Difficult Classroom Conversations about Trump and Biden

With the 2020 presidential election approaching, students in your classroom may want to talk about Donald Trump, Joe Biden or other candidates for president. These conversations can be tricky to navigate, especially since students in your class may have opposing views from one another.

If you find yourself in a situation where a student tells you their opinion about one of the political candidates, you should navigate the conversation by focusing on your students’ experiences with and assumptions about the political candidate—the evolution of their beliefs—rather than their specific opinions about the candidate. From there, open the conversation up to the class so that other students can share their experiences.

Below, we provide examples of conversation guides for three different scenarios: students who vocalize support for Trump, students who vocalize support for Biden and students who are for neither candidate. Download a PDF of this resource here

Students Who Vocalize Support for Donald Trump

Scenario 1

Initial Student Comment: I would rather vote for Trump so he can keep America great than take a risk with Joe Biden.

Faculty Comment to Initial Student: When you say, “keep America great,” what in this term do you mean to highlight? How would that be vulnerable to a change in who is president?

Faculty Comment to All Students: Actually, I would like to pose it to the class: How reactive do you think the United States is, in terms of transition from one administration to the next? What parts of life seem to respond/change first? What, in your experience, takes time?

Student 1 Comment: Trump stimulated the economy and brought jobs back to the United States.

Student 2 Comment: But we also have a giant recession and pandemic.

Student 1 Comment: You can’t blame Trump for the pandemic!

Student 3 Comment: Not the virus, no, but his response made it worse.

Faculty Comment to All Students: I want to interject here because there are a couple of really big and valuable tension points that this conversation identified. The biggest is perhaps who is responsible for handling certain issues (health officials, local and state government, etc.) and how those folks are influenced by those in office. What were each of your experiences with this? Student 2 and Student 3 are from vastly different states, so that seems like a good opportunity to reflect, but folks from the same area can enter this conversation just the same. What dictated your experience with big issues? The presidency, state and local government, the behavior of your peers and those around you?

Students discuss the extent to which what they experience and attribute to who’s in office is a product of that person’s decision-making or influence.

Faculty Member: With all of that said, what comes to mind when you think of a presidential legacy and what we attribute to a single person? How does that come up when supporting an incumbent? A new president?

[Alternative answer] Faculty Member: In making public policy, leaders often have to make trade-offs between two good things, such as protecting health and protecting the economy. What trade-offs do you think have been made in this situation? Were they justified? What seems to you to be the right balance?

Scenario 2

Initial Student Comment: I think that we should give Trump four more years so that he can finish what he started.

Faculty Comment to Initial Student: When you say, “finish what he started,” what in particular are you highlighting?

Initial Student: Well, for example, his immigration policies—he hasn’t been able to build the wall!

Student 2: But he’s definitely continued restricting immigration—look at what he did to visas under COVID-19.

Student 3: That was because of COVID-19. So many people lost their jobs—he was just making sure those jobs that were available went to American citizens.

Faculty Member: I am going to enter here because I appreciate this potential for discourse but want to make sure everyone else in the room can be a part of it, too. What I just heard brought in a bunch of different starting points to move forward from: the value of a second presidential term (for any candidate, although Trump is the only candidate who has that opportunity this election), COVID-19 response, immigration policy and others. Does that sound accurate? Or does someone else hear a different angle?

Students respond either affirming or adding to that list.

Faculty Member: OK, where would folks like to start the dialogue from? I would love for people to enter as they are comfortable and address the conversation from your own personal experiences.

[students discuss among themselves]

Faculty Member: Thank you so much for that awesome discussion. I am really grateful you all were willing to go there today. Regardless of your intentions of what you said or took away from today, I would encourage everyone to stay engaged in this conversation and go vote come fall.

Students Who Vocalize Support for Joe Biden

Scenario 1

Initial Student Comment: Joe Biden has the experience needed to be president, especially when compared against Donald Trump.

Faculty Comment to Initial Student: What experience are you referring to? How do you see that experience as being connected to our current political landscape?

Initial Student: I mean, he was Obama’s vice president and he had plenty of congressional experience before that too.

Student 2: Well, Trump has been in office for four years now and he knows what he’s doing. Joe Biden has spent too much time in D.C. He’s corrupt at this point.

Student 3: But Joe Biden knows how to carry himself as president. There’s no way you can equate four years in office with all of Joe Biden’s experience with both domestic and foreign policy.

Faculty Member: I am really glad everyone is jumping into the conversation here, but real quick, I want everyone to step back from the debate over Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Consider, very broadly, qualities that you would consider valuable for a president. What are some of the qualities that come to mind? (think leadership, strength, etc.) Consider your personal experience with politicians, even at the state and local level or your hometown’s representatives. Have you ever weighed their experience with their actions? How has that impacted how you view their actions? Do you always weigh experience the same at each level (across local, state, national)?

