Teaching a Trump Presidential Victory

I would give my right arm to be in a history classroom today. Of course, that raises the question of what we as history educators should do to help our students understand last night’s election results and Donald Trump’s victory. What follows is not in any way intended as a lesson plan. Those will certainly be forthcoming in the near future. For now I want to share a few thoughts about how you should approach your students and what you may want to avoid.

The first and most important thing to remember is that what we do today, tomorrow, and over the next few weeks is not about us. This is not about trying to make ourselves feel better or use our students to help justify or explain away what happened last night. It’s about our students.

That may seem obvious, but I painfully remember how difficult it was having to work with my students in the days following the 9-11 attacks having lost a relative in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. I fear that this election will be even more difficult to teach given that we will not enjoy the comfort of a brief period of national unity and non-partisanship. In fact, the current divisions that define the American political and cultural landscape will likely deepen.

How each of us engages our students – regardless of whether we are thrilled or horrified by the results – will shape the depth and scope of their understanding of the historical context of the 2016 election and its connection to different points in our history.

Keep in mind that their lived history is drastically different from our own. Our high school students have no memories of 9-11 and those of college undergraduates are vague at best. Each of us has already tried to place Donald Trump’s victory within our own lived personal histories. Many of you are beginning to craft a narrative that places Trump’s victory within a broader historical narrative.

None of your students has access to these narratives. They are starting from scratch.

My fear is that teachers will cobble together primary sources, media, and a narrative that reflects how they view this election within the broad sweep of American history. Please resist this urge. At some point you may want to raise Andrew Jackson’s 1828 victory; the rise of Populist Movements at the end of the 19th century; moments in the history of race and gender; and relevant demographic shifts. All of this is the stuff of American history, but your choices will reflect your perspective and how you are responding to last night’s results.

Again, it’s not about you.

Begin by inviting your students to try to explain what happened and why. You may want to hand out election results, including who voted, who didn’t vote, and where. Ask them to think about the last two years and have them work together on producing a list of important facts, including milestones or turning points in the election process itself plus events and larger themes throughout the country over the past two years that helped to shape its trajectory. From there you can have your students work back as far as they can within their lived past to help to begin to frame a historical narrative. In other words, have students reflect on how do they see this election in the context of their own lives.

From here your students can work on formulating connections with the history currently or previously under discussion in your class. It really doesn’t matter where you are in the syllabus. And this is where your expertise as a history teacher comes into play. Pay attention to how your students direct the conversation, especially in the beginning. Feel free to remind them of events, individuals, themes that have already been discussed that are relevant to the points being made.

It is going to take some time to fully understand the 2016 election. No one has all the answers. It is an ideal opportunity to leverage students’ personal understanding of the past two years, the analytical skills that they are hopefully practicing on a daily basis, and their limited understanding of history to begin to piece together what will certainly go down as an important moment in their lives.

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41 comments… add one
  • Julian Nov 12, 2016 @ 6:08

    Will the changed tenor of public debate post-election impact upon the interpretation of material culture and especially Confederate memorials ?

    Certainly the Civil War sits squarely behind this election not only in terms of tenacity of attitudes … as it was constantly stated in overseas news sources that 2016 is perhaps the most US historic election since that of Lincoln in 1860 and one that may have as great an impact on the profile and nature of the US as an entity

    BTW there was rolling coverage of the US election on at least 3 Australian TV channels I watched from the closing of polls till Trumps acceptance speach – one channel just relayed US program but News 24/7 had its own program with US commentators resident here and crosses to the US

    • Kevin Levin Nov 12, 2016 @ 12:30

      It will certainly intensify as we have already seen in cities like Richmond and New Orleans.

  • Erick Hare Nov 11, 2016 @ 8:12


    In the months following this election it is a critical time for the legacies and lessons of the Civil War and Reconstruction era to be studied, and really understood by Americans. Merely hours after the election was over many people in parts of our country called for secession from the Union for the exact opposite reasons the Confederate states attempted to secede prior to the Civil War.

    The two main issues the Civil War resolved were the issues of Union and, for the first time, concretely defining freedom, liberty, and equality for all within our country. Granted we are still clarifying these issues to this very day, but it is now more critical than ever for all Americans to come together and really understand those lessons that so many Americans fought and died over in the Civil War.

    • Erick Hare Nov 11, 2016 @ 11:48

      To expound on this point, this election campaign cycle has proven just how strong a hold Lost Cause ideology still has a hold on the country’s psyche. Many are struggling with accepting the results of the election, and have resorted to talking about, and believing they are justified in calling for secession from a country which elected a president who fanned the flames of racial, and social divisions within the country to win the presidency.

