Anyone who has been following Trump’s White House career – in the several meanings of that word – will now be fixated on Tuesday’s election. The effects of a second term are almost too grim to contemplate, but by now I’m sure everyone has read more than their fill of appalling prognostications and warnings from history. This outpouring of academic and journalistic commentary, aided by 24-hour dissemination on the internet, has been an unexpectedly stirring side-effect of his presidency. I’d guess that it is unprecedented in its scope, its acuity, the sheer dogged seriousness of its commitment to exposing and debating the origins and meaning of this political catastrophe.
My own early thoughts in History Workshop Online and the Journal focussed on how we might use the history of Europe’s fascist regimes – the comparison du jour of 2016 – to visualize Trump’s corrosive impact on the institutions of the US republic and democracy. Since then, the horizon of political comparison has been productively expanded. Commentators are no longer resorting to the experience of fascism alone to make sense of Trump and his regime, for which we need an entire Venn-diagram of political iniquity. But here I propose to expand our historical horizon in another way. I want to call on the evidence of history at the margins for a microcosm of what it means to suffer from the tyranny of Trumpian ‘psemocracy’ – the rule of liars – and to anticipate how this history too will need to be written.
The case is this. Adrian, a high-school teacher in suburban Austin, Texas who happens to be the sister of a colleague of mine, has been forced to leave her job. Not because she is unable or unwilling to teach: most Texas schools operated effectively during the spring term with distance learning, and Adrian carried on teaching remotely from home until the end of term in May. But as plans for the return to school after the summer break crystallized, Adrian found herself with no choice but to resign.
On her last day of teaching, last week, Adrian sent the following letter to her fellow-teachers. It is a remarkable document of pain, sincerity and self-restraint. But the full meaning of the letter is not self-evident. Disturbingly, Adrian had to submit her letter to the school authorities before she was allowed to circulate it, and it makes no mention of the cascade of local and national circumstances that have cost this one woman her vocation and her livelihood. If we found it in the archives we might pause to admire its courageous spirit, but without digging deeper we would miss the story behind its silences.
Teaching is my fourth career; I’ve bounced around from a variety of jobs from theatre, to editing, to a short-lived and horrifying year as a receptionist/janitor at a gym…
In all of these vocational strolls, I never once found a group of people so thoroughly engaged and passionate about their jobs as teachers. Even though we are expected to do everything, criticized for not doing enough, blamed for the collective downfall of American intelligence, and are paid tens of dollars a year to accept these privileges, teachers continue to rise to the occasion.
We’re burdened with the task of being Superwomen to our students, and we shoulder that with joy, fidelity, and pride on a daily basis – whether it’s feeding and clothing our kiddos, staying late with extra-curriculars, sponsoring clubs, mediating conflicts, tempering breakdowns, or promising them that things really will get better – teachers are always there.
It has been a true honor to work amongst you giants for the past five years, and I’m sad to leave you and our kiddos behind. Unfortunately, a hilarious combination of personal health issues and familial health issues — that seem almost dubiously tailored to high risk complications of Covid — I can no longer safely teach at school.
Rest assured that in the long days and nights when you feel despair, exhaustion, and fear, that you are loved and appreciated by all the students you’ve taught, the parents you’ve helped, and your fellow teachers, myself among them.
Find humor in the chaos. Dark times call for the heartiest of laughs. As Mel Brooks once said, ‘Tragedy is when I cut my finger, humor is when you fall into an open sewer and die”.
Adrian’s reference to personal and familial health issues is only part of the story. She suffers from a serious lung condition which qualified her for some workplace dispensations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. She is also the sole carer for her elderly mother, who has chronic emphysema and has just been diagnosed with a brain aneurysm, and this too gave her certain rights under the Family Medical Leave Act while she was employed. But to return safely to the classroom, her doctors told her that she would have to barricade herself behind hospital-grade PPE, and even then it would be too risky for her mother to be cared for by her. You might think that someone with this double vulnerability would be automatically offered appropriate, distanced, working conditions when schools reopened.
Not so. In Trump’s America, Adrian is trapped coming and going.
