After seeing the events that have taken place leading up to President Biden’s inauguration, many Eastside teachers have taken the initiative to bring students into the news and discuss the various issues arising in the country. While many teachers have brought up the subject, two teachers have made it a habit of constantly speaking with their students about the current political events, such as the Capitol riots in Washington, D.C., and former President Trump’s attitude towards the inauguration.
U.S. History and Writing for College teacher Cal Trembath aims to stay in-the-know about political events and talks to his students on a regular basis. AP Government, AP Macroeconomics, and SRI teacher Jaya Subramanian also has strong opinions when it comes to politics. Together, these teachers argue like cats-and-dogs, but when the time comes, they share big ideas regarding the state of the government and political events that have taken over the nation.
So saddle up to listen to a lively discussion by two of our history teachers, who set aside their differences and promised not to bite each others’ heads off as they dig into the state of our country.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length by Gaby Sainz-Medina.
Gaby: What did you think when you heard about the Capitol riots, and how did you come across the news?
Cal: My initial reaction was shocked but not surprised. It was a shocking singular moment in American history. I didn’t see the news fully because I was teaching class — I think Jasmine was the one who told me about it.
Seeing those images, hearing the videos, just seeing what was going on was — you know Jaya and I have taught U.S. History– it’s a singular and upsetting moment. But also, if you told me four or five years ago that during Trump’s presidency some of his supporters would storm the Capitol, I would’ve been like, “Yeah, that sounds right, given the vitriol, and the support for him, and in the way he riles up his crowd.” It was really, really upsetting to see the weakening of the institution of American democracy, but once again, not at all a surprise if you’ve been paying attention, not just for the past four years. We’ve been trending in this direction for a while.
Jaya: Ditto to what Cal said as “not surprising.” In fact, I think Cal and I were on campus that day, and we saw each other and we both said that — like “this is not surprising” — so there’s that. I think, once again, it comes down to the weakening of what we as a country have taken for granted. Democratic systems and processes have been ignored for a few decades now, and Trump was that force who could tap into those elements and, in addition to his rhetoric, also plant the seeds of doubt. To say that those seeds of doubt of democracy all started with Trump — no. Those institutions have been weakening for a while. But I will call it a result of complacency, and lack of action on BOTH sides, Republican and Democratic. Complacence, arrogance — I don’t know. I will stick to complacence for now.
Cal: Yeah, I read an interesting thing by Jaya’s favorite Ezra Klein, and it was an op-ed in the New York Times and it wassomething like, “You don’t get elected for things that people don’t know about,” I think that Democrats are really bad at both advertising their successes and speaking out and legislating against the things they oppose in terms that are clear and accessible to Americans and a good chunk of people. It will be really interesting to see if they can sell both the stimulus, immigration reform, sell healthcare reform — these are things that the vast majority of Americans agree about but they can’t ever get anything done because they’re bad at messaging, they’re bad at communicating to the masses.
Gaby: Do you think of what happened at the Capitol as a riot or protest?
Jaya: I wouldn’t call it a demonstration or a protest, I will not use either of those terms to describe that. I like the term that was used by Biden right away — at that time he was president-elect — Biden calling it an insurrection, and that is what I will call it.
Cal: I also call it an insurrection.
Gaby: Okay, so on to the inauguration: One of the big things that I noticed was that, obviously, Trump wasn’t there, which hasn’t happened since Andrew Johnson (in 1869). So, what do you think that says about the place that our government is in right now, which feels like we’re moving backwards in ‘political courtesy’, so-to-speak?
Cal: That’s an interesting question. I was neither shocked nor surprised that Trump did not do that, that was incredibly predictable. Does that action on his part represent the dying embers of his authority and some of the strains of his power in American politics, or does it represent further chipping away at our norms and values? I think it kind of remains to be seen how much his actions and Trump remains to the Republican party, I think that they are here to stay, but whether it gets glommed on to the party or separates itself from that action kind of remains to be seen. Traditional Republicans want Trump and Trump is out. I don’t know if they’ll be successful in excising him, or it, from their party.
