Presidential Portrait

Nalini Jones

This month, the principal of my children's elementary school will hang a portrait of President Trump in the place where a portrait of President Obama once hung.

“It’s a teaching moment,” the principal said. “This is our forty-fifth president. This is how long his term will be. This is how many people voted for him. This is how the electoral college works. We look to the facts.”

But there are so many facts, so many statements on the record that our children have absorbed directly or heard repeated. We teach our children to reject bullying and bigotry, and we have elevated a bully and bigot to the highest office. Among the many astonishing demands of this moment is that we will be forced to pass this disconnect onto our children. What guidance can we give them?

“No vote is a bad vote,” said the principal.

Half the country didn’t bother to fill out a ballot, so I appreciate his emphasis: it is essential to vote. But I wonder about his use of bad, a word that doesn’t get a lot of play in this school. We’re more likely to hear about “poor choices”—in part because no one seeks to condemn a child in need of support, and also because bad isn’t a very useful descriptor. It’s too vague, too all-encompassing.

In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote with devastating clarity about the political dangers that arise from “a lack of precision” when writing collapses into abstraction. “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.”

This is the definition of weak writing, in which the meaning is debased or lost and its impact dulled, distorted, or outright inverted, because the writer has not taken “necessary trouble.”

There is an intimate connection between writing and thinking, as those of us who write know only too well. The search for the right words is not ultimately about aesthetics or the books we hope to sell; it’s the best way we know to interrogate our own first impressions and understand our own thinking. It’s a form of thinking. And a vote should be the same: not an impulse or a gut feeling, not a last-ditch shot from half-court, but the truest and best expression of our thinking, after we have taken the “necessary trouble” that is incumbent upon us as members of a democracy.

“The take-away is that at least there was a vote,” said the principal.

Yes. But should that be the only takeaway? The flip side of “at least there was a vote” is that we squander our votes when we do the very least.

That doesn’t make any votes bad, precisely, but a host of other interpretations occur. I am thinking of a person on social media who accused the Clintons of being members of the occult who eat children. If your vote was based on misrepresentations; if you relied on rumor, fabrication, conspiracy theories, internet hacks, or incendiary fantasy, then surely your vote was misinformed. If your vote was rooted in a small patch of self-interest, or if you courted short-term gains that risk grave long-term losses, your vote might be called narrow. If you sought to vote for change and embraced a candidate who peddled enflamed speech about a return to greatness instead of the particulars of his own vision, your vote seems to me a bit wooly. If you want any change at any cost—voting as roulette—then your vote may prove just as reckless. If you meant to vote for an outsider but did not take the “necessary trouble” to note that a billionaire celebrity, lifetime oligarch, and longtime political donor is in fact a poster boy of the establishment, then in my view your vote was grievously unexamined.

If you voted because you believed Mr. Trump offered a chance at a good job, then your vote was hopeful, and I share in that hope for you. But it was almost certainly unrealistic and likely ruinous, an assessment shared by 370 economists (including eight Nobel laureates), who called the president a “dangerous, destructive choice for the country.” Your hope, which is honest and honorable, has been corrupted in the expression of your vote, because your vote has gone to support a man who time and again mistreats workers and rewards corporate interests.

It’s hard to conceive of a voter who was not aware of Mr. Trump’s bigotry. We all heard him, again and again. But if you sought to put his bigotry aside, if you performed some daring calculus in which those aspects of his character were not definitive, if you held your breath and hoped the math might come out differently when he won—if, in other words, you feel that casting your vote for a known bigot was at odds with your character, then as Mr. Trump takes office flanked by white supremacists, I say your vote was tragic. If you did not realize that some of us regard you with new uncertainty because you have voted against our parents, children, friends, colleagues, values of tolerance and acceptance, and yes, our own bodies—then your vote was also blind.

Of course there were well-considered votes for Mr. Trump. If you acknowledged his bigotry and concluded that it was not a priority for you, you have voted soundly. If you decided to roll with the ways in which Mr. Trump categorically demeans and abuses women, you will be happy with his cabinet. If you agree with Chief Strategist Mr. Bannon that our next step should be to “burn the bitch down” because “[l]eadership are all cunts,” then you have found your champion.

I would like to believe that is not the mindset of most people who voted for Mr. Trump. But if they did not reckon with the full impact of their votes, they are a great deal like people who write carelessly. They have, wrote Orwell, “a general emotional meaning. They dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another—but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying.”