First, the reason she had to resign. On 8 July, Trump threatened to withdraw federal funding from school districts that refused to reopen, dismissing the safety guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and accusing the Democrats of seeking (unspecified) political advantage by keeping schools closed until the November election. Although Trump’s threat had no legal force, he vowed to put pressure on any state governors who tried to keep schools closed on medical grounds, and subsequent federal emergency funding was tied to school reopening. In the absence of effective federal leadership, guidelines or adequate emergency funding, states’ responses were determined more by political expedience than scientific expertise, leaving many populations exposed. In Texas, governed by Republican Greg Abbott, the state Education Agency (headed by a hand-picked Abbott nominee) ruled that full state emergency funding would be made contingent on schools’ reopening and the physical presence of their students. Funds would be withheld pro rata for every student not in the classroom.
Given Abbott’s preference for political over public-health criteria and his wavering policy decisions, Texas has never gained control of its Covid-19 outbreak, and cases continue to rise. By the beginning of October, as schools prepared to reopen, less than half of Texas’s 5.5 million students were back in the classroom. The rest, including 70% of Adrian’s students, are being kept home by their families and are still learning remotely. To make the situation even more quixotic, even those in school are still being taught remotely. ‘Back in the classroom’ at Adrian’s school first meant that students were physically confined to their home-room (rather than moving from classroom to classroom), following different courses taught remotely by teachers sitting in other home-rooms. The school then returned to moving students from room to room – but still with laptops on which they watched their teachers. So distance learning remains the norm for all teachers and for all students, whether they are sitting in homes, home-rooms or classrooms.
Adrian is not alone in having been forced to resign rather than expose her health to serious risk. The majority of school districts have been reluctant to risk funding by letting vulnerable staff work from home. Accordingly, other teachers and school officials have been driven to make the same choice between their job and their health. Larger numbers have protested against their schools’ failure to enforce basic safety guidelines. But Texas’s strict labour laws and weak teaching unions give teachers little power to resist. They are not allowed to strike and could lose certification and pensions if they do. Procedures for bringing complaints are cumbersome and individualized, making collective action difficult. Only in a few cases have temporary allowances been offered to individuals.
The second half of Adrian’s story is a sadly familiar one for millions of Americans. Because she resigned her job – even though under duress – she has already lost her health care. She will have to make a case that she is eligible for unemployment benefits, on which eligibility for Medicaid health coverage also depends. On top of this, the Supreme Court is about to hear a case about the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Given the recent confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the court may well destroy protections for the kind of pre-existing condition Adrian suffers from, exacerbating the challenge of her finding coverage in the future.
The threatened evisceration of medical health insurance is flanked by equally toxic attacks on all the public institutions that feature in this story. Trump has made the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act one of the pivotal aspirations of his administration, while his disdain for the Americans with Disabilities Act is not far behind. His politicization of the Centers for Disease Control and his belittling of the National Institutes of Health are notorious; less well known in this country is the relentless attack on the funding and secular ethos of public education mounted by his Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos. Similarly, his Labor Secretary, the lawyer Eugene Scalia, is dedicated to reducing even the limited protections American workers currently enjoy and gutting the powers of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which sets federal guidelines for workplace safety. Scalia’s first contribution as the pandemic took hold in April was to relieve employers of any obligation to keep records of coronavirus infections related to the workplace.
Stories like Adrian’s are legion across the United States; some publicized in the media, the majority confined in unpublished Covid diaries and private correspondence, or passed orally from person to person. When the history of Trump’s presidency and the pandemic comes to be written, these documents and individual stories will form an essential part of its story of grotesque injustice, contempt, cruelty and wilful ignorance. Earlier political generations found it possible to bequeath working people positive if contested responses to periods of national crisis – the New Deal in the Great Depression, Medicare and Medicaid in the midst of the civil rights movement. Trump’s shoddy legacy will be measured in the immensity of its nihilism, refracted through millions of ordinary, injured lives.
Jane Caplan is an emeritus professor of modern European History at the University of Oxford and an Associate Editor of History Workshop Journal. Her most recent publication is Nazi Germany. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2019).