon and encouraged resentment of Wall Street, the ‘one-percent’, and Washington insiders, but then hired a group of exactly those people to staff the White House and fill cabinet positions. My students found this initially very confusing, as they weren’t used to elected officials who campaign on a clearly articulated platform, only to promptly ditch those philosophies when they win.
We discussed Trump’s campaign slogan, ‘Drain the Swamp’, and then took a look at the sheaf of recent (albeit as yet unconfirmed) cabinet appointments - billionaire Betsy DeVos, rogue marine Mike Flynn, deregulator-in-chief Steve Mnuchin, and the possibility of the perennially hapless Ben Carson running the Department for Housing and Urban Development (HUD). I could transcribe this part of the class, but I’ll let you imagine the confusion and disbelief my students endured as they struggled to understand just who Donald Trump is.
We assessed whether a cabinet of this nature could ever be trusted to tackle such problems as inequality, ethnic division, unemployment, slipping educational standards, and inner-city poverty. We made a set of predictions, and felt that most of the policies which would emerge from such a cabinet would run entirely counter to the ideology on which Trump campaigned. The establishment, we concluded, would do very well indeed from this election, thank you very much, and far from being undermined and reformed by a determined ideological crusader, we’d now see a strengthening of those same political and economic devices which created our present crises.
My students took one look at the way the Trump children are being not-so-stealthily integrated into Trump’s transition team, and immediately recognized the characteristics of an autocratic dynasty. “The king of Saudi Arabia,” said one very bright student, “does the same thing.” I taught the word ‘nepotism’ and we discussed whether it might ever be conceivable that Trump would surrender the day-to-day running of his empire. We looked at the basic provisions of a ‘blind trust’, and concluded that Trump’s initial offer of such a mechanism as a solution to the conflict-of-interest problem was naïve at best, and conniving at worst. My students simply didn’t believe that, as a life-long entrepreneur who lived to build skyscrapers, he’d be able to resist running some aspects of his empire while President.
The rest was simply an extension of our basic concern that, for Trump, the business of real estate, and the business of being President of the United States, would become as one. We identified dozens of potential conflicts, including Trump’s real estate deals in countries with which the US has a developing relationship (India and the Philippines, in the initial examples) and the way in which he tends to hire his local business contacts as formal US representatives to a region (again, the Philippines was our go-to case).
What would happen, we asked, if a terrorist incident proved to originate in a region where Trump has business interests? Would he risk those interests being disrupted by military action, or step back from using force, even when it was justified? What might the new president do, my students wondered, if one of the Trump buildings overseas was attacked by militants trying to bait the Commander in Chief into a rash and ill-conceived retaliation? As his opponent noted during the debates, a president who can be enraged by a midnight tweet might well act very unpredictably when his reputation, family or personal achievements came under attack. Americans lives, and those of others, might be put at risk because someone called a seventy-year old man a rude word.
There’s no discussing Trump without bringing up his favorite form of communication. I illustrated to my students just how wholly unconventional this behavior has been; no previous US president has used Twitter in anything like this way, even to the point of announcing policy decisions, important phone calls with foreign leaders, and key cabinet appointments using the network.
I asked my students: Is Twitter presidential? This was when my group chose to remind me that they’re card-carrying twenty-first century people, and that my own stubborn eschewing of Twitter was tantamount to Luddism. Twitter was fine as a means of communication, they concluded, but Trump’s use of language was another matter entirely.
We carried out a brief analysis of the English used in Trump’s tweets, and also added in some important statements from the campaign and the presidential debates. Then, I tried something a bit exotic, and it worked so well that I encourage you to try it too: put Donald’s tweets side by side with fictional tweets on the same topics, but written in the language of an upper-intermediate ESL student.
The results were remarkable. My students could barely tell which was which, because Trump’s sentences are so choppy and graceless, and his vocabulary so simplistic, limited and repetitive. Trump used the word ‘fantastic’ three times in a recent tweet about Pakistan - my students wondered aloud if the President-Elect actually knows any other words - and we found that he couldn’t have been expected to describe nuanced views or articulate complex policies because his English is so narrowly constrained.
We then wondered what implications this might have, and we confidently predicted a whole suite of diplomatic gaffes, crossed wires and language-driven confusion. We anticipated that Trump will give as few press conferences as possible once he realizes how tough they can be, and that he’ll limit his public speaking engagements, instead sending proxies - principally Mike Pence and members of the Trump family.
None of this was political, I hasten to add, despite appearances. Trump is comprehensively unpopular among the demographics I work with, but we set aside personal opinions and focused on language and content. Try this with your students; my advanced ESL group was absolutely elated to learn that they seemed to speak better English, unprepared and without help, than our incoming Commander-in-Chief.
Whichever side of the election you found yourself on, we’re now in for a remarkably unpredictable four years.
My students are worldly enough not to mistake this for the impending Armageddon feared by some, but they had genuine concerns about foreign policy, immigration and the economy which Trump has, so far, failed to address. These are early days, and we must give the man and his team a chance to govern. These initial discussions both energized and worried my students, and I enjoyed the chance to educate them about someone who is, for better or worse, now set to shape the next four years of world affairs.