Jaya: I think I go back to Trump not attending the inauguration, and even the outgoing president will send one of the helicopters to bring in the president-elect, like Biden flew in in his own plane — those are traditions, norms that once again show that “Hey, we had our differences.” But I go, we, not just Trump, but as a country, divisions in the Senate and the rhetoric in Congress — we’ve been departing from some of those norms for a while. Once again, it was a result, and another example of that result, is what we saw with him not attending the inauguration and everything else in terms of the transfer of power, what he should be doing as norms. Going back to, “Does this mean that as a government, we are regressing?” I don’t know about that one. I wouldn’t say that it’s a regression in terms of that, I just think that was a symbolic thing that he did. But, what it means in terms of political division, and even in the areas that Cal mentioned that Americans agree on but are not willing to work (at), that is where I think we’ll see what happens now that you don’t have the active voice in the executive branch. Will that rhetoric change is what we will see. I think it is too early to say, “Oh we have regressed.” History takes time, and right now reacting that way will be purely reactionary and not anything else.
Gaby: So overall, Biden has already done a bunch of new policies, such as reinstating DACA, even on his first day, what do you think of him having done all that so quickly, using executive orders to bring this along?
Cal: I think that obviously, like I’m personally in favor of those orders, a lot of them were just basically cancelling a lot of the things that Trump did. I do think that the amount of stuff that he was able to do speaks to how our congress has basically given up legislative power to the executive. Some of these things can just be done and undone with a stroke of a pen because they aren’t written into law by the legislature, they’re just created through executive action. DACA was never very strong, and I think a more competent administration could have gotten rid of DACA if they hadn’t been idiots about it, as the Trump administration had been, because it was created through an executive order. So, again, while I personally approve of a lot of the decisions, I believe it’s a sign of the weakening of the legislative branch that is supposed to be the most powerful branch in our system. I hope that it prefigures more action on the part of congress, especially since congress and president are now aligned, they control both of those branches. What do you think, Jaya?
Jaya: I think a lot of those policies were once again executive orders, that’s why it’s so easy for Biden to do it, because (Trump) also did them as executive orders, right? I think it was 30-some executive orders. DACA under Obama ended up being an executive order because you did not have the legislative willpower to act on DACA right? Even though polling shows most Americans support it. So, to me, I go back to, once again, what I said in the beginning. To me, this trend, which is again not just Trump, it started with Obama, it started during the Bush era, so again it doesn’t matter whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat. This is where I worry about processes being weakened, right? That at the very core, this is what keeps the machinery working, the Democratic machinery working, in terms of processes in government. The weakening of that is what we’ve been seeing now for the past, at least, two decades or so, or maybe less than two decades but definitely the past 15-some years. So I agree with Cal on what he said about the weakeningThere are so many elements of our processes that we need to fix, otherwise we are going to be in this cycle, and that’s where I go, I don’t know of either political party having that willpower.
Gaby: Now, kind of seeing into the future, like not just Biden’s next four years but future elections: How do you think that this is going to change political culture? Like the way that we have seen it with Obama, it all seemed pretty cordial. Do you think that this is something that may push future politicians to want to take the same path as Trump did, or do you think that the future is more like, we’ve learned from this and this probably shouldn’t happen again?
Cal: I think the two trends that popped up in the past 3-4 months, electorally are, on the one hand, a massive push for voter disenfranchisement by the right, and that has been going on for years, but it increased during the pandemic and actually after the election, the Republicans sought ways to disenfranchise literally tens of millions of Americans. So that’s one trend that, again, has been part of American democracy since the beginning: the disenfranchisement of, especially, communities of color and poor people, which are primarily the groups that were being targeted by the “Stop the steal” campaign. The other somewhat newer trend is this wellspring of democratic activism on the left. The fact that during the pandemic you had the most voter turnout ever, you look at what Stacey Abrams was able to do and other Democratic activists were able to do in Georgia. I think that that could lead to a clash, right? Like Republicans know that their power is waning in a country where more and more people are moving into urban areas, so they know that the only way to maintain national office is to further limit access to the exercise of voting rights. So I think that they will continue with their ongoing claims of voter fraud to limit voter registration and exercise of the franchise. I hope that a lot of Democratic activists see the example of Georgia and how you can, if you just put in a little bit of hard work and grit and logistics, you can register and activate the people to vote. While that is exciting, I think that the clash of those two trends will continue to be ugly and violent, and cordiality does not feel very near.
