In preschool, my brother learned to name then 43 presidents in chronological order. Many Americans grow up with legends about George Washington’s cherry tree and Honest Abe; now Hamilton has enshrined even one of our more unimaginative forefathers. School House Rock taught me from an early age that this nation was founded and shaped by great men with great dreams for a more perfect union.
Of course, the Founding Fathers were more elitist patriarchs than patron saints. Abraham Lincoln was wholly disinterested in civil rights. More than half the names my brother could recite were those of racists and misogynists, whose patriotism sometimes barely outshined their prejudice. But each one shared de Tocqueville’s exceptional veneration for this country, a love they channeled into their unique visions for progress, liberty, and the dream of democracy. 240 years later and Donald Trump’s utter lack of foresight probably failed to prepare him for a win Tuesday night.
So come January, preschoolers across the country will add a 45th name to their repertoire: a man who barely veiled his hatred and narcissism behind the tattered slogan, “Make American Great Again.” And in this disheartening turn of events, those children have the most to lose from this election.
Already we’re dealing with the ramifications. Just hours after Donald Trump captured the Electoral College, students from Florida to Michigan documented a rash of alarming racism and xenophobia; since Tuesday administrators have reported swastikas on bathroom stalls, anonymous texts threatening to lynch black freshmen, and “Build the wall” chants ringing in middle school cafeterias. California may have had a more progressive Election Day, but its students are not immune: another widely circulated video shows a high school student attacking her classmate for supporting Trump.
Hillary Clinton was worried about this. Her campaign ran more than one bleak ad juxtaposing wide-eyed children and her opponent’s rants. “Our children are watching. What example will we set for them?” Now we know.
For many Americans, Tuesday was a reckoning with our fragility; turns out, America isn’t as great as we thought it was. Perhaps that verdict stings most for students who until now have learned to revel in democracy and champion our diversity. How can we continue talking about microaggressions, when it seems half of us condone calling Mexicans rapists? And for the youngest Americans, especially those raised in Trump households, Tuesday authorizes those slurs at the dinner table, on the playground, and in the classroom.
Many reluctant Trump supporters deem their support a vote for change, not an endorsement of his rhetoric. The exit polls seem to agree: barely 38% of his voters had a favorable opinion of him, and only 1 in 3 would call him “honest and trustworthy.” But among them are the Americans with the least to lose, for whom a Trump presidency is just a matter of holding their nose. Their half-heartedness doesn’t placate the millions who voted against bigotry, intolerance, and recklessness, for whom political correctness is a safeguard, not an inconvenience.
Our nation’s heroes are flawed. But we don’t glorify them for the benefit of their memory; their audacity to fight injustice and dream big in turn inspires the next generation to right wrongs and dream bigger. And it starts in the classrooms of working and middle and elite America, where somewhere our next President learns to recite his or her predecessors. Four years of Donald Trump at the helm risks emboldening the kids who won’t know any better, and disillusioning the ones who do.
We don’t know if Trump will deport undocumented immigrants or round up Muslims or abandon NATO. We don’t know the future of Obamacare or Planned Parenthood. We don’t know how much further he’ll backpedal on his most draconian campaign promises; any of the above would be devastating and irreparably damaging to some of our most significant demographics. But there’s still bureaucracy and gridlock and uncertainty canvassing those possibilities in red tape.
The President is supposed to be the best and the brightest among us: unwavering, dignified and graceful. Someday, she’ll be the dogged changemaker that young girls will come to expect. Until then we’ve been asked to sit tight, while President Trump makes us great again. In the meantime our schools must continue to emphasize tolerance and empathy. Students must study more of the atrocities committed at home and abroad, not write them out of our textbooks.
In the face of these setbacks, we shouldn’t hesitate to thread a little American exceptionalism into our struggle; without it, our children won’t know the fire we feel to take our country back.