The Trump Effect: How Hateful Rhetoric Is Affecting America's Children

Southern Poverty Law Center's Maureen Costello says the nature of bullying has changed as a result of this election

"Trump is the perfect candidate for a seventh-grade kid; bad behavior and repeating what Trump has said seems to be a part of testing limits," says Maureen Costello. Credit: Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty

Hillary Clinton is standing up to bullies this election – and not just the ones named Donald Trump. When the Democratic nominee took the stage with Michelle Obama in Salem, North Carolina, last week, she unveiled a new campaign plank, the Better Than Bullying initiative, which would offer up to $500 million to states for anti-bullying measures.

Bullying has long been an issue in schools, though in the past year, something has changed.

"It's gotten pretty ugly, hasn't it?" said Clinton at last week's campaign event. "I've heard it from parents and kids across the country. … Kids are scared by the rhetoric they're hearing." What Clinton was alluding too is now known as the "Trump Effect," thanks to a paper of the same name published in April by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC's Teaching Tolerance program conducted a survey of teachers, and found a disturbing increase in bullying and, in particular, in bigoted harassment, especially toward vulnerable groups like immigrants, Muslims and others who've been targeted by Trump. In some cases, Trump's very name was used as a threatening taunt.

(Ironically, Trump's wife, Melania, has pledged to make cyberbullying a trademark issue as first lady, saying, "As adults, many of us are able to handle mean words – even lies. Children and teenagers can be fragile.")

Rolling Stone recently talked to Teaching Tolerance program director Maureen Costello, who was a classroom teacher for 18 years – in fact, she was this author's high school American history and economics teacher – about how the nature of bullying has changed during this election and how kids, teachers and parents are responding to that shift.

How did you discover the Trump Effect?
Back in March, we began seeing a number of stories about strange events at school basketball games. For instance, a predominantly Latino team playing a predominantly white team, and the white fans chanting, "Build a wall! Build a wall!" Or we'd see something similar at a soccer game. So we began saying, "If only we had a source of data on this kind of thing." And then we realized that we do have access to a lot of teachers [via the SPLC email list].

How did you reach out to them?
We very quickly put together a survey. Not scientific. We asked just a few questions. They were:
1. How have you seen the rhetoric of this year's presidential campaign affect your students? Your school?
2. If you have witnessed bullying or biased language at your school – from adults or students – that mimics the rhetoric of the campaign, please tell us about it.
3. Have you changed the way you approach teaching about the election this year? If so, how?
And 4. What resources do you need to help you teach safely and effectively about the 2016 election?

Additionally, teachers could answer "yes" or "no" to the following statements:
1. There has been an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment at my school since the 2016 presidential campaign began.
2. There has been an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment at my school since the 2016 presidential campaign began.
3. I have heard an increase in uncivil political discourse at my school since the 2016 presidential campaign began.
4. My students have expressed concern about what might happen to them or their families after the election.

We sent it out in March, when it was still primary season, and there were still a dozen candidates. In three days, we got 2,000 responses. And people weren't just checking boxes "yes" and "no." We got more than 5,000 comments.

What were the teachers telling you?
First of all, we looked at the quantifiable [results]. We tried to look at them on a map. I fully expected there to be regional differences, but there were no patterns. Negative reactions were distributed throughout the U.S. Kids I would describe as vulnerable – immigrants or perceived immigrants, kids who are Muslims or perceived to be Muslims – were terrified. Teachers used words like "terrified," "heartbroken," "scared." And not just the students, but their families. And there were no patterns by age. This was happening in preschool through high school.

How did it manifest in the kids?
There were children who broke down in tears in class. Immigrant students are everywhere. Two-thirds of the teachers reported that their immigrant students were under stress. Kids were hearing horrible things like, "I think that we should kill all the Muslims." Marginalized students are feeling very vulnerable. And then there was this weird finding: African-American students who were concerned that they were going to be "sent back to Africa." At first I thought this was an outlier; then I read it five more times.

What are the bullied kids saying, in response to this?
I think they feel, a) that the ideals of the country aren't being lived up to, but b) on a more basic level, "Why don't people like us?" You have instances where a child gets called a name by a complete stranger. It's heartbreaking.

It's almost like children are learning new ways to hurt each other.
Yes. What stood out to us is that the character of bullying was changing from the election rhetoric. There were many stories of a group of kids ganging up on one child and chanting, "Trump! Trump! Trump!" or "Build a wall!" or "Deport him!" And this kind of behavior peaked in middle school. Trump is the perfect candidate for a seventh-grade kid; bad behavior and repeating what Trump has said seems to be a part of testing limits.

