“Failing Government Schools:” the Next Page in Trump’s Playbook

By and large, people like them. Why would President Trump attack them? He has scored some victories by backing extremist views. Will it work with schools, too?

Here’s what we know: In his State of the Union speech, Trump took the highly unusual step of criticizing public schools as “failing government schools.” Why would he do that? By and large, public schools are enormously popular with Americans. Yes, people tend to agree that the nation’s schools as a whole have problems, but huge majorities (65%-77%) give their kids’ schools an “A” or “B.”

gallup kids schoolsNot only that, but public schools have a unique place in America’s vision of itself. For a long time now, as Jonathan Zimmerman explored, Americans have considered their local public school a central part of their community.zimmerman small wonder

Traditionally, presidents and other national leaders like to set themselves up as defenders of the public schools. It seems like a bad move for Trump to attack them, like pitting himself against baseball. Or apple pie. Or motherhood.

Will Trump’s attack on public schools hurt him? With normal politicians, I’d think so. But Trump has made a presidential career out of embracing non-mainstream views.

Remember Charlottesville? Most politicians would have denounced a racist, murderous, extremist march. But Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides.”

america school heiderich 1897

What Trump is now against. (c. 1897)

And as a few historians discussed yesterday on Twitter, the phrase “government schools” has a long and tangled history. Back in the 1950s, it was used by a few libertarians such as Milton Friedman. It was also the language used by white supremacists in the South to denounce integration. By the 1970s and 1980s, it had become the language used by a certain type of extreme religious conservative.

By adopting the rhetoric of “failing government schools,” President Trump has once again upended presidential tradition. Instead of trying to represent a respectable, staid, traditional middle, he has taken on the position of extremist, aggrieved conservative outsiders.

Will it work? Four years ago, I would have said no. So far, though, it has been Trump’s go-to move. As the head of the government, attacking “government schools” makes no sense. It alienates large portions of the voting populace. But it also motivates and encourages a small group of outsiders and extremists, people who hadn’t considered themselves welcome in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue before 2016.

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