York Co. students see tone of presidential campaign as ‘joke,’ ‘entertainment’

As presidential candidates trade insults and nasty tweets and sound bites on the 2016 campaign trail, a new generation of voters is getting the message.

Northwestern High senior D’Airia Green, 17, sees candidates bullying each other, and classmate Marin Grant, 17, observes racism. York Comprehensive High senior Aaron Harper, 18, says the show is childish, but it’s also entertaining.

The nasty tone of the Republican presidential campaign is reverberating in classrooms across York County, where an election offers a popular, real-life lesson in American government and how it works.

But much of the campaign tone, especially on the Republican side, runs counter to messages about anti-bullying, anti-discrimination and acceptance of others’ difference that schools promote among their students.

“It seems more like a joke,” said Green, whose International Baccalaureate History of the Americas class at Northwestern has discussed many aspects of the campaign. “Politics are more for the entertainment value, ” Green said.

Northwestern teacher Misty Gray has used the election as one long government lesson. She said she has been “horrified” by some of the candidates’ exchanges.

Gray is encouraging her students, many of whom are eligible to be first-time voters in November, to think carefully about what’s being said before they decide who to support.

“Is it OK,” she asked last week, during a class discussion on the campaign tone, “for people who are running for president?”

Examples of campaign rhetoric include Donald Trump calling Ted Cruz a “loser” and a “liar” and singling out Muslims and Mexicans for criticism. There’s Marco Rubio responding to Trump calling him “little Rubio” by suggesting Trump has small hands for his height “and you know what they say about guys with small hands.”

During the Jan. 28 Republican debate, which Trump didn’t attend, it was Cruz who made quasi-insults that he said Trump would have lobbed: “Let me say I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly,” Cruz said, snickering that he was getting “the Donald Trump portion out of the way.”

Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, has branded Trump “a phony, a fraud.”

“Imagine your children and your grandchildren acting the way he does,” Romney said. “Would you welcome that?”

In the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, Gray and her students said that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have focused more on policy than on each other.

Gray’s students said that the campaign behavior is not OK, but they also say it’s reality.

“It’s just about the most provocative thing they can say so it gets attention,” Grant said. “It’s become an art. People are looking for the most interesting story.”

But Grant sees the value in free speech, however nasty it may be.

“They’re adults, and hopefully they can take care of themselves,” she said of the candidates. “I don’t think that we should police it like we should in schools.”

Chris Black, principal of York Comprehensive High School, said he doesn’t believe the negative campaign tone sets a good example for students. But Black said he hasn’t seen such attitudes seep into the classroom, and he hopes that never happens.

Black said the 2016 presidential campaign is the first one that most high school students remember much about; most were just 12 or 13 years old during the last one.

“They think this is the norm,” he said.

Jamie Bolton, a York Comprehensive government teacher, has talked with his students about the level of professionalism and the personal attacks, as well as about the election process.

“The problem with America is right now, as far as the principles and values,” Bolton said, observing many voters are fed up with a system they see as broken.

Some of Bolton’s students say they are worried about the tone of the campaign and what it means for the nation’s leadership. But others see nothing wrong with it.

“It makes me feel like they’re OK with stepping on other people,” said Rebecca Sakach, a 17-year-old York senior. “And they are not going to respect other countries and their leaders.”

Sakach said the attacks seem to be working, at least for Trump. “They are trying to do what they have to to win,” she said. “People definitely vote for sensationalism.”

Soli Byrd, a 16-year-old York junior, wonders what the campaign tone will mean for the future. “If people who are in charge are acting like children,” she said, “how do you expect the rest of the American people to act?”

Harper, a York senior, said that lying and false political advertising have been common tactics used by many candidates in the past. He doesn’t seen a big difference between campaign lies and the name-calling that’s going on now.

“It’s more entertaining than it was the other years. It’s more childish, too,” he said.

Trenton Alexander, a 17-year-old York senior, said he believes the campaign gives a bad impression of America, and makes the role of president seem less serious. “Anybody thinks they could do it now,” he said.

Thomas Williams, an 18-year-old Northwestern senior who was born in England and lived there until he was 9 years old, said the campaign simply “represents where the American political system is at this moment.” He said many voters are not well educated or aware of the issues.

John David Rinehart, a 17-year-old Northwestern senior, said the campaign seems to be more about getting attention than discussing policy.

“They are focusing on polls,” Rinehart said. “They are all focusing on emotion.”

The Associated Press contributed.