[allow for discussion, keep students from ad hominem attacks, focus on broader approach]

Faculty Member: Thank you for that discussion. Exploring how everyone views politicians—not just at the presidential level, but even at state and local levels—hopefully allowed each of you to better understand how you view our current political landscape. I really appreciate how respectful you all were of differing viewpoints. I hope we can continue to have these conversations.

Scenario 2

Initial Student Comment: Joe Biden as president would fix what Donald Trump has destroyed over the past four years. Of course I am voting for Biden.

Faculty Comment to Initial Student: What do you mean by destroyed? How do you think those things should be fixed? Will it solely be the job of the president?

Initial Student: Things have completely fallen apart. Look at [example]. Of course the president is responsible! It is his administration after all.

Student 2: That’s not true at all. Congress plays a huge role in determining policy, and they have hardly passed anything these past few years.

Student 3: Congress was completely Republican-controlled for Trump’s first two years, just saying. Also, a majority of the damage done has come from executive actions.

Faculty Member: I am glad we are discussing the role that Congress plays in all of this, too. If I could just jump in really quick—let’s focus specifically on one topic. Student 1 mentioned [example]. Let’s focus on that. How has policy shifted the past four years? When did you notice that the policy changed? Does that policy impact you? How does that impact affect how you view the decision? How would you like to see the policy change, if at all? Why? Could that change happen under an executive action, or should it occur with the help of Congress? Consider how long-lasting the change should be and the permanence of those actions.

[allow for discussion]

Faculty Member: All right, we’re going to wrap it up with that comment. I really appreciated that conversation. Considering the role that not only the president but also Congress plays in policymaking is crucial to understanding why it is so important to pay attention to who all is up for election this fall. Thank you so much, everyone, for that conversation and space.

Students Who Are for Neither Candidate

Scenario 1

Initial Student Comment: I’m really disappointed with this election’s lineup. Biden isn’t progressive enough and Trump isn’t moderate enough. I’m just not interested in voting for either of them.

Faculty Comment to Initial Student: I’m sorry to hear that. What qualities do you think make for an ideal presidential candidate? Is there anything that Trump or Biden could do that would persuade you to vote for one of them?

Initial Student: Eh, not really.

Faculty Member: Well, let’s open this up to the class to get their viewpoints, too. Up here on this whiteboard I’m going to write good qualities that all presidential candidates should have. Just shout them out as you think of them.

[faculty member writes qualities as they are shouted by students]

Faculty Member: Great job, everyone! It seems like we have a similar idea of what qualities a presidential candidate should have. Now, it’s important to remember that we should look for these qualities for our elected officials at the local, state and national levels. The presidential candidates, while important, aren’t the only ones who are up for election this fall. If you care about our elected officials having these qualities, you shouldn’t sit out this fall. Remember that local and state officials are the ones that affect your daily lives. Our schools, roads and taxes are primarily determined by our state and local officials.

Faculty Member: Thank you so much, everyone, for that conversation and space. I liked the opportunity to hear everyone’s perspective on what makes a good presidential candidate, and I really appreciate how you all made that happen.

Scenario 2

Initial Student Comment: I don’t know why people care so much about voting in this upcoming election. Their votes aren’t going to make a difference anyway.

Student 2: Oh, I completely agree. It’s not like the president does much for us anyway.

Faculty Member: Do either of you know the other races that are happening this fall?

Initial Student: I think our senator is up for reelection, but besides that I’m not sure.

Faculty Member: Let’s open this up to the rest of the class. What do the rest of y’all think? Let’s take a raise of hands of who thinks their vote matters this upcoming election.

[some students raise their hands, others do not]

Faculty Member: For those of you who raised your hand, would any of you like to talk about why you think your vote matters?

[some students speak out]

Faculty Member: For those who did not raise your hands, would any of you like to talk about why you think your vote doesn’t matter?

[some students speak out]

Faculty Member: I really appreciate everyone’s thoughts. I think it’s important for us to realize that everyone has different experiences with voting. Some of us have voted our entire lives, while others may be first-time voters this fall. Now, here’s another question for you all. Do you think your vote matters more for different sorts of elections? For example, do you think your voice matters more in state and local elections?

[some students speak out]

Faculty: Thank you for your comments, everyone. I understand what it feels like to be discouraged by the presidential candidates, but it is important to remind ourselves that the general election this year includes many other races besides the president. Many of our state and local elected officials are up for election, too. If you don’t feel like your voice matters for the presidential election, it definitely matters more for the state and local races. Remember that local and state officials are the ones who affect your daily lives. Our schools, roads and taxes are primarily determined by our state and local officials. Thank you so much, everyone, for that conversation and space.