In the aftermath of the election, we’ve been hearing from voters who inadvertently said more with their votes than they intended. They feel injured by accusations of racism. They have no problem with women, Jews, immigrants, gay people, Muslims, the disabled. They’d like their kids to go to science class. But the full impact of their votes is clear and irrefutable: their votes have empowered white supremacists. Their votes have rewarded corporate insiders and Wall Street bankers, and sold out the working class. Their votes have declared climate change a hoax. Their votes have elevated men who come lurching from mythical locker rooms, trashing women in ways that are indecent. In this sense, intentionally or not, they have levied their votes against decency.

“In prose,” wrote Orwell, “the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.” But how many voters surrendered the best of themselves to vote for what they knew to be repugnant? We might, as a start, list every single Congressional Republican who disavowed Mr. Trump’s lurid description of sexual assault yet supported his election in a cynical bid for their own power.

It is hard work to be precise. But that brings us to the great challenge all schools face: not simply to groom students for individual success but to educate the citizenry. This is our mandate. A child who is old enough to read is also old enough to begin learning discernment and context. A child who goes online to research an elementary school project is at exactly the right age to begin an education in media literacy. A child who knows he shouldn’t lie is old enough to expect better of his president. A child who is taught that she is fortunate to live in a democracy is old enough to hear that she is also responsible for it. Whatever America we make next is one we will earn, and we cripple our children if we don’t empower them to be part of that work.

It’s a circus act: teaching our children to respect the office of the presidency while renouncing Mr. Trump’s brutality, intolerance, and ignorance. It is surely more than the blunt object of a portrait can accomplish. But if we blur those lines, we imperil children.

Nor can we model dumb faith in his leadership. Our children need to learn to write clearly and precisely. They need to reject what is inauthentic or abstract. They need to check sources, so they can push past rhetoric that is deliberately deceptive or dangerously vague. Their ideas need to be challenged, not just accommodated. So “no vote is a bad vote” is a bottom-most expectation, the trophy for showing up. We betray the best potential of our democracy if we languish there. Voting is sacred, a trust into which we enter with our families, our communities, and the future. And our votes should be the fullest possible expression of our hearts and minds.

The principal may still hang the portrait. It won’t be the first time a young black girl has passed beneath the bland smile of a president who will not protect her; those guys could fill the corridor. A gay high-schooler in the eighties had scant hope that his president would support him, even if he couldn’t have known the full extent of Ronald Reagan’s neglect—the hundreds of thousands of Americans who would die from that administration’s chilling refusal to act. I invoke this history as a reminder of a president’s power. What he says or doesn’t say, what seizes his attention, what he denies or withholds, supports or overturns, can mean life or death. If we are to believe any of the rhetoric of Mr. Trump, my daughters and their classmates will suffer real losses, not abstracted ones.

And there may be losses we can’t easily calculate. “Will he keep hurting women?” my seven year-old asked the day after the election.

I fumbled to reassure her. “I don’t know. I hope not. I don’t think he means to, exactly. I’m not sure he realizes how hurtful he is.”

“But doesn’t it hurt if he grabs your vagina?”

It is a question any rational second-grader might ask. Mine heard about the pussy-grabbing from an older child on the school bus. Every time she sees the picture of Mr. Trump in her school, she will know the facts: he is the president; his term is four years; he is a sexual predator; a sexual predator won. What will she learn about herself, about her value in the culture, when she walks past this daily reminder of his power, which comes at the expense of women?

The dangers aren’t limited to girls, or to other students from communities that Mr. Trump has mocked, attacked, or disclaimed. Every single time a child encounters an image of a bully as president, we might wonder what that child has learned.

Portraits of presidents may hang four years or eight, but we have other sources of protection and power. It is a fact that every single president has sworn to preserve and defend the Constitution of the United States. I hope the principal will hang that up too. I don’t kid myself that every student will stop and read it. But if it broadens the conversation for any of them, if it serves as a chance to remind our children, as Secretary Clinton said, that “The American dream is big enough for everyone—for people of all races, religions, for men and women, for immigrants, for LGBT people, and people with disabilities—for everyone,” then we have a way forward into some of the most important lessons we will ever teach them.

Nalini Jones is the author of What You Call Winter, a story collection set in Mumbai. She is the recipient of an NEA fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, and an O. Henry Prize. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She has contributed to anthologies about siblings, HIV in India, and Miles Davis. She is currently at work on a novel.