How are teachers responding?
Well, kids would say things in class that were a racial slur or an ethnic slur and they'd be corrected and get pushback – "It's being said on TV so why can't I say it?" I doubt there's a teacher in the U.S. who has not had anti-bullying training in the past three years. And a lot of progress had been made. That is all being washed away in a tidal wave by this election. Kids are seeing, and repeating, that in the real world, people shout at each other, people are mean to each other. And we've also found teachers who want to speak out but are worrying about censure. Or who are trying to pretend this is a normal election. "Let's have a mock debate!" "Let's compare the policies!" They're trying to balance wanting to be nonpartisan with not wanting to endorse these policies. So in many cases you have vulnerable kids, emboldened kids, and a stressed-out teacher.

I've been following presidential elections closely since I was a middle school kid myself, in 1988 – Dukakis forever! – and this is hands-down the worst one I can recall. Is that true for you as well?
I've been following them since 1968. Nixon's elections were very polarizing, both of them, and I've certainly seen elections where people feel there is a lot at stake. But no, I've never seen anything like this. You'd probably have to go back to the election of Andrew Jackson to find anything this ugly. It's counterintuitive to label an entire group of people as "bad for the country." We've had nativism, but we've never had the degree to which social media speeds up the damage. It's the 24-hour news cycle on steroids. Look, teachers know how to teach a usual election. You look at the candidates' biographies, you look at the issues. No one has a pedagogy for teaching reality TV. There's a need for media literacy: why a message is being constructed, the way it's constructed, who is it crafted for? Even the previous ugly elections have not saturated us so much. We've lost our understanding of what journalism is. And because we've lost that understanding, it means that we have also lost the ability to ask the right questions.

Hillary Clinton actually mentioned the Trump Effect in the first debate, and now seems to be responding to it with her new campaign focus on bullying. What effect do you think the report is having on the election?
I think it resonates with a lot of people. Let me explain why we called it The Trump Effect. We are a non-profit and we are nonpartisan – how could we call it [that]? Well, it's because when we got those 5,000 comments back, there were over 1,000 mentioning Trump by name. All the other candidates combined – and this was back in March, so there were a lot of other candidates – all the other candidates combined added up to 167 comments. The phenomenon was clearly driven by the Trump campaign. We put a name to something that has been happening all across the country. And now it includes women. People like to think of kids as innocent, and right now impressionable children are seeing something that they shouldn't. Nobody likes to think of kids being the victim of a bully on television.

There must be some teachers out there though who are Trump supporters themselves. How they are handling it?
We did hear from some of them. "Why aren't you asking about the lies and crimes of Hillary Clinton?" But we didn't ask about any specific candidates. We got about 12 responses from people who called us left-leaning and said we were going to make children atheists. But plenty of Republicans are going to sit this one out. There are plenty of Republicans and Democrats who believe in fundamental American principles: the peaceful transfer of power, the right to a free press. People believe in that across the political spectrum.

So what can teachers do to mitigate damage, to alleviate fears? I went to Catholic school and was afraid of Hell, but then my Catholic Mom told me Hell wasn't real and that was that. In this case, some of the dangers could be real.
There are so many different circumstances. There's no one piece of advice that will work for everyone. There are factors: the community, the age of the students. But, let's look at something really real: deportation. It's real. And it's a part of our domestic policy. It happens under Obama, and if Trump is elected he promises it will happen en masse. Many teachers know they have students who are undocumented. They have a right to be there, and a right to an education, but no teacher can tell them for sure it's not going to happen. What they can say is that they are safe right now, that school is a safe place, that there are adults who care about them. Nothing happens that fast (though that's not always the case). They can tell scared kids that there are checks and balances in the government, that even though someone is elected, it doesn't mean what they say is going to happen. They can also remind them that most people don't feel this way, and point out the allies. Provide the kids with positive role models, and positive ideas of themselves. As part of the curriculum, include stories and texts that have positive ideas of the vulnerable group. We often talk about "mirrors and windows": The kids from the dominant group need windows into other people's lives, and the kids from the marginalized group need mirrors that reflect their reality. You can also tell them you have faith in American institutions to keep things in check.

I feel like I'd be reassuring children of that even as I was reassuring myself.
A lot of teachers said that. And a lot of teachers made the personal decision to come out as an ally for their students. Teachers' free speech is not the same as everyone else's. When they are teaching, they are agents of the state. That's the subject of a lively debate within secondary social studies. Can you be neutral? Some critical theorists believe there is no such thing as being neutral. So, can you tell kids who you support without requiring them to follow your opinion? Fifty percent of elementary school teachers [who responded to us] said they were not going to teach the election this year. Instead they are teaching the "ideal" election, the "idea" of voting. There are [elementary school] teachers teaching fictional races between a duck and a goose. They're simulating the process, but not talking about the actual candidates. And many teachers are adjusting their teaching to look at fact-checking and media literacy and rhetoric.