For those of you unaware of the horrors perpetrated on society by comedians Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher recently, a quick review: Griffin posted a picture of herself with what appeared to be President Trump’s severed head (the awful image can be seen here), and Maher used the “n-word” (a racial slur which rhymes with “trigger” just in case you’re…um, clueless is the best I can do, sorry) on live TV. Immediately there was media uproar about how these two should be shunned and unemployed. Griffin has been fired from her part-time job on CNN, and many have been vocal in calling for Maher’s Real Time on HBO to be taken off the air. Anderson Cooper denounced Griffin, and Chance the Rapper tweeted that Maher no longer deserved to be heard. In short, many have come out strongly not only against the sins these two committed, but also in favor of banishing them forever.
But not me. I’ve been a fan of Maher’s for his entire fifteen-year run on Real Time and have seen many of his stand-up routines. And based on his history of being progressive in his views (except maybe on Islam), I have no doubt that this slip of the tongue doesn’t represent anything other than a brain fart. I know some might question my right to weigh in on the depth of his mistake, since I am not black, but I do have the right to continue to enjoy his work. Griffin and I do not have as rich a history, but I have laughed at her jokes the few times I have seen her on TV. Don’t let my lack of Griffin exposure fool you, though; she has had a long, very successful career, with movies, television shows, comedy tours, albums, and even a couple of books to her credit (including Emmy and Grammy awards). Griffin’s attempt at political humor with Trump backfired severely, but to me, that doesn’t outweigh her long and steadfast support of LBGT rights over the years. And yeah, I know it doesn’t help my case that both of these people are strident, loud atheists. (Maher made an anti-religion movie in 2008, Religulous (a combination of “religious” and “ridiculous” in case you weren’t immediately offended), and Griffin got in trouble before for her speech upon winning an Emmy in 2007: “Now, look, a lot of people come up here and they thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. He didn’t help me a bit. If it was up to him, Cesar Millan would be up here with that damn dog. So all I can say is suck it Jesus; this award is my God now.”
So conservatives have plenty of reasons to despise this pair: They are the epitome of the anti-Hollywood crowd’s stereotype of the media liberal who flouts traditional Christian values and embraces such supposedly corrupting influences as atheism, gay pride, and transgender bathrooms. If it were up to these two, no baker could refuse to provide a wedding cake for two men who wanted to get married and “In God We Trust” would be removed from our currency. If right-wing conservatives had a “Most-Wanted” list of those they wanted silenced, these two would probably make the top ten, although certainly behind Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon. (Of course, such lists do exist, and the one I found had neither Kathy nor Bill on it, alas. Moore and Sarandon were #2 and #7 respectively.) But Griffin and Maher both apologized admitted they were totally in the wrong for what they did, and promised to do better in the future. Griffin’s press conference came across as self-serving (as well as painfully awkward), and Maher did bristle a time or two when three black guests (on the next Real Time which aired after the n-bomb disaster) chastised him for the severity of his mistake. Neither, however, tried to mitigate the error of what they’d done and both seemed to regret their poor choices.
That, coupled with their history of using some of the exposure their entertainment jobs provide them to do good helps me to stay with them. Yes, they now have more baggage beyond times when I found Griffin mean or Maher condescending, but overall, I think it’s okay to continue to consume their work product. I’m not going to call for their unemployment or boycott their performances. I do understand that some people will choose to do so, but I’d prefer to hate the sin and love the sinner in this case, since I often need similar understanding myself.
My acceptance of Griffin and Maher, despite their mistakes, does help me to understand some of the loyalty Trump voters have exhibited over the past tumultuous two years. He’s your boy, and you’re not going to dump him just because he says a few offensive, sexist, racist, ignorant, false things. That’s really fine, I guess, as long as you don’t attack my morals, patriotism, or whatever other non-related characteristic you can come up with for not being willing to accept those things. I could argue that he commits more such faux pas in a week than Bill or Kathy have in their careers, but let’s ignore sheer numbers of outrageous, inappropriate remarks/actions for the moment. We’ll also disregard the different standards to which leaders of our country should be held as compared to our entertainers—Trump clearly sees himself much more the latter than the former, which is another huge problem for many of us. But we won’t go there just now.
Instead, let’s go back to one of the main reasons I’m forgiving (if that’s the correct term for not hating on and petitioning for public execution of) Griffin and Maher: their good works. They have consistently advocated for positive things for others when they didn’t have to; and they did so when taking stands they didn’t have to (they’re mere comedians, after all) could and did cost them fans/money. How does Trump fare in that comparison?
Horribly, by my estimation, both before and since he’s become President. Clearly, charity and good works had little to do with his life before politics; if there was a buck to be made—be it steaks, wine, hotels, office buildings, casinos, golf courses, or universities—he was more than happy to slap his name on the product, shill for it shamelessly, and then duck responsibility for any debts or blame when those products tanked (or in the case of his university, hurt people). Even the limited charity work he did seemed shrouded in questionable fund usage or significant delays on promised donations. “Giving back” would not be one of the characteristics anyone would have used to describe Trump the businessman.
As President, it’s been even worse in the short time he’s been in office. He’s pulled back on all environmental protections or programs to improve or maintain our environment. Poor people are always the first to suffer from environmental degradation, as those in Flint, Michigan, would be the first to tell you. Trump’s health care proposal would deprive millions of poor people of their insurance; struggling seniors would be especially targeted under the current plan. The travel ban? It’s hard to imagine how the average person would benefit from that which is a direct challenge to many of the foundations of our Constitution. Our police, federal agents, and homeland security agency have done an excellent job of protecting U.S. citizens; that some crazed individuals believe they are committing heroic acts by blowing up innocent people along with themselves has changed how our protectors have to function, and we’re all still wrestling with the best way to protect freedom at the same time we’re providing protection. Plus, the ban will never make it through the courts intact. Trump’s tax code revision (the scant outline of it he has provided thus far, anyway) directs the bulk of its benefits to the rich, hardly the key demographic which won the election for him, nor those who are hurting in today’s economy. And let’s not even delve into the Russian scandals, which might include collusion and obstruction of justice. Outside of saying how wonderfully he’s doing and forcing his cabinet members to praise him effusively, I can’t point to anything that Donald has done at all besides golf, much less acts which would benefit others. Insult, belittle, ridicule, attack, deceive, manipulate, and betray—absolutely. But help, advance, support, or sacrifice for? Not that I’ve ever seen for as long as he’s been in the public eye.
So I will continue to accept Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher into my world, albeit with a heightened awareness that they are fallible humans like all of us who have to accept their own mistakes and eat crow on occasion. Meanwhile, I’ll keep waiting for the President to concede that it was wrong to mock a reporter’s disability, attack the family of a slain American soldier, brag about sexual assault, or bash the London mayor after a terrorist attack. (And we all know this list of Trump outrages barely scratches the surface of the total number for the last year!) And we won’t even get into a further examination of his “Make America Great Again” agenda based on discrimination and fear. You might not agree with me on whether or not Bill and Kathy deserve any slack (which I can completely understand), but I would be fascinated to hear how Trump supporters rationalize his mountain of sins as he continues to spout the most inane covfefe while doing nothing to benefit anyone but himself.
Now that we’re past the embarrassing Presidential world tour where the headlines seemed most focused on Melania’s brushing off Donald’s attempts to hold her hand, the Pope’s dour facial expressions, handshake duels, bogus arms deals, and GolfCartGate, but before we all become engulfed in memos detailing Trump’s attempts to force high-ranking national security officials to ignore potentially treasonous acts; everyone needs to devote at least a little attention to the budget the White House proposed to Congress right before Trump left the country. As the details of this recommendation become clearer, so does the Republican party’s fundamental priority, philosophy, belief, or however you’d like to label their mantra: If you have resources, you can buy whatever you want; if you don’t, too bad. We all need to recognize just what kind of country the Republican party envisions—at least the Republican party with Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell at its head. While everyone is understandably distracted from this reality with Trump leading a seemingly endless parade of foolish acts and inane tweets, in one area Donald, Paul, and Mitch have been pretty consistent: Rather than proposing anything new or trying to improve current programs, they are dedicated to the “good old days” when wealthy people had an even greater share of this country’s resources and power than they do now. And from health care to withdrawing from the Paris climate accord to huge investments in weapons (all of which, conveniently, can be manipulated by Washington to profit friends and family), every position they stake out screws over those who don’t have very much to begin with.
Naturally, it’s no different with education. The foundation of public schools for many years has been what is basically a socialist construct: We all contribute so that every kid in America can learn the basics every citizen should know. No, that’s hardly an absolute standard since every state legislature or local school board can interpret what those “basics” are in a variety of ways, but at least the cost of however that ideal comes out is shared by all. And yes, the system of paying for education has also been significantly corrupted since it is generally financed through local funding (property taxes here in Illinois) which has created huge differences in how much any one school district spends per pupil. But the Trump administration as led by Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos (a billionaire in her own right), is now proposing an even more dramatic shift in resources which will allow parents more “choice” over the schools that receive their tax dollars. Many rich people already send their children to private schools at their own expense, but DeVos believes they should be able to direct any money they pay in taxes for education to whichever school they wish. In effect, these vouchers would take money originally going to public schools and redirect it to the schools parents select (which would include private and parochial institutions), robbing public schools of crucial revenue when they can ill-afford any decreases whatsoever.
Schools would thus compete with each other to attract parents and their money, with institutions already struggling being left even further behind. And the children whose parents don’t have the resources to get their children out of those impoverished schools? Well, they’re just stuck with an under-funded, second-rate education forever. This is social Darwinism at its worst with those already well-off being subsidized at the expense of the poor who stay trapped and powerless with little hope of their future being any different. That theme plays over and over again in the proposals in Trump’s budget, which is entitled “A New Foundation for American Greatness” (another ready-made lesson in irony). Budgets for health, welfare, education, art, and social service programs are slashed with funding for some sixty-six programs ended entirely.