      This only proves just how tenuous the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction are, and proves beyond a shadow of a doubt just how much former Confederates were able to mask, and attempt to destroy the real legacy of the Civil War. If we’re not careful this could lead to more conflict and division today. It also proves just how critically necessary our role in really helping Americans learn about the lessons of the Civil War and Reconstruction really is.

      • Joshism Nov 13, 2016 @ 6:15

        “believing they are justified in calling for secession from a country which elected a president who fanned the flames of racial, and social divisions within the country to win the presidency.”

        I think there’s a very important difference between 1860 and 2016 (or 2012) secession talk – more important than the great duration and great support 1860 had by far.

        Southerners made it clear in 1856 and 1860 that the election of any Republican was unacceptable to them. Their opposition to Lincoln’s election would have been no different than to Seward, Bates, or Fremont.

        Secessionist talk in 2012 by Republicans and in 2016 by Democrats hinges mostly on the candidate, not the party. Were the presidents not Obama nor Trump the volume of rage would I think have been much lower.

    • Joshism Nov 13, 2016 @ 6:09

      “Merely hours after the election was over many people in parts of our country called for secession from the Union for the exact opposite reasons the Confederate states attempted to secede prior to the Civil War.”

      True, but mere hours after the election 4 years ago some people (I think many is an exaggeration 2012 or 2016) called for secession too. It’s empty bluster on both sides and I don’t think it means anything, at least not at this point.

  • Paul Erb Nov 11, 2016 @ 6:52

    Thank you for this post, Kevin. John Amos, who was once a colleague of yours, shared it with me today in the conviction that “resisting the urge” is the right thing to do.

    As an English teacher, not a History teacher, I have three responses:

    1. I am myself feeling so irrational a tide, that teaching a historical “type” of populist movements, for which this election would be the “antitype,” or the Corcyrean revolt or the cult of Dionysus in Ancient Greece, feels like clutching at intellectual straws to make the matter “about me.”

    2. Teaching the “five Why’s” method that boosted Japanese manufacturing success might help open doors for students to discuss. Asking “Why” in succession, looking for a rational cause, might help students get to the motivations that may have divide us, and look to something in their own, personal recent pasts that represents a nation’s concerns. But it has to be an open “Why,” not a wailing “Why.”

    3. Belief in process is critical. Rejecting the outcome of the election would be tantamount to bursting into the throne room and yelling, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers!” Just as “the Bustle in a House, the morning after Death / Is solemnest of industries / Enacted upon Earth,” in Emily Dickinson’s phrasing, so we who fear that irrational motives have led to uncertainty should not preach, but trust to a process (the why’s, maybe, or one’s own way of processing) and not to a shouting match or a finger-wagging lecture.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 11, 2016 @ 9:21

      Hi Paul,

      I am sure we have met in passing at some point. Nice to hear from you and thanks for the comment. Having spent the morning at my last school it was reinforced for me that students have legitimate concerns and questions about the future. They want some reassurance that the country is not going to go off the rails, which is why I agree entirely with your third point. Our role should be in directing their questions in ways that engage and encourage active citizenship moving forward.

  • Shoshana Bee Nov 10, 2016 @ 15:49

    “what do I tell my children today (now yesterday). Sadly, I didn’t have an answer. We live in a sad country”

    You tell them to open their eyes, pay close attention, and take note of what they like, don’t like, and decide what part they are going to play in the world to come. I refuse to infuse “my kids” (students) with pessimism and doom. Encourage young people to empower themselves with knowledge of the world around them and plan for the opportunities that lie ahead of them. I was afraid for a couple of hours on election night, but now I am motivated — more motivated than I have ever been to seize the day, so to speak. I hope that “my kids” will rise up and become civic minded young adults who will have more time to pursue all that is important in life, and hopefully they will have no time to succumb to fear.

  • Brad Nov 10, 2016 @ 10:43

    I would not want to be in a teacher’s position today. I saw many people on FB (including Brian Dirck, who is a Lincoln specialist) asking what do I tell my children today (now yesterday). Sadly, I didn’t have an answer. We live in a sad country.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 10, 2016 @ 10:47

      I guess my own position is that we try to refrain from making the “What do we tell our children/students” meme the driving force. We have to engage them and allow them to begin to make sense of things themselves.