Jaya: Yeah, I don’t think the rhetoric is going to change at all. I think it also began during Obama’s administration. Not the opposition to Obama’s policies and the principles that he stood for and the governing, the language started to shift to being less cordial then, and then it was emboldened during the four years of Trump. So I don’t see that going away any time soon. Am I optimistic about some of the other things that Cal mentioned, like changing demographics as a result AND people like Black voters matter and Stacey Abrams and other groups identifying that in Georgia or Arizona? In Arizona, it was a big move by the Latinx community in terms of tapping into that with the changing demographics. Those are where I find, yes, the optimism, but the footnote on that optimism is I worry about the rural vs urban economic divide in this country and what the political ramifications of that divide will do. One party stands to gain from that in terms of the rural voters while the other party is tending to gain from the urban voters. That’s where the country is right now, and I think that is a serious, serious problem, again a result of decades of ignoring rural economies. It hasn’t happened again because of Trump. It has happened as a result of decades, the last person who talked about rural poverty, I think, was Lyndon Johnson. What was the — , oh my God, Cal, having to add U.S. History — the Johnson… the policy?
Cal: The Great Society
Jaya: Yeah, the Great Society, right? That was the 1960s when someone talked about rural poverty in the United States, but we have not, and neither side has, really done anything. On the one hand, with Republicans it’s ‘This will be our vote bank, what can we do to tap into that to keep our vote bank?” while the Democrats are saying, ‘Oh, but our vote banks are in urban areas and we’ll focus on that,” right? Once again, I go with the concern I have for democracy and what that could mean — that is where I will put my footnote on the optimism of the movements in states like Georgia and Arizona.
Gaby: Yeah, a very long footnote, nice. OK, well, those are all the questions I have, so thank you guys for sharing your long rhetoric.
Jaya: OK, thank you. And I don’t know if Naz has any questions? Was Naz just an observer?
Gaby: Yeah, Naz, I don’t know. I forgot why I asked her to come.
Jaya: OK, you just figured with two teachers, I don’t want to be there alone?
Gaby: Actually yeah, I don’t want to be alone with two teachers. Especially Jaya — Jaya scares me!
Cal: And I needed a little more backup than just Gaby — I trust you Gaby, but I’m glad Naz was here. You know, you did fine, Jaya, you were perfectly civil. So my worries were unfounded.
Jaya: Yeah, I decided not to channel my, you know, the Proud Boys… On a quick note, I just saw 1.2 million signatures to recall (California Governor) Gavin Newsom.
Cal: They need 1.5 right?
Jaya: Is it 1.5 mil?
Cal: I think it’s 1.5.
Jaya: I thought they needed 2, oh maybe it’s just 1.5, I could be wrong on the 2 million, but also, that effort was supported by Q and Proud Boys. That’s where I go back to what Cal said earlier: Trumpism and all of that is not going to go away. I know a lot of people were thinking about the Ray Charles song, “Hit the Road, Jack,” on the day of inauguration as Trump was leaving and I don’t think any of that is going to go away. Again, it’s a result of decades of so many other issues that both parties have not acted upon.
Cal: They need 1.5 million to recall.
Cal: On a completely different note, that number reminded me, last Wednesday, there were 1.9 million doses of the vaccine administered. And Biden’s trying to do 1 million a day. We’re averaging more than that in the last week, and it should only get better, so there’s a reason for optimism for our immediate human crisis.
Jaya: Can I throw in one more, is it Ezra Klein or Nate Silver who goes, ”Biden’s whole thing about 1 million vaccines is actually not ambitious enough.”
Cal: Yeah, I think it sounded ambitious a month ago or whatever when he started using that number, and it’s very catchy, but… I understand why he is probably staying conservative for now, because he doesn’t want to target too much and then become a failure 100 days from now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if on Day 100 we’ve got 120-, 130- maybe half of Americans vaccinated. That would be nice.
Jaya: Yes, I agree.
Gaby: I agree very much.
Cal: And then we could go back to school!
Gaby: Uh, I don’t know about that.
Reporting and transcription contributed by Nazareth Perez and Diana Gomez.