There are dozens of other sources which can give you more specific details on the ramifications of Trump’s budget, including many which document how directly some of Trump’s staunchest supporters—working class whites—will be hurt by his draconian spending cuts, the better to benefit the wealthy. But it’s crucial for everyone to acknowledge exactly what’s going on here: The gap between the haves and the have-nots in the U.S. has increased significantly in recent years, and Republicans are doing everything they can to encourage, magnify, and accelerate both the gap’s size and the pace at which it widens.
Now, many are pointing out that this budget, like the horrific health care act which came out of the House on May 4, will never be enacted as currently written, that both are “DOA” in the Senate. And let’s all hope that is true. But regardless, this document shows exactly how Trump and his cronies view their constituents. Of course they hide behind the claim that they are cutting ineffective, wasteful programs, but the clear good which comes from things like Planned Parenthood, the National Endowment for the Arts, or Meals on Wheels has been evident for many years. Eliminating or reducing the government’s support for these programs in order to buy more weapons can’t be explained any other way than a preference for getting rid of things which help people so our military can obtain more things which kill them.
I understand that some Republicans would respond to my views with the argument that there are better ways to achieve the goals of the cut programs, but merely repeating that endlessly offers little solace to those who need help. What ideas, programs, or approaches do Trump, Ryan, McConnell and the rest of the Republican Party offer as better alternatives? It seems that they have nothing but “glittering generalities” rather than any concrete, workable solutions. For those of you who have forgotten the propaganda techniques you learned about in high school, a glittering generality is something that sounds good, but has no substance or validity behind it. The most glaring example of this comes from Trump as he was campaigning for the Presidency and regularly characterizing Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) as a “disaster” (it isn’t). His alternative was that he would replace it with “something terrific.” Now that we’ve actually seen his replacement, we know what a ridiculous scam his campaign rhetoric was, unless by “terrific” he meant “awful for anyone who isn’t already a millionaire.” Then there are the flat-out lies he told: His terrific plan would cost less, cover everybody in the country, and make no cuts to Medicare. The reality, though, is that the Trump plan would increase rates for low-income seniors by as much as $12,000 per year, lead to over 20,000,000 Americans losing their coverage, and include some $800 billion in Medicare cuts. Ryan has been the cheerleader for this monstrosity, and we’ll see how McConnell handles the Senate revisions of the highly unpopular proposal in the weeks to come.
That’s not to say that the Democrats are perfect or have all the answers to the many problems which our country faces. But no matter how you try to spin it, Democratic proposals have generally tried to improve things for those less well off—Obamacare, environmental legislation, and a host of other programs now under attack all provided benefits for the poor. You can argue about the effectiveness, sincerity, or cost efficiency of these initiatives, of course, but there can be no denying the fundamental humanity on which the intent of the programs is based. That is in sharp contrast to the callous indifference Republican initiatives show toward anyone who is struggling. From immigrants to decaying urban neighborhoods to senior citizens barely scraping by on social security, the Trump/Ryan/McConnell vision for America works to shift resources away from the neediest to those already well off.
Let’s hope the brazenness and crudity of Trump’s approach will finally help everyone to recognize this key difference and vote accordingly. Many of us are praying that the Trump administration will be short-lived, ending in impeachment (my prediction is he will resign long before the Russian investigation proves how corrupt he is so that President Pence—which sounds almost as bad to me as “President Trump”—can immediately pardon him), but wishing for an end to Trump is hardly much of a strategy to minimize the damage Republican leadership could still do.
Instead, we have to recognize that Donald is not the source of this heartless approach to governing, but merely the loudest symptom of that which has taken over the Republican Party. As someone who spent his younger days criticizing the eight years of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, I can’t believe how wonderfully progressive his policies seem today. Some have argued that this saint of conservatism would never be even seriously considered in today’s Republican party given that he cooperated with liberal Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, approved tax increases (his two bills passed in 1982 and 1984 together constituted the biggest tax increases ever enacted during peacetime), instituted an amnesty program for undocumented workers, and even lobbied on behalf of stricter gun regulation (all these and more can be found here). That the Republican Party leadership has moved so far from what most Americans (and, I think, Republicans) believe is really quite shocking, and I still don’t understand how we Americans allowed them to take over. Regardless, that needs to be changed as quickly as possible.
Although the circus surrounding Trump’s ignorance and self-absorption will continue unabated for as long as he inhabits the White House, we have to recognize that it’s not just him, that Republican leaders are supporting and enabling him every step of the way. Regardless of what happens with His Orangeness, we have to recognize that the Republican Party is being taken to extremes by others as well.
Thus, every election from now on provides us with the opportunity to alter this tilt toward heartlessness. We need reasonable people to run for office who, regardless of party affiliation, will represent the interests of all of us and who will oppose those who would appeal only to our fears and prejudices. That applies to all parties: While many current Republicans will have to answer for backing Trump/Ryan/Mitchell, I would hope that voters will be astute enough to listen to any candidate—Democrat, Republican, or Independent—to assess her/his level of opposition to our current directions. From the air we breathe to the helpless we protect, nothing about the current heads of our executive or legislative branches represents the best humanity has to offer. We are capable of so much more, and through our actions—especially in voting—we must take steps to make sure our leaders are too.
Several weeks ago, a referendum was put before the residents of Hinsdale High School Township District 86 (which is composed of Hinsdale South and Central High Schools). The referendum outlined plans to raise property taxes by $76,000,000 in order to upgrade aquatic areas at both schools and to add more classrooms at Hinsdale Central to accommodate its increasing enrollment. The communities of District 86 (Darien, Hinsdale, Willowbrook, Oakbrook, Burr Ridge, and Clarendon Hills) voted down the tax increase by three to one—75.1% against and 24.85% in favor in DuPage County. This will leave the District 86 school board (four of whom were elected as new members on the same ballot with the ill-fated referendum) with significant challenges immediately as this board takes charge.
My knowledge of this excellent school district comes from its astute hiring practices: I taught English in Hinsdale South for twenty-five years, and became familiar with the district’s workings (at least somewhat) in my roles for the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA—the union which represents all District 86 teachers): president, contract negotiator, and grievance chair at different times for much of my career. So I followed with interest this particular referendum since it was the first one attempted in District 86 since the 1960s. There has also been much controversy about the two high schools and how they are perceived in their communities through the years, most recently over the expansion of District 86’s “buffer zone,” an area in the district where some residents can select either high school for their children to attend (almost all currently in the zone have selected Central). That, coupled with a declining enrollment at South while Central’s attendance sky-rocketed, led to the referendum’s being not just about adding on to Central, but instead a forum on the two high schools. Why, many asked, should homeowners vote to increase their property taxes so that Central can add classrooms when there is significant space available right in the district, just a couple of miles away at Hinsdale South? To some, though, the answer was obvious—addition was necessary, so no one currently eligible to attend Central would have to go to South.
I’ve written about this issue several times. You can find the essays (along with links to various news stories which motivated them) on my blog, with this one and this being two which ought to give you the highlights. I’ve never tried to hide my bias in favor of Hinsdale South as an excellent high school and that the opportunities provided by its amazing staff (I can say that now since I’ve retired) compare favorably to every high school in the country, including and (what school board members and administrators need to keep reminding everyone) especially Hinsdale Central.
And now that distinction needs more emphasis than ever: For the past decade or so, as the enrollment has gone up at Central, several additions and upgrades have been made to the facilities there. From library remodeling to new science labs to air conditioning, tens of millions have been spent to improve the physical plant at Central. And yes, most of those upgrades were also made at South as well. But in the last few years, South’s enrollment has declined from over 2000 students at its peak to less than 1600 on its most recent 2016 school report card. With Central still growing (not to mention the expansion of the aforementioned “buffer zone” last year), this meant any new building was only going to take place at Central, unless the board shifted attendance areas for the two schools in order to send more students to South.
The discussion of the transfer/redistricting solution to Central’s overcrowding lasted about two board meetings last year, as parents from the Central attendance areas turned out in droves to protest the possibility. That board (of whom three members are still on the current board) quickly backed away from the idea, pledging not to broach the subject again when determining whether or not to seek a referendum and even apologizing to parents for “stressing” them with speculation about their children being made to attend South. That led to the proposal for a $76 million tax increase, and we know how that turned out.
So now the whole South/Central issue comes into play once more. The overcrowding at Central is not going to go away; facilities are limited, and there is only so much room available (especially in specialized areas like science labs). Increasing class sizes is never an appealing solution (nor should it be), and the growth in Central with South shrinking has already led to the reallocation of the most valuable resource any school district has: its teachers. Many have been transferred from South to Central, which leads to some uncertainty and tension, especially when department chairs have to agree on which teachers should be moved and younger teachers need stability in order to polish their craft. Any involuntary transfer will create some negativity; the goal should be to minimize that kind of disruption of the staff.
But that leads right back to the much more unpopular and difficult disruption of students who were supposed to go to Central being told they have to attend South. And with the referendum’s being soundly defeated, there aren’t many alternatives. Temporary classrooms could be used at Central as a stopgap, depending on how long the enrollment bulge lasts, but that is hardly a palatable solution, especially in one of the more prestigious high schools in the country. Other than that or a population shift to South, the board could try for another referendum or use its excellent credit rating to issue some bonds which could finance Central’s expansion.
That last option is basically how past additions and building modifications have been funded, so it would hardly be surprising should the board take that direction. But as I’ve also previously pointed out, the intent of property tax laws is for residents to have a say in approving funds for building projects, among other things. A referendum is the more letter-of-the-law method to get necessary money for projects, but the key point opponents of the recently defeated District 86 proposal made was that much of this building wasn’t necessary, that needed classroom space was already in place. With that kind of controversy at the heart of this spending proposal, then, a referendum is by far the best method to determine the will of the people. And that just happened, without much doubt as to what community members feel about increasing taxes. So, guess what—we’re right back where we started with one question each before both sides in this issue. For the No Transfer people: How will the district provide adequate facilities for so many students without changing any attendance boundaries or increasing property taxes? For the “Fill South First” advocates: Why is attending South so unpalatable for parents in the Central attendance area?