  • Lisa Kapp Nov 10, 2016 @ 8:18


    I could not agree more about teachers resisting directing this inquiry. However, when I ask my students, I do hope some volunteer that the “story” here is not simply a “Trump Victory” but also the triumph of Hillary, a woman, running for president and winning the popular vote! I suspect the latter will yield a very different story, one that will also go down as an important milestone in their lives.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 10, 2016 @ 8:21

      Hi Lisa. This is a great point. How we frame the question will determine the kinds of answers/interpretations generated.

    • Joshism Nov 13, 2016 @ 6:05

      “I do hope some volunteer that the “story” here is not simply a ‘Trump Victory’ but also the triumph of Hillary, a woman, running for president and winning the popular vote!”

      A very good question for students is “What impact did Hillary’s gender have on the election?”

      At least from what I saw I think the answer is not very much. There can be an argument about standards expected and certain comments (“nasty woman”) and there certainly were sexism issues in the overall context of the election (“grab em by the…”) but if there was any significant amount of sexism against Hillary by the general public it seems largely cloaked by larger issues of character, actions, and policy. (Also, more than half of white women voted against Hilary.)

  • Shoshana Bee Nov 10, 2016 @ 8:13

    “It’s not about crying kids if you don’t see them and it is only bombast if it didn’t happen”

    I want to address this quote as a leap-off point from my perspective regarding teaching the three private students that I have tutored for the last 4 years. I believe that Pat is pointing out that how we observe other people’s reactions is going to depend on perspectives. Pat is in the trenches. Those kids are only a fraction of what is yet to come in his world, the world of people who have much to fear, based on what they have been told. Most will never enter this arena, nor will they know the real fear of others, regarding this election. ‘Bombast’ is perceived as much adieu about nothing, or an overreaction. In order to refer to a comment as bombastic, it immediately diminishes that for which the person is reacting to.

    The struggle to keep emotion out of the classroom is nothing new to me. How I have approached the topic of Native Americans in the past requires that I set aside most of my own extremely emotional baggage regarding the topic. It requires that I remember that my students are white, upper-middle class and so far removed from the world I personally know. It is my duty to step away from my own identity in order to teach, rather than indoctrinate. It is much easier to say these words than actually abide by them. I am sure that in the days to come, many others will be joining the ranks of self-evaluation before stepping foot in the classroom and opening the lesson plan.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 10, 2016 @ 8:17

      Well said, Shoshana. Thanks.

  • Sherree Nov 10, 2016 @ 2:52

    Rob is correct: in public schools, it is best to avoid the subject altogether.

    America the Ugly showed itself two days ago. It will not do to say that Trump was elected because of the angry white working class. It took a much broader, silent coalition of voters to bring him into power. So who were those voters? Who are they? What segment of the American population really provides the power base for a candidate like Donald Trump to be elected President of the United States? That is where I would start. Then maybe have the students read Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 10, 2016 @ 2:55

      That is where I would start.

      Like I said in the post, I would leave it to my students to lead the way. Allow them to begin to make sense of the event. Your choice to use Warren already betrays your own values that are now being imposed on the students. Like I said, it’s not about YOU.

      • Sherree Nov 10, 2016 @ 3:52

        I understand your point, Kevin. I also agree that it is not about “me”. However, this would be an occasion that would require taking a stand. This is not an ordinary election. I would advise students that I am taking a stand, that I have a point of view, and tell them why. Then I would let them know that they have a right to their own point of view–that this is the American way. I would then defend their right, without defending their position.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 10, 2016 @ 3:56

          I have learned over the years that as authority figures we have a good deal of influence over what students feel comfortable sharing. My hope is that teachers who make their personal views the centerpiece of the classroom think long and hard about how it impacts the classroom environment, best intentions not withstanding.

          • Sherree Nov 10, 2016 @ 4:23

            Agreed. I understand the position of authority that a teacher must respect and safeguard. There is a relevant history behind this election, though–a rather long history. I would hope that that history would be presented to students so that they can understand these events in context. Our President-elect openly advocated “locking up” his opponent. We have crossed a line. I keep thinking of Dr. King’s admonition about keeping silent. I understand your post, Kevin. I respect your respect for your students. I am just wondering about this one…just wondering.

            • Kevin Levin Nov 10, 2016 @ 4:28

              Nothing wrong with exploring the historical context of Trump’s announcement that he intends to ‘lock up’ his opponent.

              I keep thinking of Dr. King’s admonition about keeping silent.

              Not sure how to interpret this. No one should be silent, but that does not mean that the classroom should be used as a forum for a teacher’s personal position.

  • Bob Ruth Nov 9, 2016 @ 21:00


    For historical context, teachers might also want to mention George Wallace’s two unsuccessful runs for the presidency in the latter half of the 20th century. For my money, Trump is a 21st-century version of Wallace.

