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Has our democratic conscience been exploited?

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I recently had one of my students explain to me why I would never fail him in my class. I teach English Literature to a group of seniors “ready to leave,” but who also possess so much potential to bring considerable hope to an already divisive world. One of my students—we’ll call him “Jay”—was trying to explain to me why I wouldn’t flunk him, despite the amount of work he swears he’ll turn in to me soon.

“I mean,” Jay starts, stroking his chin, “the way I see it, you’re a nice guy, Mr. Michel. So I figure your conscience is so airtight you couldn’t live with failing a student who you’ve bonded with really well.” Then I ask him if he is deliberately exploiting my kindness, my “teacher conscience.”

“Nah,” he says, “I just know you’d understand if I turned in work late. I know you wouldn’t just throw me to the curb.”

And in that moment what dawned on me wasn’t the truth that my relationship with Jay has been one of hilarity and common ground, rather it was the way he knew the exploits of things like a teacher’s conscience. It goes without saying that Jay is sharp and keen (he calls himself a sage, but I haven’t agreed with that much yet), and this innocent, microscopic incident that took place in a classroom forced me to look at much larger relationships. And then, like anything happening in the world today, I thought about Donald Trump’s America.

Since his bid for president, Trump has boasted, has brooded, he has verbally attacked and sneakily avoided, but what he has done most is exploited the “conscience” of those in his corner, those now dwindling number of supporters who would never abandon his ship. If it sounds nefarious, that is certainly the point. With his most bombastic claim, Trump affirms that his predecessor “wiretapped him” leading up to his November victory, a claim pundits on both sides already seem quite outspoken about. Recent discoveries regarding his administration and their ties with Russia haven’t changed his approach to outlandish tweets about Hillary Clinton and the “mess” Obama left behind. Polls from CNN, ORC and Gallup, now show historic lows for Trump at around a 34 percent approval rating.

Many officials have already expressed the power Donald Trump has to find out for himself if former President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower leading up to November’s election. The Twitter storm that continued even after the FBI reported no conclusive findings to back Trump’s claim brings up the question of why his supporters still rally behind him. How is he able to maintain support after asserting such wild claims on the heels of our learning about his administration’s ties with Russia, and just before the rolling out of his now rescinded travel ban? His endless platitudes and refusal to provide evidence for anything critical of his administration should receive skepticism, but the nation is still divided on that front. When looked at closely, it becomes a matter of partisanship; conservative ideology will not allow them to break ties with Trump, regardless of his outlandish claims. Trump knows this and works his way around exploiting the collective conscience of a party seemingly undeterred by his antics.

No matter the weight of his claims, Trump is certain to retain the allegiance of waffling players on his side, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, who during the election repeatedly said he wouldn’t defend Donald Trump. Democracy is, at its core, a collective effort, an attempt to bridge gaps whether you are red or blue, or at least until recently, wore pink P***y-hats or red caps. Donald Trump has frequently proven himself to be keen enough to exploit the conscience of conservatives willing to drink whatever Kool-Aid he stirs up, and if he is able to do so without providing even an ounce of evidence, then maybe our democracy is more exploitable than we think.

Jamal Michel is a Duke graduate and an English teacher at Northern High School in Durham. He is a featured guest columnist for The Chronicle.

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