I no longer work in District 86, and I only lived in district for a few years a long time ago (a rental unit, of course. I could definitely digress on the irony of teachers’ being entrusted with the education of children in whose neighborhoods they can’t afford to live), so I will refrain from analyzing or judging the reasons so many strongly oppose redistricting so that more students wind up at South. I’m sure some of those reasons are based solely on a positive perception of Central, of familiarity and experience. But as someone who worked at South and dealt with many from Central-land, I do believe there is a strong streak of irrational horror at the idea of having to slum it by going to South. No one in any of the towns which feed into Central would ever accept that racism, class-snobbery, or “white trash” stereotyping has anything to do with not wanting to attend South; yet that vibe is impossible to avoid if you listen to some of the rhetoric when South is discussed.
And that’s what will have to be confronted by the new board. Regardless of what happens with the overcrowding at Central, the divided district needs to move toward more unity, toward more respect for each school, and toward a celebration of the equity of opportunity provided for all students in District 86. And there is some positive news to report in that direction. #WeAreHinsdaleSouth is a new organization created by parents of Hinsdale South students (both past and present) which has formed to promote South since “South’s reputation took some unwarranted hits in the past few years, including from a member of the school board,” according to one member of the group. #WeAreHinsdaleSouth has plans to make sure that everyone in the District 86 attendance area is aware of that which makes South such a good school, publicizing accomplishments, opportunities, events, and people which show the school in its best light. You can read more about them here, as well as finding out about attending their next meeting on Monday, May 8.
I certainly wish this group well and hope they finally help South to be better recognized for the stellar school it is. I also hope that #WeAreHinsdaleSouth is in this for the long haul—it will not be an easy task to enhance South’s image on the Central side of town; patience, creativity, and diligence need to be the key strategies since reputations are quick to form but hard to change. And regardless of #WeAreHinsdaleSouth’s efforts, the school board must accept the challenge of fostering a more unified approach to the district. Although wanting to change the South vs. Central dynamic for the better might not have been the key reason voters rejected District 86’s proposed referendum, a potentially beneficial unintended consequence of that vote could lead to a stronger, less divided community. This is definitely not the easiest path, but it is the right direction for the district and something everyone should be rooting for.
On April 4, 2017, voters will be electing local governmental leaders—village officials, school board members, and the like. Additionally, several communities will have to vote on referendums advanced by their school districts seeking additional funding. Two of those involve districts in which I have an interest: Hinsdale Township High School District 86 (where I worked for twenty-five years), which is seeking $76,000,000 for additional classrooms and swimming pool remodeling; and Center Cass School District 66 (which is the elementary district my two daughters attended), which needs over $12,000,000 for various repairs and safety updates. (You can find the official referendums here–just click “Propositions.) Yet, one aspect of funding a school district for which you will not see any new monetary requests is the single most important factor in any school’s success—its teachers.
Just to be clear with my background, I taught English for thirty-three years, retiring in 2012 after working in both a junior and senior high school as well as being active in my school districts’ unions (President, negotiator, and grievance chair). Thus, I have an extreme bias in favor of teachers and the role they play in public education: No matter what kinds of reforms, programs, or experts you can cite; nothing will impact a school more than the quality of its teachers. And despite myths to the contrary, our public schools are not rife with incompetent teachers hiding behind unions or school codes in order to maintain their “cushy” positions. Of course there are some bad teachers out there, but they are a minuscule number of the millions of dedicated public educators. Most teachers work extremely hard to make a difference in the lives of our children.
But it has become more and more standard for school districts to downplay any and all expenses associated with maintaining their staff. I receive several Google news alerts for a variety of public education issues which provide me with over thirty news stories from around the country every day. But in the last five years, I have yet to see an article covering a school district, national leader, school board member, or any organization (other than those quoting teachers’ unions during contract negotiations) who will argue that school funding should be increased in order to attract and retain the best possible teachers. The referendums shown above make absolutely no mention of needing more money for teachers—whether it be to lower class size or to gain a competitive edge when hiring the best teaching candidates—and I can’t remember hearing those in charge of our schools ever advocate for higher teacher salaries.
Instead, it’s become a standard procedure for many administrators and school board members to claim that teachers cost too much, that things like steps on a salary schedule are no longer “sustainable,” or that ”greedy” teachers are bleeding taxpayers dry. I do understand that resources are not infinite—How many times during contract negotiations did I hear that there were “only so many slices of financial pie”!—but that line of reasoning won’t come up when discussing more funds for school expansion or repair, even when the need for more classrooms isn’t always dire, as is the case in Hinsdale 86 where shifting some students from one school to another is a money-saving option which the district has rejected. Yet, the attacks about “easy” work schedules and “Cadillac” insurance programs arose every time I fought to improve the working conditions for teachers I knew were doing an amazing job.
The most galling argument I ever heard was during one negotiations when, frustrated by the district’s claims of poverty and refusal to agree to a reasonable salary increase, I suggested that if money were so tight, perhaps the board should seek more funding for our salaries. The response was that requesting a referendum for salaries would be like “re-financing a mortgage to buy groceries.” Since teachers are mere transitory expenses, the reasoning went, one should never “waste” a difficult process like promoting unpopular tax increases on raises for them. Needless to say, my reply (that having the necessary money to eat was significantly more important than saving a percent or two on a mortgage interest rate, thus rendering their analogy idiotic) didn’t go over well.
The most essential element by a wide margin in improving and/or maintaining the quality of public education is who is in front of the classroom. No matter what study you look at or how many factors are cited as important, all will have quality teaching near the top of the list of crucial characteristics. Everyone knows this, but it seems we refuse to recognize the relationship between good salaries and good teachers, unlike other professions. As all you baseball fans know, the White Sox recently traded one of the best pitchers in baseball, Chris Sale, and a key aspect of his value in the trade was everyone agreeing on how “reasonable” his contract was at only $38,000,000 for the next three years. Yet, when it comes to the people who are responsible for teaching and looking out for our children every day, we become enraged when they earn over $100,000 a year (which would require teaching for 380 years to earn what Mr. Sale—who is a bargain by baseball standards—will earn in three years). And I believe Chris is worth every penny; I just also happen to believe that teachers deserve a good wage too.
So as we vote this Tuesday on the referendums which are being pursued, we should keep in mind the unspoken reality that any additional money a school system receives at least indirectly might strengthen a district’s faculty. Hinsdale 86 is an excellent example of how a failure to use referendums can create a needless money crunch when it comes to maintaining a quality staff. My old district hasn’t passed a referendum since the 1960s, yet has spent tens of millions of dollars on new building: The district has added many classrooms, field houses, and science labs as well as extensive remodeling projects over the years. The money for all this was obtained through issuing bonds and spending surplus property tax revenues. This time, at least, it is going through the appropriate channel of soliciting taxpayer approval before embarking on significant building sprees. Unfortunately, though, the need for additional classrooms is less clear since much room exists in one of the two schools. (You can read more about this issue here, here, and here.) I would vote for this referendum, were I eligible to vote in Hinsdale Township, but it’s hardly a black/white choice. My rationale would be to support the superior teachers there, not the questionable building. The district will have major problems if this referendum fails, but the issues which failure would raise are important and should be addressed sooner or later. Sadly, though, those most likely to feel the pinch for a rejection financially would be the teachers, come the time for a new contract. (You can find an editorial which rejects this referendum as foolish here in the Chicago Tribune.)
In Center Cass 66, I would strongly encourage fellow residents to vote “Yes” on this tax increase (which I will also pay). Elementary teachers unfairly earn significantly less than their secondary counterparts, and the relatively small tax increase for repairs should allow Center Cass to compensate teachers more equitably. Of course, the teachers in the district will have to fight for their fair share, but assuming the referendum is approved, at least they won’t be competing as much with facilities expenses. (It was also a nice touch that over Spring Break, repairs to one of the schools’ roofs ( at Prairieview Elementary), have been on display for anyone driving by on Plainfield Road, right before the voting.)
One day, perhaps, we will see a school board courageous and far-sighted enough to push a referendum because teachers are cherished and valued more highly than the thrill of construction. There should be no question as to what is the most important resource in any school district, but we have a long way to go to acknowledge that teachers matter most and should be compensated accordingly. Approving referendums (even as they are currently constructed) is at least one small, indirect way to show some support for teachers.
For more outlier views on what goes on in the world of public education and ways we can strengthen this institution, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools.
To “Resist!” that which the Trump administration will attempt to do has become a rallying cry for all who disagree with his agenda (or the agenda of the puppet-masters who control him, depending on your view of Trump’s competence). One of the most controversial of his appointments, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has been front and center in this spotlight, given her past history of favoring for-profit charter schools and educational vouchers which would allow parents to divert tax money from public to private/parochial schools. So what is the best way to resist someone in charge of the federal approach to public education who will have significant influence in both funding and policy? The two largest teacher unions—the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—have adopted different approaches, as explained in this New Republic article, but the NEA tactic is not the one which is in public education’s best interests.
No matter what happens, who’s in charge, what program’s being pushed, or which laws are proposed in Congress; kids will still keep going to schools. Every day, they will show up, expecting to be educated (even if their attitudes occasionally suggest otherwise), and plop themselves down (eventually) into their seats as the bell rings to start the day. And the teacher will do her all to make that educating process happen, 99.9999% of the time. I taught for thirty-three years beginning in 1979, which is when the very first Education Secretary, Shirley M. Hufstedler appointed by President Jimmy Carter, took office. And not once in all that time did I spend any significant time worrying about what the Secretary of Education wanted me to do. It simply did not intrude upon my daily work life. Sure, I was aware of what comments, for example, Arne Duncan (9th Education Secretary) or William Bennett (3rd) might make—Duncan (despite his weak record) always came across as reasonable while Bennett never failed to elicit anger—but never did I ever alter what I believed to be in the best interests of my kids because of what federal educational experts preached from Washington. It makes me laugh that anyone would think good teachers would worry much or (God forbid!) alter their behavior because of what Betsy DeVos says. She simply isn’t relevant to teachers’ worlds.
