5 Lessons from Donald Trump

Today President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump to begin to discuss the transition between their two presidencies.  These men could not be more different in terms of their backgrounds, policies, lifestyles and beliefs.  But, the peaceful transfer of power is a hallmark of American democracy.  So, President Obama will respect tradition and the rule of law and hand over the keys to the duly elected 45th president of the United States.

As this important meeting takes place, it is crucial that parents and all citizens understand that presidential elections are not the only instance of peaceful transfers of power in American society.  Our democracy is a constant struggle for power and justice in which every American has a responsibility to engage.  And for those of us who care deeply about the education of our children, it is more important than ever that we become actively involved in this fight.

So here are 5 lessons about power that we must learn from the 2016 presidential election.

  1. You never get power that you don’t demand.

This truism was famously observed by the great Frederick Douglass, “Power never concedes anything without a demand.  It never has and it never will.”  

Sometimes we get it twisted.  We think that the “peaceful” transfer of power implies a “passive” transfer of power.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In just 70 days, President Obama will turn the government over to Donald Trump.  I assure you that is not something that the current president wanted to do.  There was a fight for the White House.  An intense, often bitter struggle for control of the government.  Tens of thousands of people – on both sides of the argument – gave their money, their creativity and lots of their personal time to a battle for the reigns of power.  There were no militia involved, no battlefields consecrated with blood.  But, make no mistake, there was a fight.  And the Trump side won.

So, we have to do the mental work and the soul work to once and for all disabuse ourselves of the notion that one day some elected official, some appointed bureaucrat or some paid lobbyist is going to have the bright idea to straighten things out in our education system.  They will not.  Nobody is going to walk up to you and invite you start calling the shots in your child’s education.  We will have to demand that kind of change.

President Obama did not invite Donald Trump to take over the White House.  Trump and his cohorts stormed into the electoral process and demanded it.  And that is what we will have to do if we want to achieve education justice for our children, families and community.  

2. The people united can never be defeated.

In his acceptance speech, Donald Trump suggested that his campaign built a movement and that the movement swept him into the presidency.  I agree that there was a movement that that swept Trump into the White House.  But, he did not build it.  It was a movement of disaffected Americans (most of them white, working class American men) that got started a long time ago.  

Donald Trump did not win this election.  The pundits were right about Trump all along.  There is no way that a man given to such offensive language and behavior could ever win a presidential election.  But, what the pundits did not see is that Trump had become the voice of a united, passionate group of people.  And that could not be stopped.  The people Trump was speaking for carried him to the place where he now stands…on deck to be president.

Every time Donald Trump said or did something disqualifying for the presidency, the movement picked him up and kept charging forward.  There was and is no Trump magic here other than the fact that he recognized and tapped into a movement.

Those of us who understand that traditional approaches to education have completely failed Black communities the whole nation over have the responsibility to build our own movement.  It must be as united, as aggressive and as determined as the one that just elected Donald Trump.  Leaders will emerge from our movement.  But, a movement will not emerge from self-proclaimed leadership.  We have to do the soul searching in our communities.  Are we so tired of seeing generation after generation of children failed by our education system that we are willing to do whatever it takes to get them free?

When we come together in a focused, aggressive movement, nothing will be able to stop us.  Until we do, almost anyone and anything will.

3. It’s not about what leaders say, it’s what they do.

For decades the Republican Party has been the party of small government conservatism…at least rhetorically.  Starting with President George H.W. Bush’s promise of “no new taxes”, Republicans have promised one style of government to their faithful followers and delivered something completely different.  So, when 16 people cut from that same establishment, Republican cloth put themselves forward as presidential candidates; candidates with the same tired promises, their most faithful followers said, “No”!  They chose the crazy guy with no government experience and seemingly little personal discipline.  

Now, you might not agree with small government conservatism, but there is something to learn here.  We have seen a long-line of leaders make promises to fix our schools.  But, very little has changed.  The situation has actually gone from bad to worse.  When will we get fed up with rhetoric without results?  When will we say “no” to the status quo and begin to chose seemingly radical alternatives.

You had better believe that the education establishment will mock us.  They will try to convince us that they know better than we do what it takes to fix our broken system and educate our children.  I can already hear the union leaders, the district superintendents, and even some of the so-called reformers who have started to cozy up to the system decrying the “misguided” efforts of poor and working class, uneducated Black folks to take over the education system. Just look at what establishment Republicans said about the conservative grassroots.

But, we can’t let that stop us.  We must demand results from our leaders.  Nothing else will do.

4. Truth is VERY powerful.

One of my favorite passages of scripture says, “And you will know the truth and the truth will make you free”.

I know that Donald Trump just ran one of the ugliest campaigns in recent history.  He seemed to have gone out his way to threaten immigrants, Muslims and African Americans, mock the disabled and abuse women physically and verbally.  But, if you pull back the many layers of garbage, you will notice that the Trump message was laced with heavy doses of truth.

Poor and working class White Americans live a very different nation than the one they’re predecessors enjoyed.  Even if some of the policies that have caused these communities to suffer were set in place to work toward a more just, equitable America and world, the negatve impacts can not be denied.  And the Republicans who were supposed to fight for these folks didn’t do the job.  Many of us might disagree with much or all of what Trump said over the course of the campaign, but there were millions of Americans who agreed with him because he was willing to call it the way he sees it, the way his people see it.

Sometimes, we let the customs of polite society prevent us from calling a spade a spade.  I’m not suggesting that we become belligerent, pejorative and offensive.  There is no need for that.  But, we need to learn the skill of wrestling with the ugly truth.  The education system is broken.  We have poured more and more money into it over time and have seen poor results.  All the tinkering around the edges of the system has produced nothing and it is time for real, drastic change.

A lot people won’t like hearing this message.  They will feel criticized, even abandoned.  But, these are the facts.  And truth telling is what it takes to build a movement.

5. Change takes time.

Eight years ago, one of the worst things that could have ever happened to small town, conservative white America happened.  A progressive Black man from the “big city” was elected president.  Almost instantly, a counter movement began to take shape.  President Obama enjoyed two years of democratic control of the government, but the 2010 midterm elections saw the first wave of push back.  The first class of Tea Party conservatives rode the wave into congress.  In 2012, the conservative movement narrowly lost the contest for the White House (progressives only noticed that Obama narrowly won).  2014 saw more pushback in the congressional elections and in 2016, the movement won the top prize.  Donald Trump will be the next president.

No movement wins every battle.  Ours will not either.  But, how important to us are our children?  If we really care about this stuff, we will have the staying power to remain focused, stay united and overcome setbacks.  What else is there to do?

There is another presidential election just four short years from now.  But there are many opportunities today and tomorrow to peacefully grab hold of power, especially in education.  Are we willing to apply the lessons and do the work?

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Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. He has also been involved in several political campaigns including his service as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s primary bid for U.S. Senate. Chris worked as deputy campaign manager and field director for A+ Illinois where he developed a strong, statewide field operation including over 500 organizations and 50,000 individuals around the state working to bring adequacy and equity to Illinois’ school funding system and as the director of advocacy and outreach at New Schools for Chicago, a leader in school reform in Chicago. Chris is a 2006 graduate of the Ministry Training Institute and holds a degree in civic and political engagement from Northeastern Illinois University.