As a high school humanities teacher, my blood boiled when on Thursday, Nov. 5, President Donald J. Trump claimed widespread voter fraud in a primetime address from the White House grounds.
“If you count the legal votes, I easily win,” he said. “If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us. If you count the votes that came in late — we’re looking at them very strongly. But a lot of votes came in late.”
Not only are those claims entirely unfounded and baseless, but those words, coming directly from the mouth of the leader of the free world, also have no precedence in American history. I’m anxious for the rest of the night, thinking what to say to my juniors and seniors in the morning. I’m also aware that my lesson will be recorded on Zoom, as several of my students are learning from home. My words have the potential to reverberate beyond a single class.
I am reassured by a famous quotation from John Adams: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
I teach at an elite private school in relatively liberal Massachusetts, where I’m fortunate to have the luxury of sharing facts without threat of reprisal from my administration. I know of colleagues at different schools in other parts of the country who would be disciplined or even fired for calling Trump a liar, as he fans the flames of civil war. Luckily, I have Adams and truth on my side when I say as much to my students in government, history, and journalism.
I remind everyone that since George Washington retired from the Presidency in 1797, our Republic has — with the notable exception of Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, factoring in to the onset of the Civil War — always thrived on widespread faith in the election system and a peaceful transfer of power. I profess as much, balancing my obligation to provide comfort to my charges, with the need to avoid minimizing what I — and many others — fear the future could hold, especially the longer Trump refuses to concede.
I see anxiety on my students’ faces, and I struggle with causing them mental anguish. With the pandemic, there is already enough to worry about. Several of them, I am sure, have also felt the virus strike close to home. Still, my silence about Trump’s toxic claims would send an even more damaging message of apathy. More than ever, our nation needs young people to speak truth to power.
And the truth is that Trump’s words and action place him in uncharted territory. As it happens, my history students are studying the Election of 1800, when the House of Representatives broke an electoral tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. I am just beginning to broach the controversy that defined that contest, including how the incumbent Adams, who did not attend his successor’s inauguration, appointed a number of Federalist judges, including Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, before leaving Office.
My government students are already drawing parallels to how Trump has appointed three conservative Supreme Court justices, not to mention a historic number of federal judges. They are also quick to mention that both Trump and Adams caused dissent within their respective parties, but whereas one accepted defeat under unusual circumstances (however grudgingly), the other is feigning a victory that didn’t happen.
But make no mistake about it; pointing students toward the truth is no easy task given the deluge of fake and misleading information on the Internet. Several students asked me what I made of a viral video shared by Eric Trump — now widely deemed false by any credible source — of a Virginia man supposedly burning ballots favoring the President. To expose such lies, I recently shared a Washington Post article with my students, informing readers about false allegations of voter fraud.
Even at my school, an academic powerhouse, students have admitted to falling for those deceptions — unable or unwilling to believe that anybody would post false and malicious content. They tell me that the sheer number of views on viral videos often adds to a post’s credibility. “That many people couldn’t be fooled,” one student told me.
Just as I tell my students not always to trust what they read, I insist that the same hold true for what they watch and hear on their devices. I also plead with them to engage, wholeheartedly, in checking more established news sources for confirmation. In the world of education, this is called lateral reading, and I model it by having multiple sites open to check the credibility of claims on a given topic.
It’s far beyond my purview or wish to dictate to the hearts and minds of my students; I simply and passionately oppose lending credence to vicious falsehoods embraced by our President. My stance is not a matter of politics; it’s a matter of honesty and decency.