And that does provide some justification for the NEA’s avowed intent to shun DeVos as not worthy to meet with or talk to, as explained in the above article. NEA president Lily Eskelsen García has stated, “There will be no relationship with Betsy DeVos.” As a past NEA member and union activist, I completely understand that reaction to the problems that DeVos brings to her position. DeVos has been strongly opposed to teacher unions and worked against both teacher rights and interests. But that has been true of many educational leaders at the local, state, and federal level over the years; regardless of who’s in charge, it is the job of elected union representatives to continue communication in order to push for that which is good for their members. And the AFT, in contrast, has agreed to meet with DeVos, and its president, Randi Weingarten, has already had a brief conversation with the Education Secretary.
Don’t get me wrong: Given the chasm which exists between how DeVos views public education compared to almost every public education teacher, it is unlikely that either García or Weingarten will be able to make progress softening or changing her positions on basic educational policy. In the best case scenarios, it’s possible to envision a frosty, agree-to-disagree kind of relationship. But the stakes are significant enough that the unions need to remain engaged. Then too, they’ve got plenty of resources and opportunities to try to modify, fight, and/or protest against Republican measures. There will be many talking points and chances to set the public straight about what DeVos is trying to do. But one aspect of DeVos’s position trumps all these things when it comes to doing what’s best for public education and a key reason the unions need to maintain some sort of contact.
And that’s something which matters to every school in the country: Money. From teacher salaries (always my top priority in my role as teacher union representative) to supplies to facility maintenance, up-grading, and construction to getting quality support staff, to instituting new programs/technologies, every dollar counts. And that’s where teachers’ unions come in. At the local level (where I was active for most of my career), the unions negotiate contracts, file grievances, and generally advocate for the teachers whom the leaders (who are also teachers in that district) represent. The state organizations sometimes provide assistance with local issues that might overwhelm a small union, especially things requiring legal help, but devote most of their time to working with and lobbying state legislatures. And the national unions, like the NEA and AFT, receive members’ dues to help advance educational issues at the federal level. In the end, the most tangible issue affecting teachers’ lives and their ability to do their jobs effectively relates to funding, to money. And the federal government has some.
Granted, the amount of Washington dollars which end up in any one school district varies by a lot. In the district where I worked—Hinsdale High School Township District 86—we got a very small percentage of funding from the federal government—a percent or two of the total budget. You can contrast that with the 12% Chicago Public Schools expects to receive this fiscal year. And that difference might be one reason AFT leaders automatically show a greater willingness to work with DeVos than the NEA: AFT locals tend to be larger, more urban, and more strapped for cash than the more suburbanized, wealthier, smaller locals which make up the bulk of the NEA’s power base. Chicago Public Schools? An AFT local. Naperville Community Unit School District 204, Butler School District 53, or Community High School District 99? All part of the NEA. NEA’s locals are more able to shun federal money should they so decide, whereas large city school systems operate at huge deficits regularly. Losing federal money can mean larger class sizes, school closings, and less qualified teachers. But any loss of funding can negatively impact any school system.
And that doesn’t mean union leaders need to compromise their ideals or goals just to curry favor with DeVos in order to receive a few dollars. The issues which matter to NEA and AFT members have to do with labor laws, governmental unfunded mandates, and collective bargaining regulations. How those complex issues work requires that all sides maintain clear lines of communication—during my time as teacher representative, our local had to work with numerous board members and administrators who did not agree with our positions; some even actively sought our elimination. Yet, we continued to interact, negotiate, and ultimately hammer out agreements which allowed for working relationships to exist and the shared goal of educating kids to continue. Nobody’s expecting García and DeVos to go on joint vacations or to become besties—the teachers just need her to communicate their opinions and represent their interests, regardless of how hostile DeVos is to those views.
Refusing to engage with DeVos might play well with García’s membership and enhance her popularity among the anti-DeVos crowd (which includes most teachers), but it’s hard to see how it helps out the schools where her members work. We have definitely entered a different political environment, and I certainly don’t want to overstate the influence DeVos will wield (I’ve actually written exactly the opposite), but grandstanding instead of doing the job you’ve been elected to do hardly seems an effective strategy. Maybe García has some unstated plan which will make this seeming futile petulance pay off in the long run, but for now, I don’t believe giving DeVos the silent treatment will serve anyone’s best interests—except maybe Devos’s since she will have to interact with one less critic. And this will improve the lot of NEA teachers how…?
For ideas that can improve public education, you might want to read Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found here.
Let’s make this perfectly clear right from the start: I do not think that Betsy DeVos is qualified to be Secretary of Education and I did not support her controversy-laden nomination process which ended in a 50-50 vote in the Senate. For the first time in history, a vice president had to cast the deciding vote; DeVos enters office with the least popularity and most notoriety of any cabinet-level appointment I can remember. And that’s what bothered me more and more as the whole cabinet Senate-approval process has gone on—given the relative importance of the various positions Trump has at his disposal to appoint, DeVos is a very small fish in the sea of incompetence and/or disregard (if not outright desire to harm) that other departments will have to endure, yet those appointments have generated much less furor than DoVos’s.
Don’t misinterpret me here: Of course I believe public education is crucial! I spent thirty-three years teaching, so obviously I’m biased, but it doesn’t get much more significant for the continued success and growth of the country than how much education our kids get. From income to contribution to society to likelihood of voting, the better your education, the better your chances to contribute and to achieve. And when you achieve, you’re also more likely to recognize the need to give back, not to mention having the resources to do so. Public education is one of the greatest assets America possesses, and it is the pipeline that supplies what is truly our crown jewel and the envy of the world—America’s outstanding collection of colleges and universities which have fostered creativity, innovation, and leadership second to none. Yeah, I think education is important.
But Betsy DeVos won’t have much impact on most of the educational world, especially the middle-class enclaves which receive scant monetary support from the federal government whose budget Betsy will now influence. I spent twenty-five years teaching and union agitating in one of the better school districts in the state, Hinsdale Township High School District 86, home to Hinsdale South and Central. Through eight different teacher contract negotiations, I became familiar with the financial condition of the district, and we never got more than a percent or two of our funding annually from Uncle Sam. Of course, every cent matters, but it wouldn’t be a huge hardship for many of the suburban school districts in Chicagoland to blow off the relative chump change they get from the feds should DeVos try to ram through some controversial change. And do you really think Donald will let her go after the ‘burbs with their bastions of conservative, management types as opposed to the wicked cities?
Those city schools will be the ones to get the brunt of DeVos’s attention since those enormous, cash-strapped districts depend much more on federal money. For instance, Chicago schools are budgeted to get over 12% of their funding from Washington this fiscal year. That’s a lot of programs, teachers, and facility upgrades/repairs. These districts, however, have been the most troubled for the longest time due to conditions which often hamper the ability of children to function well in school—less local tax money, higher percentages of low-income families, and eroding facilities. There is much that needs improvement in some areas of our cities, and it’s a pretty safe bet that DeVos will push one of her favorite programs, charter schools. Certainly vouchers will also be encouraged, but her inclination in this direction will be staunchly opposed in the suburbs since most people are happy with their schools. (They’re happy with them because they’re damn good, by the way.) And in the cities, vouchers have much less impact since most families have no other reasonable options save their local public school. The main battle ahead, in my view, is between the federal government trying to leverage its more significant monetary contribution to the large urban districts where the teacher unions are pretty strong. We can anticipate some epic confrontations, but it will be hard for DeVos to dislodge many state laws which provide a basis of power for the unions. Much work needs to be done for our city schools, but I’m doubtful that we’ll see a revolution educationally in Chicago’s public schools; she’ll just try to increase the speed with which cities are moving in the directions fostered under the two previous administrations.
On top of that, educational bureaucracy is largely decentralized and notoriously slow-moving. It will take years for DeVos to get up to speed and even longer for her to mount any effective legislation or initiative. Plus, it’s not like she has a stellar record of achievement shining down on her from the recent past courtesy of either the Bush or Obama administrations. Her poor performance won’t be unusual given how Arne Duncan, Margaret Spelling, and Roderick Paige did preceding her. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core all had laudable goals and motivations, but none of those programs has really made a dent in the most stubbornly underachieving districts any more than they impacted to any great degree good, independent, locally supervised schools. Then too, teachers can be (speaking from first-hand experience) extremely stubborn in refusing to do things which they don’t believe are in the best interests of their kids. Okay, maybe that sounds naïve and idealistic, but keep in mind this assessment is coming from someone who spent years fighting with his bosses for better teacher rights and was a noted challenger of authority (aka “a huge pain”)—I’m not exactly a dewy-eyed neophyte on how school systems work. I’ve witnessed what teachers do, and believe me; no math department in the world will veer one problem away from what they have determined to be the best route until you have proved to them the new way will be significantly better. Schools have a rich history of ignoring grand plans from on high, and DeVos doesn’t have much of a track record in accomplishing the radical change she often espouses. For an alternative view (fact?) check out this article I found pretty amusing—there’s absolutely no evidence supplied to support the attention-grabbing title, not to mention this one which has a heartfelt and inspiring back story, but again offers not one iota of support to show how DeVos will wreck schools.
Contrast the limited impact she will have with the potential for harm coming from the rest of Trump’s awful cabinet. Rick Perry was appointed to the Department of Energy without even knowing he would be overseeing our thousands of nuclear weapons. Ben Carson was selected to head Housing and Urban Development as the token black, despite admitting how little he knows about running a huge department. Steve Mnuchin worked for the much maligned Goldman Sachs as well as evicting thousands of homeowners during the 2008 financial meltdown, so we have a pedigreed swamp dweller at the helm of Treasury. Likewise, Rex Tillerson comes to the State Department with years of experience glad-handing various repressive governments (especially Putin’s Russia) to advance the interests of Exxon. Scott Pruitt will head the Environmental Protection Agency with a history of opposing most of its works and filing lawsuits against it. Tom Price is in charge of Health and Human Services despite several conflicts of interests, mainly revolving around his habit of pushing legislation which would benefit pharmaceutical companies in which he had purchased stock. Jeff Sessions is our Attorney General although his past is littered with racist, discriminatory behavior. All these men will be able to change our country in much more significant ways—from the air we breathe to the wars we fight to our economic well-being to the laws we enforce—than Betsy DeVos’s feeble attempts to expand charter schools.