    My fervent hope is that Trump really doesn’t believe his own tripe and that his divisive comments merely represented political maneuvering to win the early primaries in southern states. Come January, we will see.

  • Patrick Jennings Nov 9, 2016 @ 12:35

    A little bit of bombast here today. Examples:

    “I wonder how many kids in classrooms across the country will become the hunted objects of ICE…”

    “There is an element of fear that wasn’t felt a week ago.”

    “And add to that this older white woman still trying to grasp what happened to my country yesterday….”

    “It appears that we are going to see a “Spoils System” in the Modern Era…”

    Me, I woke this morning to a country that, once more, successfully started the transition of power from one party to the next. I woke to no reports of real riots, no genuine talk of secession, nothing but people going out to do their thing…like they will for the next four years.

    I clearly realize none of us were around during a genuine election crisis like Lincoln faced, but I guess even the slightly older of us have decided to forget the dark days prior to the Election of 1968 – Bobby Kennedy and later the riots outside the democrat convention. I imagine we all must have thought the May Day riots of 1971 were a cake walk for our parents – nothing on the line there as National Guard troops (and active duty soldiers) set up machine gun bunkers along Constitution Avenue in DC…right? Clearly the stagflation, soup lines and gasoline ques of the early 1980’s were nothing compared to some hurt feelings and imagined fear today.

    Kevin is right….this is not about you. It is not about two crying kids. It is not about fear. It is about a process that allows this country to transition power peacefully and with dignity. The lesson here…democracy works.

    • Annette Jackson Nov 9, 2016 @ 14:33

      I don’t know how old you are, but I will be 72 next year, so I have a vivid memory of “four dead in Ohio.” But even in those days I always had a feeling of optimism, perhaps due to my age. If I were teaching a class today, I know I would have difficulty getting past my own sorrow that someone so unqualified was going to be the next president. So I probably would concentrate on the peaceful transfer of power which we have accomplished for over 200 years, even though the ultimate winner threatened not to honor the results if he lost. I would also hope that I could convey the idea that we can be very disappointed in the outcome of an election and it is okay to be angry, or sorrowful, or shocked without turning on those who voted for the winner.

    • Patrick Young Nov 9, 2016 @ 14:55

      It’s not about crying kids if you don’t see them and it is only bombast if it didn’t happen

      • Kristoffer Nov 9, 2016 @ 18:22

        Strange. You say it is only bombast if it didn’t happen, yet Jennings was referring to comments here as bombast. Are you saying that these comments didn’t happen?

        • Annette Jackson Nov 10, 2016 @ 3:42

          I, too, have no idea what Patrick Young is trying to say. And last night it became clear that across this country college students are outraged by the election of Trump. Several students interviewed in my area questioned the Electoral College, since Clinton won the popular vote. That would be a good jumping off point in my opinion. Why do we still have the Electoral College, what was the original purpose, if you don’t like it, how can you change it, etc.

          • Kevin Levin Nov 10, 2016 @ 3:44

            A civics discussion in light of the split between the electoral and popular vote is certainly important given that most Americans probably don’t understand its history.

            • Rob Baker Nov 10, 2016 @ 6:56

              I feel there is a misconception about the EC being designed to prevent “mob” rule. The arguments at that time and place seem to be centered on states with high populations, but very few voters wanting an equal stake with states that had smaller populations, but allowed more people to vote. I.E. slave states vs free states.

    • Joshism Nov 9, 2016 @ 18:48

      “It is about a process that allows this country to transition power peacefully and with dignity. The lesson here…democracy works.”

      Maybe that’s the question that should be asked of students: democracy works…right? Does this election demonstrate a success or failure of democracy?

      I suppose that’s more of a Civics/Government question than a History one; for a history angle you can compare/contrast 2016 with 2000 and 1860.

  • Rob Baker Nov 9, 2016 @ 9:47

    “I would give my right arm to be in a history classroom today.”

    I’d give you my right arm to trade places. It’s hard to have a conversation about a recent political election in public education. Too much can be interpreted as avocation as opposed to education. But that’s not the worst of it. I also lack the flexibility to break for a day to two and talk about the election. I’m on a time table, I have to finish this unit on the civil war before the Thanksgiving Break. Oh, to be in a private school. But that’s only part of it.

    I’m numb and I feel a great sense of anxiety. Now as a white, heterosexual, able bodied, male I realize that my life will go largely unchanged for the next four years. But I feel a great deal of empathy for those I interact with and care for. I teach in an extremely diverse school with a large population of Hispanic students. Many of them are currently legal because of DACA and other executive orders. I coach some of these kids as well. They are like my children.

