Two weeks ago, I visited a boarding school in western Massachusetts. A friend of mine works at the school—prestigious, expensive, lovely in the reds and yellows of late October—as a dean and a teacher of English, and he’d invited me to participate in a panel discussion about the impending election. My fellow-panelists were a “Never Trump” establishment Republican and a Democratic fund-raiser whom I met eight years ago, when I worked on Barack Obama’s first campaign for the Presidency. (The school had tried, and failed, to convince a Trump supporter, any Trump supporter, to join the proceedings.) The night before the event, over drinks, my friend tried to explain to me and the other partisans how his students were feeling about the race. This was shortly after the release of Donald Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” tape, and just before James Comey’s infamously ill-advised letter to Congress about the F.B.I.’s discovery of Clinton-related e-mails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop—a sweet, already half-forgotten stretch of time. The kids, we learned, were increasingly disgusted by politics.
The most comfortable among them, white and wealthy, were put off by the campaign’s language and tone, by the sideshow nature of the tussle between the two parties. A lot of them, my friend said, were asking questions about Gary Johnson, and about the efficacy of third parties more broadly. Those who belonged to ethnic and religious groups that Trump had directly denigrated, over and over—Muslim students especially—were openly angry, afraid, and aggrieved. These were tense days on campus, as elsewhere.
Still: kids are nature’s ablest compartmentalizers, and the scene at the assembly for the panel was buoyant and raucous. Each class—freshman, sophomore, junior, senior—shouted its own chant, then everybody sang the school song together. When our turn came, we panelists chatted genteelly, trading solemn nods and shakes of the head. Toward the end of our conversation, we advised the kids to stay involved in the work of democracy, and to do their part, post-election, in restoring the norms that have helped it, so far, to survive. After the event, my friend asked some of the kids what they thought. They were surprised, he said, that we hadn’t sounded more like the shouting heads on cable news.