Yet, the outrage over DeVos burned brightly while most of the others were approved with much less rancor. Yes, Elizabeth Warren did crusade against Sessions and Al Franken has been tough with whomever he’s questioned (including DeVos), but the antipathy to DeVos seems much greater and louder. So what is it about this particular appointment that so galvanized the opposition to the point where even a couple of Trump’s lapdogs (aka Republican Senators) voted against her?
The obvious answer is how important everyone sees education as being. More than that, though, everybody has a strong reaction when we believe our kids our threatened. Some of the DeVos firestorm, then, came from our knee-jerk reaction to potential negative outcomes for our kids. As The Simpsons character, Helen Lovejoy, is fond of wailing, “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” Nobody ever wants to be seen as short-changing children or puppies, so it makes sense that once it became clear that DeVos was hardly a wonderful candidate for Education we all sharpened our knives and had at her. That she won’t have nearly the negative influence as Sessions, Pruitt, Tillerson, or any of the other bad cabinet members gets lost in the invective. That she’s a billionaire only makes it easier to pile on when she doesn’t even know the difference between growth and proficiency.
Sadly, however, I believe there’s more going on here than just a bad candidate for an important position. In this case, we have a bad woman candidate. I know there were a couple of other females nominated (although pathetically few), but they had more political cover than DeVos—like newly appointed Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who also happens to be Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s wife. Yep, America’s blatant sexism, which in my view is one of the key reasons Hillary Clinton is not our President, has reared its ugly but equal opportunity head in going after another woman who has poor public relations skills. Don’t get me wrong—I disagree with almost every education pronouncement DeVos has ever made, but at least she has been interested in the field over the past several years. I know she didn’t go to, send her kids to, or work in any public schools; yet she has been lobbying, proposing, and working on educational issues for years. No, that isn’t the same as direct public education know-how, but it’s more experience than Carson or Perry, more transparency than Price or Tillerson, and less corrupted values than Sessions or Mnuchen bring to their departments. Yes, she doesn’t like unions and has no problem with tax dollars being shifted to parochial schools as part of parents’ being able to choose their child’s school. But she will have a much harder time enacting that agenda than Pruitt will in lowering clean air and water standards for the profits of industrial barons at the cost of everyone’s health—Flint was just a warmup with a guy like this having so much influence. And that’s just fallout from ONE of the other departments peopled with Trump’s much more deplorable choices. Essentially, I believe that DeVos would have gotten significantly less flack if she had been a man, and the men got off way too easily since most belong to the “old boys network.” (As I was writing this, one of the old boys did get rejected as Andrew Puzder—who despises labor unions, opposes any minimum wage, and of course was slated to be Secretary of Labor. So at least when a man has an undocumented servant and was once accused of abusing his ex-wife, even Donald can’t get him through the Republican Senate.)
I’ve written before how we need to prioritize in the coming battle with Trump in charge. Like everybody, I’m just now coming to grips with how bad it is rapidly becoming, not to mention concerned as hell about how much worse it could get. But expending huge amounts of energy and devoting significant dollars against DeVos is to misallocate vital resources that we’re going to need for other more dire crises to come. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly throughout this essay, I am NOT in favor of Betsy DeVos or her plans for American education. I do, however, have much faith in the teachers, students, and their parents who are not going to let their schools be taken over by some unqualified rich person in Washington. State legislatures and local school boards are the keys to most school districts, and coupled with energized teachers unions, I am confident that DeVos’s impact will be minimal. With so many other more important challenges ahead from those who face much weaker opposition, save your time and energy for Mother Nature, Lady Justice, Columbia, three women who are going to need all our help from attacks coming from the Trump administration.
And of course, you should check out the arguments which contradict what I have written here, so here are several I have come across. Hey, I’ve got no problem with people criticizing DeVos’s record and opposing her agenda, and if you disagree with my assessment and want to spend your time and energy making public education better, that will never be a waste of time and will always be beneficial. Just don’t over-exaggerate the damage she will cause. These articles come from the following sources: Gizmodo, NPR, Policy.Mic, Vox, Inside Higher Ed, North Carolina Policy Watch, and The Chicago Tribune.
And if you’d like more ideas on how public education can be improved, please look into my eBook, Snowflake Schools, which has way better ideas than any DeVos has every articulated from someone who went to public schools, studied them in college, worked in them for thirty-three years, and sent his kids there as well. Take that, Betsy!
We’re just a couple of days from inauguration, and then we will have President Trump. No, I still don’t like that fact any better than I did back in November and have seen little in the cabinet selections or policy promises to make me happier about our new executive branch leader or those he is bringing in with him. From an adviser who ran a racially biased, religiously intolerant, and misogynistic web site to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency who doesn’t accept the reality of climate change to an ex-Dancing with the Stars contestant as Energy Secretary—and don’t get me started on what could happen to the Supreme Court—there will much to worry about in the coming four years. Foreign relations, trade wars, cyber espionage, health care, and the resurrection of failed economic policies/tax breaks are all important areas where I do not believe Trump will lead us in the best direction. (And that’s not even taking into account the actions taken so far by the Republican-controlled Senate and House.) But my biggest concern right now is that we will lose our focus and waste our energy going after the embarrassing, foolish, but ultimately not very important distractions of which we will now have an unending supply, when we should be directing time and effort to resisting that which will make our country worse.
It’s happened again and again over the past year: The substantial gets lost in the commotion surrounding a late-night tweet storm, some inappropriate remark at a rally, the revelation of a past interview filled with insensitive/sexist/racist comments, and/or clear evidence that a current position stands in complete opposition to the stand emphatically stated years ago. The important issues get dropped in the click-appeal of a new post, and then we’re all discussing how Donald met with Kanye. During the campaign when all we were doing was choosing who would be the next most powerful person in the world, this was bad enough; but now this powerful person will be taking all kinds of actions that matter to the world. We have to be able to differentiate between that which is just tacky, crass, and idiotic from those things which will impact our lives. Donald and his group are going to get away with way too much unless we learn not to allow our focus to be diverted from the significant by the stupid.
It is little solace that in our previous world of politics—just a few years ago—any one of those stupid things we now have to dismiss as frivolous would have probably gotten the politician who committed the sin immediately ejected from his position and party. Clearly that standard no longer applies: Instead, these stories now consume everyone’s attention for several days, flat denials (which everyone knows are lies) are aggressively pushed, statements are spun as meaning something other than what they clearly meant (and we’re asked to understand what’s in his heart rather than what he actually says), panels on news shows discuss the issue (always including at least one pro-Trump person on who tries to dominate the air time), and significant issues get scant attention. Suddenly, we all realize that those significant things have been resolved with little discussion, beneficial revision, or opportunity to challenge them. Whether this obfuscation is the product of evil genius or idiotic luck no longer matters. We all know what’s happening, and we must do a better job of sifting through low priority garbage to force adequate debate and opposition to coalesce against those things which could hurt people rather than that which hurts our image of how our country’s leaders should conduct themselves.
Of course how our leaders conduct themselves does matter, and the messages this prime example of America will send to our kids and the world will be problematic, probably for many years. Any time racism, intolerance, or misogyny appear, they set us all back and we have to confront them whenever we see or hear them. But we need to conserve our outrage for real instances of that which is divisive, mean-spirited, and cowardly, rather than go to the walls every time Donald reveals how impulsive and overly sensitive he is by lashing out. No matter what you think of him as a person, we can’t spend too much time worrying about his character flaws when his programs will have much larger, more harmful effects.
That Trump’s version of governance will be challenging to navigate is quite the understatement. But we have to hold him and his allies accountable for improving that which they have so vehemently attacked and obstructed for the past eight years. I’m not sure how much agreement and love is shared by the various wings of the Republican party—it now appears that Mike Pence will be the “calming” influence on getting established leaders like House Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell to play nice with Trump. That will take some effort, I would assume, and even that might not stop others in the GOP from rebelling against much of what Trump will push. He’s already shown a willingness to shift positions, and his discipline-by-tweet approach which got the Republicans to back away from significant restrictions on any Senate/House oversight by anti-corruption governmental investigators was both heartening and hysterical. That he will be able to exert influence through tweeting is another new thing we have to deal with—it sure doesn’t seem like he’s going to stop anytime soon. That, however, also plays into the hands of those who would prefer not to have their actions or decisions too closely examined or debated.
This week has been a good example of the focus shift we permit regularly. Top cabinet member nominees were to be questioned by Senate committees, as is the Senate’s responsibility under our Constitution. There is much which needed to be discussed with these potential appointees—with the leaders of departments such as Justice, Transportation, and State to be confirmed or rejected. Others are more qualified to comment on the problematic baggage most of Trump’s selections carry, but I did discuss my areas of concern for one of them, Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, based on my experience teaching for thirty-three years. But just as these dates approached, Meryl Streep made a moving speech at the Golden Globe Awards ceremony, which was broadcast to millions. In it, she condemned Trump’s intolerance and urged everyone to reject it as well. I’m betting 99.9% of the people reading this know what happened next: Trump responded with tweets of how “over-rated” Streep is as an actress and that she was basically just a sore loser. He also criticized her in an interview with the New York Times. Suddenly the confirmation hearings were no longer being discussed as we all held our collective bated breath to hear what would happen next between Meryl and Donald!
It’s important to state emphatically that I’m not suggesting that Meryl Streep shouldn’t have said what she said. She had an important message and the forum to present it to a large audience. Those who claim that an awards show wasn’t the “appropriate venue” for such comments fail to understand how infrequently anyone gets that kind of chance to communicate with a bunch of people. If you believe what you have to say matters to lots of people, of course you go for it. And the better response from Trump would have been silence or at most an acknowledgement that he had heard Streep’s remarks and believed she would change her tune once she saw how “great” America would become under his rule. That, of course, would still have gotten a ton of coverage, but not the deluge that their supposed “feud” did. But anyone who’s been following how he’s operated over the years would have known that he would fire back with criticisms of his own, especially his opinion of his challenger’s worth and popularity. And, sadly, anyone who’s been following Trump coverage over the past two years would also know that once he fired back, those exchanges would suck the air of anything else’s importance, for 24-48 hours, time enough for the confirmation hearings to sneak up on everyone.
