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By Olivia Chan
With the 2016 presidential election full of compelling characters, Townsend Harris’s Election Simulation did not shy from mirroring this potpourri of personalities in this year’s candidates’ debate. One of the most discussed moments occurred as students portraying their real life counterparts seemed to accurately portray their candidate’s positions and demeanor, but in doing so, appeared to cross a line, particularly for a school audience. At the debate, Donald Trump told Hillary Clinton to “stop PMS-ing” during a standoff between her and Jeb Bush. While many were shocked by the sexist nature of the remark, many also recognized it as simply Trump-esque, raising questions about where the line is drawn between appropriateness and accuracy in playing a candidate in the Election Simulation.
It’s typical for Trump’s remarks in real life to draw outrage. “Personally, I don’t mean it,” senior Matthew McAndrew, who plays Trump, commented. “I feel really bad, but I was only going for accuracy.” Some recall the first real-life GOP debate, where a showdown between moderator and Fox News host Megyn Kelly and Trump led him to tell CNN, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” Many see Matthew’s line as being in the likeness of this CNN interview and, therefore, innocuous. “Although his comment insulted many females at the debate, it is only Matthew embodying his character to the best of his abilities,” senior Yasmeen Ally, who plays Hillary Clinton, responded. “It was something Trump had said before,” Matthew added.
Some acknowledge the merits of accuracy, but also the limitations of it in regards to student reception. Sophomore Naasiha Ahmed commented, “that person playing Trump should be able to say what Trump actually says. However, this statement was not appropriate to be said because it draws negative attention to the speaker, and helps the opposing party.” Yasmeen agreed, saying, “I believe Trump lost many votes because of his comment in the Election Simulation.”
However, many still found the remark inappropriate in the context of the situation, as the school cannot be a perfect microcosm of American politics. Senior Matthew Sullivan, who plays Jim Webb, commented, “it’s such an extreme thing to say when she was merely defending herself from a shot from another candidate.” Some also found fault with the gender-centered comment. “Although Matthew is doing a great job of personifying the real Trump, and this is probably something that the real Trump would say, it’s a little too much to be saying in a school. Especially when that school is about 70% female too,” weighed in senior Max Lacoma, who plays Jeb Bush and was initially blamed for Matthew’s remark (as some audience members misheard the source of the comment given the vocal reaction from the audience after its utterance). Junior Ishabul Haque remarked, “when it comes to attacking one’s gender, sexual orientation or religious views, that’s when the line should be drawn.”
Social Studies teachers Jaime Baranoff and Linda Steinmann help run the Election Simulation and hope it piques student interest in politics. “We want the election simulation to be an educational experience, we want it to start conversations, and we want to get students interested in politics and the politicians,” Ms. Baranoff stated. “Regardless of the appropriateness, it got the underclassmen’s attention and hopefully leads them to do research on the candidates themselves.” Dr. Steinmann agreed, stating, “I was amazed at the attentiveness [of underclassmen] at the debate. The election simulation works as a teaching tool [because] the underclassmen are actually listening.”
The teachers have agreed to let this situation play out and see how it develops, with a possible investigation by the FEC (the student-run simulation group that helps ensure that candidates follow the simulation rules). The Election Simulation media and social media have already picked up the issue, interviewing students and giving a forum for candidates to try to clarify what took place on stage that day. The administration has very rarely reprimanded students for their behavior in the Election Simulation.
However, the number one rule of Election Simulation to “keep it real” has implications with the educational component. While some students expect Matthew’s poll numbers to drop because of this incident, the reality of the real world election is that Trump’s popularity and his poll numbers rise after each new outrageous, headline-worthy remark. Imitating the real-life debates can become problematic when such debates are riddled with personal attacks and ostentatious comments, with talk of the issues of secondary importance. Not only is the line between accuracy and appropriateness difficult to draw, but the educational aspect of the simulation is also muddled. Many have wondered in class and out of it: if candidates no longer really debate issues in the real world, is there value in essentially teaching students to emulate poor behavior?
“In a perfect world [the Election Simulation] could always be informative. But this year, the Republicans are not as informative. [The students] are taking the lead from the real life candidates,” commented Ms. Baranoff.
The controversies from this debate have students debating over social media, focused on the issue of not how closely simulation participants can model American politics, but of how closely they should. In these depictions of American politicians, are the candidates too close for comfort? It is difficult to distinguish whether the issue lies in the nature of American politics, or in the election simulation’s providing a mask and free pass for inappropriate commentary in a school setting.
“At the end of the day,” junior Sarah Moon remarked, the “Election Simulation is a project directed to increase political awareness and promote educated discussions.”
Nonetheless, many considered the debate as a whole a success. “They knew what they were talking about and spread their points in a clear and easily understood way,” freshman Andy Mi said. Junior Shenez Stuart added, “I think the candidates were well versed and were able to get their points across while keeping the audience entertained.”