    As in all elections, the pop-culture element has taken over. Some students are acting like, well, kids. They are presenting themselves as advocates of the candidate. At this school however, to a specific demographic, that has a different meaning. There is an element of fear that wasn’t felt a week ago. It’s not a fun environment or state of mind right now. Sort of like what Pat said above.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 9, 2016 @ 9:53

      I hear you, Rob. I will be honest that I didn’t think of the school dynamic that you referenced. That tells you everything about my own teaching career. Good luck my friend.

      • Eric A. Jacobson Nov 14, 2016 @ 6:30

        I think the classroom extends beyond a “room” and right onto the battlefield, if I may be so bold. For several weeks prior to the election, and now for the week beyond it, I have spent time helping to educate American adults about perspective (and I’m not a teacher). I can assure you, the lesson plan goes far beyond the young of our democratic republic. 🙂

        • Kevin Levin Nov 14, 2016 @ 6:32

          Hi Eric,

          Great to hear from you and thanks for the comment. I completely agree, but is there anything about this election season that has colored your battlefield tours? I want to hear more when you have a chance.

          • Eric A. Jacobson Nov 14, 2016 @ 12:36

            Let me just say the conversations have been both instructive, frustrating, and at times, downright entertaining. Sadly, far too many people view the current political situation and election without any real understanding of the history of Presidential elections in this country. In fact, I would dare to say many have forgotten the atmosphere of just eight years ago, i.e. the overwhelming joy among some and the very real fears of others. They have little or no Presidential Memory. 🙂

            There was one very interesting thing, however, that I noted over the course of perhaps 6-8 weeks leading up to the election. Among those who offered their opinions unsolicited, or in overhearing conversations among guests, it was very clear that Trump had very real and very genuine support. Also, it was not among those with, let’s say, some pro-Confederate viewpoint. I cannot tell you how many people from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and even places like New England and California, were totally in Trump’s camp.

            On the other hand, I heard little support for Clinton. The disparity was glaringly obvious. I don’t know what that means, but perhaps it says something about who visits battlefield sites (or at least this one), or that Trump supporters were more vocal.

            I have found the discourse to be wide ranging and altogether very healthy, contrary to what has been portrayed by some for many months. I have reminded people that in the big picture, this election is another step in the long history of this country. We will not know what it means for many months, at the very least.

            But let us not kid ourselves. We will not move forward as one united people. We never really have. Our republic is messy, and it pulls to and fro and back and forth. Eight years of Clinton, eight year of Bush, eight years of Obama, and Congress has rocked back and forth between the parties for a generation. We struggle with economics, we struggle with race, and we really struggle with what is right and just. It is America’s curse and blessing.

            This is just the newest course the people have chosen. Time is indeed the greatest elixir.

            Sorry for the length of the reply. Edit it or toss it if you’d like.

    • Annette Jackson Nov 9, 2016 @ 11:10

      I agree, Rob. And add to that teenagers who think it is cool to run around with the Battleflag of Northern Virginia on the seat of their pants, and it could be really dicey at your school. And add to that this older white woman still trying to grasp what happened to my country yesterday…., I am all ready sick of being told that we have to get behind the winner for the “sake of the country”.

      • Kevin Levin Nov 9, 2016 @ 11:16

        I know this is difficult, but I would greatly appreciate it if we can keep this discussion focused on the subject of the post. Thanks. 🙂

      • Rob Baker Nov 9, 2016 @ 11:38

        Thanks Annette, but back to the post at hand.

        When I get around to teaching the modern era – I may try to put this election into the context of Obama’s election in 2008 and 2012. Changes in trends, maps, and population votes. Should Obama’s elections and margins have predicted the 2016 outcome? Could be an interesting idea to approach.

        A lot of comparisons to be made to previous elections:

        2016 and 2000 Election: Candidate that loses popular vote wins electoral college
        Like Clinton’s election in the 90s: Trump is a plurality victory – did not get the majority of the vote.

        It appears that we are going to see a “Spoils System” in the Modern Era and you already mentioned populist appeal.

  • Patrick Young Nov 9, 2016 @ 8:22

    Kevin, I spoke this morning with three young people who will lose their legal status on Trump’s first day in office if he keeps his promise to his supporters. Two were crying. I wonder how many kids in classrooms across the country will become the hunted objects of ICE in two months and whether any of their voices will be heard by other teens.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 9, 2016 @ 8:37

      You have your work cut out for you. I do hope that the narrow focus of this post is worth consideration. In the end, I hope it promotes the kind of values that likely unite the two of us.

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