Yes, the Democrats also know how to put on a show, so you knew there’d be quite a few sparks to fly during those hearings; but they have to compete with who’s performing at the inauguration, the debate on how many quality inauguration ball gowns are still available (Trump claimed they were sold out while retailers pointed to plentiful stocks), and the inevitable new tweet feud based on an unflattering picture, Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of him on SNL, or how unfair he thinks the media is in its treatment of him. None of that, though, matters one scintilla as much as allowing a climate-change denier to be put in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency. We’re all going to have to be much better at ignoring the smoke in our quest to put out the fires this administration will keep lighting. The aforementioned Vice President Pence allied with Paul Ryan will be able to run rampant will little accountability over many programs and repeal rights which have positively impacted millions of people unless we can keep their actions squarely in the public eye.
And even if you agree 100% with the directions Pence and Ryan want to take the country, I would hope that you believe their arguments and evidence should be on full display for all to understand and analyze. If Republican ideas are better, then they should be examined openly with the goal of making these gems shine even brighter, if at all possible. Everyone has an interest in transparency and the power of reason as the driving forces of a thriving democracy. Present your proposal, debate it, modify it, debate it some more, and put it to a vote—that’s what we should demand. Not tweet something outrageous, counter attack with even more bizarre remarks when the press over-reacts to the initial comment, all while you enact reactionary laws that damage poor people’s lives or scratch the backs of your rich friends with little scrutiny under the cover of that public furor over your silly comments.
I can’t say I’m optimistic about our ability to downplay the stupid while forcing our Republican majorities to explain just how cutting taxes for the most wealthy in the belief that it will trickle down to the poor—a policy pushed since Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and one which has been failing since that time—will somehow be successful in its current iteration. But we have to ferret out these real issues lest our air and water get dirtier, our individual rights (whether they be sexual orientation, birth control, voting, racial, or religious) vanish, or public education is starved of funding so already privileged parents can use their tax dollars to support private schools which won’t accept students with special needs. At the very least, minimize the time you give to the Trump sideshows so that you can devote more energy to the vital things. Above all—and this is the most important point—you absolutely have to…wait! I gotta go—Trump just called CNN “fake news” and is accused of being with Russian prostitutes! OMG, can you believe it? See ya…
As our new year starts and the in-coming administration gears up to assume office, it is time to move away from general analyses of how Trump came to office, the problems with his approach to the Presidency, or the general suggestions for what we who doubt his ability to govern effectively or fairly should do. Now, we need to get more specific in understanding those who will assist him in governing; and given my experience in education (thirty-three years as a secondary English teacher), Betsy Devos, soon-to-be Education Secretary, is the most suited for a more detailed look from me.
What everybody notices right away about Devos’s résumé is how little experience she has with public education of any sort. She did not attend public schools growing up, she did not major in education or have a job in the field, and she did not send her kids to public schools. She has, however, devoted much her time as an adult (who can pretty much pick whatever field she wants to dabble in, given her status as a billionaire) to education reform. So as we unravel her qualifications, work, and beliefs prior to her taking over as the highest ranking education figure at the federal level, we have to understand that she has spent much of her time and millions of her dollars to modify an institution with which she has no direct experience. Certainly, several previous Education Secretaries have not been totally steeped in a public education background, but it is reasonable to note that none of them has been as free of any real familiarity with how our schools work while having strident, documented opinions about their weaknesses. If that sounds a lot like her boss in the White House, well…
So the logical place to start—absent an historical walk through her biography—is what does she believe strongly enough to be able to devote so much time and money to changing, despite no first-hand experiences? When you take a look at the areas of her focus over the years, it becomes clear she’s very strong on individual families having as much flexibility as possible in making their educational choices. Naturally, it’s possible to see her educational work as either negative or positive, depending on the political lens through which you view it. What is apparent, however, is that whether it is charter schools operating outside traditional public educational administrative structures, vouchers for parents to use in directing their tax dollars to specific schools, or public funds being made available to private/parochial schools; Devos has consistently sided with positions which empowered individuals rather than the public education. And that seems reasonable when you view our educational system as a competitive one. If you have the means to find and get into a good school, Devos’s plans will work very well for you. You’re probably already making a sizable financial contribution to your local school districts which are, by and large, very good. If Devos has her way, you’ll have the additional leverage of transferring both your children and your tax dollars to whichever school system you like best—thus insuring that school districts will have to work harder to meet your needs lest they lose your funding. You will have more power in both influencing how your schools operate and whether some can even remain open. Those with money could be okay with Devos’s initiatives.
The problem, of course, is that not everyone has that win-win of quality public and private options close to their homes or within family budgetary limits. Instead, the only schools these families have access to will be those deemed as the worst, the ones losing additional funding necessary to improve since any family with the means to do so will find another option (or home school—if you home school, will Devos propose that you get to keep the portion of your tax bill devoted to education?). These schools could become so impoverished that only for-profit, non-union corporations will be willing to take them on, slashing programs and increasing class sizes to foster greater financial returns. The stratification of the privileged from lower-income groups can only increase with this model in place.
Additionally, the obvious question becomes who should be making the decisions on the best educational directions for our kids. Devos seems to believe that parents should be the ones with the most power, and she has a point that nobody is more invested in any one particular child than his/her parents. But that begs the question as to how objective parents can be about their children. (Not very, this parent would argue.) There’s also the problem of the greatest good for the greatest number. Left to their own interests, how many parents would choose less luxury for their children in order to benefit the masses? Parents should be included more significantly than they are now, but that doesn’t mean they should be the ultimate authorities on all things related to their children’s schools and their programs. Devos’s goal seems to be a total shift of decision-making power away from school administrators and teachers to parents.
It’s important to point out that this process is already in place to a certain extent. Although the Obama administration has done extremely well in many areas (in my opinion), one of its weakest areas has been education. Arne Duncan largely embraced the “Corporate Reform” model that Devos seems to favor, just to a lesser degree. Race to the Top did little to improve No Child Left Behind (the signature legislation of the Bush years), and the Common Core had a laudable beginning (trying to establish high standards for all students to achieve), but quickly degenerated into way too much federal interference in the teacher/student relationship which is at the heart of good education. Unless teachers are free to utilize methods they believe will best help their students to learn, progress is impossible. The Common Core tied federal dollars to forcing teachers to teach a certain way and school districts to required procedures that went far beyond the quality standards upon which Common Core should have based entirely. Also, charter school initiatives increased significantly during Obama’s terms, with for-profit companies taking over many schools. At least Duncan never tried to initiate vouchers or advocate public tax money being given to private institutions.
I was no fan of Duncan, the Education Secretary from 2009-2015, as I explained when he left Washington. And I’m mildly hopeful that the lack of direct experience with public education might mean Devos hasn’t totally hardened all of her beliefs, and she might be open to recognizing how central teachers are to any changes in public education; that top-down directives from Washington, state capitols, or even local school boards will have no positive impact unless teachers support them. We’ve been over and over this, but it seems that each new “leader” operates under the delusion that his/her vision is so compelling that teachers with decades of classroom experience will radically alter their approaches simply because someone who’s never been in their classrooms tells them she/he knows better. Culled down to its essence like that last sentence, most would recognize how idiotic an approach that is.
Unfortunately, Devos’s background seems to indicate she won’t understand this any better than Duncan did. Billionaires can operate as if no rules or restrictions should matter to them (This observation is based solely on anecdotal evidence—I have no first-hand experience with any billionaires nor can I come within 1% of their net worth. But watching Trump over the past couple of years, it seems like a reasonable assumption). So I have very low expectations for Devos seeing the light and changing her course to help schools understand their individual and unique situations which only those on site best know how to address. Instead, she’ll probably try to steer as much funding from traditional public school systems to alternatives in her belief that choice is more important than providing everyone with an equal opportunity for a quality education.
But as her boss will probably soon understand, bureaucracies move at glacial speed. (Um, glacial speed prior to the warming of the poles, which has greatly increased their melting in recent years, unfortunately. Yes, as you can tell, I’ve been completely brain-washed by the Chinese hoax on climate change. So sad.) What’s really sad, though, is that our best hope that Devos and Trump’s administration won’t damage public education too much is how resistant to any changes systems as large and complicated as school districts are. My best guess is they will try to help rich and middle class families to exert more influence over public schools while abandoning those who have no opportunity to choose at all to for-profit corporations. And the entrenched powers (administrations and—where they still exist—unions) will fight them every step of the way. Meanwhile, all the problems that each side rails against will continue as the battle grinds to a standstill. And that will leave us right where we are now, with the privileged getting a pretty good education and the poor being left far behind.
We can hope that Devos will surprise everybody and recognize that our society is based on the need for a literate populous, and one which provides all its citizens with the opportunity for a good education. The pessimistic view that Devos will lead the charge to further stratification seems most likely, but given the strange political events of 2016, it seems nobody has a clear idea on what will happen next. If nothing else, maybe it will take Devos so long to figure out the ins and outs of her huge department’s workings, that a new administration elected in 2020 will be taking over before she has time to do much damage. I do hope that she will come to the conclusion that empowering teachers to do their jobs well is the only way to improve schools, and she will move away from the sideshows of vouchers, for-profit charter schools, and public funds being directed into private institutions not subject to federal rules and regulations. Like most things about the Trump Presidency, we have little knowledge of what is going to be done and every reason to expect the worst without much concrete upon which to base our dread. But, dread is the most realistic feeling to have for now. Here’s to Devos’s proving me wrong.
If Secretary Devos needs a manual for how best to guide our schools, perhaps she could read Snowflake Schools, available for a very reasonable price, especially for a billionaire. Excerpts of the e-book can be found here.
