Talking to Kids About Trump’s Victory
By Adam Gopnik
Someone asked me this morning to say something about talking to kids in this time of crisis. Indeed, Van Jones, speaking last night on CNN, as our own Brexitish disaster was unfolding, spoke passionately about the perils of this Wednesday morning’s breakfast: What do you say to kids when a man whom they have been (rightly) brought up to regard as a monstrous figure is suddenly the figure, the President we have?
I have been unstinting in my own view of the perils of Trumpism, and will remain so. But I also believe that the comings and goings of politics and political actions in our lives must not be allowed to dominate our daily existence—and that if we struggle to emphasize to our children the necessities of community, ongoing life, daily pleasures, and shared enterprises, although we may not defeat the ogres of history, we can hope to remain who we are in their face.
I went for a long walk late last night with my seventeen-year-old daughter, and noted that she felt better when she turned back, inevitably, to her cell phone and its firecracker explosions of distraught emotion from her circle. Connection, even connection in pain and dismay, is the one balm for trauma of any kind. Kids need to be reminded that those connections remain benign, no matter how frightening the images on the screen (or the panic in their parents’ eyes) may be. We owe it to them not to react hyper-emotionally, even while we make an effort not to under-react intellectually—to pretend that this is just another election. Many of us learned the painful lesson of 9/11, that panic is friend only to our fears.
We teach our children history, and the history that many of them have learned in the past decade or so, at American schools and colleges, is, perhaps, unrealistic in remaining unduly progressive in tone. They learn about the brave path of the slaves’ fight for freedom, about the rise of feminism, and with these lessons they learn to be rigorously skeptical of the patriarchy—without necessarily seeing that the patriarchy survives, enraged. The strangest element of this sad time is surely that our departing President, a model of eloquence and reason, is leaving office with a successful record and a high approval rating. How Trump’s strange rise and Obama’s high rating can have coincided in the same moment will remain one of the permanent conundrums of our history.
The lesson of history—one of them, anyway—is that there is no one-way arrow in it, that tragedy lurks around every corner, that the iceberg is there even as the mighty Titanic sails out, unsinkable. Having a tragic view of life is compatible with having a positive view of our worldly duties. This is a big and abstract thought to share with children, of course, and perhaps, like so many like it, it is teachable only as a pained—at this moment, acutely pained—daily practice.