Okay, the next President will be Donald Trump. No, I haven’t come any closer to liking that fact than when I wrote about why it happened or his approach to the Presidency in my last two essays. It is some solace, although more tragic and ironic than satisfying and useful, to know that more Americans actually voted for Hillary, the fifth time in our history the popular vote winner has lost the Presidency. But no matter what mental machinations we try to fool ourselves with, come January 20, the 45th President of the United States will be Trump. So what’s somebody who opposes almost all of what Trump stands for, has proposed, and will endeavor to enact supposed to do?
First and foremost, I would suggest that we anti-Trumpers stop with the meaningless rhetoric. The two extremes are, “We all need to come together and give him a chance/fresh start,” contrasted with, “He’s not my President!” I can understand the thought processes behind both these pronouncements, but they do nothing but illustrate how little we care about how our representative democracy works in the first case or show the same petulant whining we so often chastised Donald for during the campaign, not to mention those who weren’t happy with President Obama for the past eight years, in the second. Our electoral process has determined that Trump will be President; “giving him a chance” is simply a rationalization for withdrawing from the fray: “Hey, I don’t know what he’s doing, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt for now.” Sorry to tell you, but you don’t have the power or influence to determine whether or not the President, duly elected by our system, gets to take over. It’s nice of you to grant Trump your official permission, but whether or not you do makes absolutely no difference—sadly, he gets a chance no matter what. And no, it’s not okay for you to sit by while he dismantles any progress we’ve made in the country over the past fifty years because it was easier to wash your hands of the whole thing rather than get involved to oppose the bad things he will push for.
Nor does acting like a child help the situation. “He’s not my President” is another mind game designed to separate people from any issues that arise during Trump’s reign. Yeah, it’s embarrassing as hell to have this guy as President, but denying Trump as “yours” (even if limited to an internal denial) does nothing to change what’s happening. Just because I’m a die-hard White Sox fan and do not care for the Cubs won’t make my “The Cubs are not my World Series champions” statement any less ridiculous. Not only does it achieve nothing except the same satisfaction toddlers get from pitching a fit, but it hardens those who voted for him, making it more difficult to get them to abandon Donald quickly once they see how he will operate. Deal with reality, please, not knee-jerk negativity. Unless you can state, “Donald Trump is President of the United States,” you won’t be able to move to the next phase of dealing with him. By all means, drop the possessive, personal, obsessive “my” from your description of ANY national figure. If you like the person in question, the most reasonable and positive term would be “our” (as in “Our Obama”). And if you don’t, “the” will do just fine. But accept it—he won, and denying that or insisting that you are somehow divorced from that reality only serves as a rallying point for his supporters who will have a point in claiming you sound like a crybaby. If all our accolades to Michelle Obama’s, “When they go low, we go high,” had any sincerity at all, we should avoid any reliance on the “But they did it too!” plaint as justification for mocking everything he does. Donald Trump will be the next Commander in Chief. (Yes, I was testing you by using the most grandiose term for President possible because we all know Donald eats up that kind of stuff, and you have to maintain your cool despite the awfulness of having a President who will probably be mostly in love with the pomp and circumstance which will surround him, while the snakes he brings on board have a field day repealing anything demonstrating fundamental fairness and/or humanity at the same time they’re striving to add to the riches those already ridiculously wealthy, all in the name of the only “true” faith, Christianity. Yeah, this is going to be a long four years.)
But that in no way implies that we should passively accept this future for America. Actually, the chief problem with both of the above utterances is that they play right into the hands of those who are happy to work with Trump and plan to take as much advantage of his term as possible. We can, should, and must oppose any and all parts of his initiatives that allow intolerance, reduce fundamental rights, increase world tension, and perpetuate unfair distribution of wealth. The “give him a chance” folks need to be reminded that this is the man who in announcing his candidacy characterized Mexicans as rapists, and then went on to encourage people to shoot Hillary Clinton, bragged about sexually assaulting women, retweeted Klan propaganda, and proposed banning all Muslims from entering the country. His “make America great again” agenda includes building a ridiculous wall, repealing gay rights, outlawing abortions, restricting minority voter access, and enriching his billionaire class. I was through giving him chances after the attack on Mexicans, personally, but even if you hung around longer than that, he’s had plenty of opportunities to veer away from hatred, sexism, and greed. He’s not going to, and even if by some miracle he some day will, it would be extremely dumb to assume he’s changed until he’s proved it for a long, long time, at the very least.
Many of his supporters will realize soon enough that they voted against their own interests with Trump, but that isn’t any reason for the rest of us to gloat, regardless of the level of gloating they are engaging in right now. It will be tough enough for them to accept what we’ve always known: We’re all screwed with this guy as President. We need to welcome, galvanize, and organize anyone who understands the dangers of this man and the deplorables he is bringing into our government, no matter how late they come to that understanding. Yes, Hillary was wrong to characterize half his supporters with that word, but we can never accept the bigotry, racism, and religious intolerance that many of his appointees and advisors have historically espoused. Bannon and his ilk must be faced down each and every time they try to attack women, Muslims, blacks, gays, Jews, and the press. Liberals’ nice speeches and essays (like this one, I’ll be the first to admit) might make us feel better and allow us our smug superiority, but holding a protest or two and snorting indignantly won’t mean a damn thing unless we follow that up with action, because the stakes are pretty high.
Voter repression, wasteful spending on ill-conceived projects, tax-breaks for the 1%, repeals of reproductive and minority rights, and huge increases in military spending are just a few of the significant areas that Trump has proposed. And that’s where the real work begins—without voter interest and participation, the Republican President, Congress, and (very soon) Supreme Court majorities will work together to enact substantial changes to much of the progress which has been so painstakingly achieved in our lifetimes. It is small comfort right now that history has always arced toward progress when it comes to social issues, at least. During my time on this Earth (I was born in 1957), there have been laws in this country making it illegal for a white to marry a black and denying any rights (legal or sexual, if you can imagine) for gay couples. Yes, it seems absurd that we allowed the government to discriminate to that degree, just as future generations will be amazed that a U.S. President could be in favor of much advertised to be in Trump’s first 100-day plan. History will show how wrong many of the Republican goals are, and eventually, right will triumph and become the norm.
In the meantime, though, we’ll have to do what we can to resist rollbacks in areas crucial to everybody, like climate change. No, I’m not optimistic Donald will be able to prove it’s a Chinese hoax, but we can expect many regulations loosened or repealed which will lead to more damaging fuel usage, especially coal, in the near future. The Keystone Pipeline might come barreling through from Canada. Drilling will be permitted in more national parks than before. Climate clean-up pacts made with most of the developed world might be torn up. Clean air and water regulations could be diluted, as could restraints on fracking. All of these things will affect everybody in both the short and the long term; it is in all our best interests to provide input to our legislators to help them understand that there is no future in pollution, and burning carbon produces pollution. (In addition, we should contribute when we can to non-profit groups dedicated to fighting for the climate.) Unfortunately, Mother Nature couldn’t care less who’s in office, and the significant, negative weather changes many parts of the country have already begun to experience will only spread, not to mention more frequent, more severe storms à la Katrina and Sandy will slap us hard upside the head. Making these disasters even worse, lower income groups will be disproportionately hurt by these events. Trump is totally wrong on his approach to the environment.
And that’s just one issue of dozens that will begin to impact people, especially those lacking high wages as a shield to the outcomes of a Trump Presidency. When that disillusion sets in for those who reluctantly voted for Trump in the belief that he was the lesser of two evils, those poor souls need to be welcomed with ideas and leaders who can explain clearly how their programs will benefit everybody. There is very little in Trump’s stated plans which will help many working people. Sure, he’ll be able to pressure some business moguls not to move the occasional factory, but he’ll also foster laws which weaken collective bargaining and anything else which help unions organize or negotiate on behalf of employees effectively. That union people actually voted for Trump boggles my mind, but somehow many were convinced that he has answers. When that facade is swept away, the Democrats need to be up-beat and concrete with ways to combat Trump’s direction. We need for them to get their acts together quickly to unite in ways that will offer shelter to those battered by the Trumpocalypse. Whether it be Bernie, Elizabeth, or rising stars like Corey Booker and Julián Castro; it’s important for disappointed people to have something besides a smug, “I told ya so,” to turn to post-Trump. (Speaking of Corey and Julián, anybody besides me think we might have had a different election outcome had Hillary picked someone for Vice President with a bit more pizazz than Tim?)
And so it’s vital to do battle with the Trumpians. But given the number of different areas for which Trump and his Republican legislators/judges have plans to repeal any recent progress and to revert to that which is more oppressive, unhealthier, and more monetarily unfair; you’ll have to limit your focus. Time and money are extremely valuable resources, and for us middle-class people, there’s only so much of either that we have to give. Any help you can give to combat poor choices which are proposed under Trump (including issues such as race relations, economic inequity, voting rights, tax codes, climate change, pollution, education, religious freedom, LGBT rights, international relations, veterans services, deficit spending, defense department increases, renewable energy, Supreme Court nominees, and the next hundred or so things you could list) would be a hugely positive step—the magnitude of all those things will cause most to abandon the quest before even trying, but we will all be impacted by the decisions, de-funding, laws, and wars these people try to push through. Steve Bannon is his senior advisor; that sentence alone should motivate every one of us. So find a cause that interests/motivates you, and at least give money to its champions. I understand—we’re bombarded with requests for our money and time constantly, so I won’t belabor that which is likely to alienate my audience—just give it some thought, okay? Instead, I’ll cut to the real chase and get to the one thing that absolutely has to change in order to repel that which is Trump as quickly as possible.
Any discussion of working to oppose what Trump wants to impose has to begin and end with voting. And in our instant-information (not particularly accurate or well-researched information, but, hey, at least we can get the biased nonsense fast, right?), there has to be some way for social media to exert more pressure on those who do not vote. Again, it might take some time for many to understand how foolish it was to accept the false equivalency propaganda which portrayed this election as a choice between two poor candidates and allowed the experienced, qualified, knowledgeable person to be defeated by the new, unqualified, ignorant guy. Sadder still, is the extent to which many allowed themselves to buy the-two-equally-bad-candidates garbage to the point of not voting at all. Even a meager amount of effort would have convinced those fence sitters that like her or not, Hillary was the demonstrably, significantly, unquestionably better choice; and that regardless of what the polls predicted, a millionth of a percentage chance that some idiotic FBI investigation of Anthony Weiner’s computer might open the door to the remotest possibility of Trump’s winning was risk enough to make sure to vote for Clinton. But almost half of eligible voters did not cast a ballot. That’s probably the most awful part about this whole thing—just how easily we could be preparing for an historic first woman’s inauguration as President instead of stocking up on doomsday supplies or checking into the process on becoming a Canadian citizen. All it would have taken would have been for some of us to have voted in a few key states—Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Carolina all could have been won by Hillary if more had turned out. And had the results in those states have changed; Hillary would have won the Electoral College 312-226. Everybody needs to vote, and we need to put pressure and lay more guilt on those who don’t.
And that could be a great public service project to get involved in. Voter ID, false reports of election fraud, and other attempts to suppress opposition voters need to be stamped out. We should make voting easier, not harder, with a national holiday for elections, on-line voting becoming common-place, and automatic voter registration—based on driver’s licenses and the like. The anti-Republican tide is swelling in this country, and it’s just a matter of time before the outdated, tinged with racism policies this party advocates are yesterday’s horror. Who knows? As a union activist in my teachers association for thirty years, I learned that one of the most galvanizing factors to increase member participation (which, like voter participation, is also hard to generate) was a terrible school board member or three to roil the waters. In the case of Donald, we’ve got perhaps the greatest motivator for progressive programs ever. I know it’s hard to imagine right now, but one day, we might even see Donald Trump’s election as President as the single biggest cause of a renaissance in human development, not because of the idiotic agenda Donald is advancing, but because of how many people were disgusted by his plans and joined together to defeat him. Now is not the time for despair or withdrawal. Trump will soon be the President, so we’d better get busy.
Last time, we went over a few theories on how Donald Trump was able to overcome all the negative energy which swirled around his campaign to become the 45th President of the United States. It still seems surreal to write that, two weeks later. Regardless of my shock and horror, however (not to mention a spike in suicide hotline calls), Trump will take office in a couple of months, displacing the style and grace of the White House’s previous occupants with arrogance and vulgarity. Sorry about that—the goal here isn’t to heap insults on his personality or take cheap shots at his personal life, but to understand what’s going on now as he prepares to take over the most powerful country in the world.
He really hasn’t been all that specific; “great” covers a pretty wide range of possibilities, especially when your definition includes things like deporting eleven-million people, waterboarding prisoners, erecting thirty-to-forty-foot walls around our borders, and targeting the families of our enemies for death. In other words, all the analysis about his psychology and ego don’t matter in comparison to even the fiftieth most important issue for America which should be on his agenda, or just as importantly, not on it. The wild tweets and paranoid ramblings about everything being “rigged” were great fun for many, apparently, but now our boy has quite a bit of work to do. Is he up for it?
Obviously the answer is no, and that’s where the first and most ominous characteristic of the Trump Presidency will come into play. Trump has little interest in the minutiae of governing, and his personality is even more at odds with taking on its challenges. Turns out, he had no idea how big a task the transition from one administration to another would be, so now poor Obama will have to spend extra time with him to bring him up to speed. When others tried to brief him on the monumental challenge of appointing/hiring some 4,000 staff members in the months prior to his election, he refused to discuss it for fear that doing so would jinx his chances of winning. Nobody, apparently, tells Donald what to do; but besides getting attention and living a life of luxury, Donald doesn’t really care too much about the details which get him those things. His stiffing employees, his inability to admit mistakes, his constant lying, his sensitivity to perceived slights all point to somebody not all that concerned with anything that doesn’t directly impact himself. So this is the man to stay up all night in a heated discussion on the best ways to use U.S. foreign aid in Afghanistan to stop the Taliban from barring girls from schools? Not bloody likely, I’d say.
So all the crucial, day-to-day operations will fall to others. That’s not especially unusual since our government has become way too complex and large for any one individual to be involved in everything. The question, of course, will be the degree to which Donald stays detached from what’s really going on. The first clue as to Trump’s disinterest in the nuts-and-bolts of running America’s Executive branch came right after he secured the Republican nomination and was screening Vice Presidential candidates.
His pitch to potential running mates, according to his first choice, Ohio governor John Kasich, was that the Vice President would largely be in charge of domestic and foreign policy. Since that sums up the job description of the President neatly, Kasich naturally asked then what would Trump be doing. “Making America great again,” is what Donald Trump, Jr., is reported to have told a Kasich’s aide. Unfortunately Kasich, who I see as a pretty reasonable, decent man, chose not to take that offer. Instead, we got Mike Pence, an extremist even by conservative standards. (You can check out a plethora of his positions at Vote Smart, On the Issues.org, and The Patch, for starters—there are hundreds of other websites on which you could find similar lists.) From abortion to guns, but especially on the LBGT community, Pence advocates positions at odds with the majority of Americans. His most infamous proposal was when he was trying to legislate counseling designed to “help” homosexuals learn to be straight, belying all current psychological proof that sexual orientation is an innate trait humans have at birth. (The exact quote, which to be fair has been exaggerated by many, is as follows, according to Snopes: “Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”) More recently, Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, an Indiana law which allowed discrimination against gays, but the backlash was so swift and severe that subsequent legislation muted some of the worst parts of the law.
Next you have Steve Bannon, of the Alt-Right website, Breitbart, who will be Trump’s chief policy advisor. Controversial would be an understatement in describing both the stories that appear on this site as well as many Bannon quotes. The less said about this person, the better as far as I’m concerned, but the reality is that Donald will delegate all the vital day-to-day duties of his office—since he will be much too busy basking in the glory of being King of America to be bothered with work—to the people he brings in. And Pence and Bannon will be his two most influential advisors, outside of those other highly qualified experts, his kids and his son-in-law.
This scenario sounds familiar: A leader inexperienced with how our government works takes the Presidency in a very close election where his opponent actually wins the popular vote. To help him with all the Washington workings which he doesn’t understand, he brings in a seasoned pol and an advisor skilled at manipulating public opinion, at least among his “believers.” Yeah, 2016 reminds me a lot of how Dick Cheney and Karl Rove essentially steered George W. Bush’s ship of state back in 2000. But this time, two of the three players are significantly more extreme—Trump (who has no government experience unlike W who had been governor of Texas and came from a pretty well-connected political family) and Bannon (Rove was part of the Republican hierarchy before he became W’s architect and did play well with other Republicans). Cheney as compared to Pence is a closer match, but that’s only because of how extreme Cheney was, not that Pence is more reasonable. Cheney and Rove did have the advantage of playing for the same team, while Pence and Bannon do not. Pence is definitely an “establishment” Republican, which means he’ll be leaning on familiar faces. Reince Priebus, who has been appointed Trump’s chief of staff, shows the Pence influence since Priebus has been chairman of the Republican National Committee. Bannon favors elimination of what we would consider the mainstream of the party (although I’m not really sure with whom he would replace them): He has no love for key party members like House Speaker Paul Ryan, and has openly rooted for the destruction of the party in favor of his Alt-Right, whatever that may be. He really scares most politicians, which given the favorability ratings of most politicians, doesn’t bother a lot of people, especially those who support Trump. So Trump’s key decision will be which side he listens to most or with whom he has been in agreement this whole time.
My belief is that Donald has been pretty much making it up as he goes along; just as Mr. Garrison of South Park has. (Yes, I love South Park , and this season has had a major strand in its plot where a disgruntled ex-school teacher has morphed into a foul-mouthed populist running for President—with Caitlyn Jenner as his running mate—who is swept into office despite his being, by his own admission, unqualified for the job. And I realize I’m destroying what little credibility I might have in stating this, but SP has been phenomenal its last two seasons!) We’ll see based on key appointments which side is holding the most sway.
However, neither side is progressive in the slightest—Bannon and Brietbart are famously popular with white nationalists and the Klan. If you’ve read any of their articles (or even just headlines), you will see an anti-woman, Jew, black, and Muslim slant in many articles. And Pence and his allies see Planned Parenthood as evil; the human impact on climate change as unproven; Roe v. Wade as something to be overturned; stricter voter identification laws as positives; minimum wage as something that must not be raised, gay marriage as an abomination, and deportation as the best path for immigration reform.
The wild card in all this, of course, is Donald himself. His petulance when he attacks people at his rallies or via Twitter show no signs of abating—he just slammed the cast of Hamilton—but he has seemed more conciliatory and gracious when he has appeared in public since being elected. He said the Clintons and President Obama are “good” people, in two different situations. When he traveled to Mexico during the campaign, his meeting with Mexico’s President was hardly confrontational. I have read stories where his foes testify to his likeability in one-on-one situations (just men, of course). His female employees have on occasion praised him for how well they all worked together. So which Donald will we get as President? Has his “evil” side just been a scam to attract angry voters into believing he could be an agent for change? Has our political system devolved so totally that our leaders now have to voice propaganda nonsense (e.g., “Create a Muslim registry!” or “Lock her up!” as Middle Eastern politicians have been required to adhere to a “Death to America” stance in public even while they are seeking U.S. aid through back channels) to fire up and/or placate the masses while pursuing much more reasonable policies in practice? Will we ever be able to trust Donald with the nuclear codes?
Even if Trump turns out to be more moderate and reasonable than we could have hoped, he has surrounded himself with people who have a history of intolerance, far-right policies, and disproved economic theories (How can anyone still believe that “trickle down” is anything other than a description of water seeping into a house?). And we have scant evidence to support the “moderate” Trump theory at this point. Which leaves us with the final question in this new order analysis: What should we who are horrified at the prospect of all the damage Donald might do to the environment, human rights, economic equality, and freedom of expression do? Stay tuned for some ideas on that next time.