The first real piece on the blog is A Guide for Talking to Trump Supporters. If polling is to be believed, it seems the piece did not have the desired effect. Some people appear set on voting for Trump in 2020. This means that there are still conversations to be had. Thus there are still questions about how best to have those conversations.
This guide offers an assortment of answers.
Is it Worth Talking to Trump Supporters?
Some people think that Trump supporters (abbreviated to TS) cannot be reached. Can they be convinced? It is wise to start by addressing this question. We first need to find out what we are trying to convince the TS of. What are we trying to reach them with? Saying simply “It isn’t worth talking to Trump supporters” is hopelessly vague.
If the goal is to convince someone to vote for a Democrat in 2020 instead of Trump, there are some people for whom that would be a nearly impossible task. However, there is no need to set such a maximalist goal. It most likely isn’t worth talking to a TS with that goal in mind.
So whether a conversation is worthwhile depends on what the goal is. A large part of this guide is about what considerations should go into setting the goal. And setting the goal will depend on the TS you are talking to. I will distinguish three types of TS.
Before we split into three tracks, I think there are some general principles that we should adopt in all conversations with TS.
- Show emotions like care and sadness, not anger and frustration. Do not be combative. Start sentences with “I feel…” Always deescalate.
- Educate yourself. Do not assume that the TS is ignorant. At the same time, don’t assume that you’re not ignorant. Voting the right way doesn’t mean you know why the way you’re voting is right. Conversations with TS will require a lot of knowledge. Read history and be a responsible news consumer.
- Be ready to supply a story, testimonial, or account that explains your support for your non-Trump candidate. Do not phrase it as an attack on the TS. Most of the advice in this guide involves listening and responding. But when appropriate, sharing a positive vision of politics can be effective.
- Set the terms of the discussion at the outset. Say explicitly that you want to focus on ideas. Emphasize that everyone must cite reliable facts. Emphasize that everyone must be charitable with everyone else. Sometimes you will need to spend a whole conversation building up the value and terms of rational discourse.
- Emphasize that everyone must be willing to change their views. Even you. All must have an open mind.
- Don’t repeat popular talking points. They will elicit talking point responses. Both you and the TS will be in conversational autopilot. Neither of you will actually be thinking for yourselves.
- Relatedly, do not use labels or terms that have been stigmatized by right wing media. This includes “politically correct” terms like ‘oppressed’, ‘microagression’, ‘trigger warning’, ‘white supremacy’, ‘privilege’. Terms like ‘socialism’, ‘unions’, and ‘feminism’ count too. Be very careful with the term ‘racism’ (‘racially insensitive’ is slightly better). The liberal lexicon triggers very negative responses for many non-liberals. If you talk in unfamiliar terms, people might have to think for themselves.
- Do not call them a racist. Or a bigot. It will immediately end all productive conversation. You can criticize their view or statement without labelling it.
- Use personal examples and anecdotes. They are rhetorically effective. But also be ready to argue that the individual anecdote is illustrative of a general truth. Your personal example might be an outlier. (This is why a snowy day doesn’t disprove global warming.)
- Fight the urge to “destroy” or “eviscerate” your interlocutor. The urge will be strong.
- Make sure the conversation is not about you—your righteousness, knowledge, or sanctimony. Constantly check to make sure you are not talking to assert your moral superiority.
- When you feel a disagreement coming, slow down, return to a previous shared value, and take a different route forward. Diffuse anger.
- End the conversation with a request. Have them read an article, watch a video, talk to someone else, and then check back with you. Ask them for something they would like you to do. Don’t end in anger or disrespect.
Types of Trump Supporters
How you conduct the conversation will depend on what sort of person you are talking to. Here are three basic camps of TS. They exist on a spectrum of strength of support for Trump.
Start by discerning which of the three best describes the TS. Some people might be border cases. You might then want to take techniques from two sections.
We can conceive of the general goal as moving the TS down the spectrum towards “no support.”
Type 1 – “The True Believer”
These are the Trump superfans: the people who would attend a rally, chant whatever everyone else is chanting, and believe whatever Trump says. Their politics is defined first and foremost by loyalty to Trump, not any explicit ideology or set of policy preferences. The True Believer is likely to live in the GOP alternate reality. They will either rationalize anything Trump does or not notice it. Suffice it to say, they have every intention of voting for him again.
Accept that you are not going to convince this TS to become a liberal, at least not after a handful of conversations. You should find something more manageable. You might move them one step down the spectrum.
Always have a highly specific goal, even if it is about something abstract like democratic values or political discourse. Start small and build up to more contentious topics. In large part, these conversations are about establishing the very possibility of conversation.
Here are some possible topics and goals.
- Diverse news consumption is important
- Their support for immigration restriction isn’t based on economic concerns
- Social media has had a negative impact on politics
- There isn’t a good reason to give wealthy people a tax cut
- We should think for ourselves and not be unquestioning followers of parties or leaders
- Democracy and voting is good
- They have more in common with poor people of color than the wealthy
- Political discourse is broken and we lack a shared set of facts
- “Owning” your political opponent isn’t productive
- Polarization and negative partisanship are bad
- Trump looks down on his supporters
More concretely, though not ideal, you might try to convince them not to vote at all. You might try to get them to stop posting pro-Trump content online or donating money to pro-Trump groups.
Be inquisitive. Start by simply asking the TS to fill out the details of their thinking. Try to move deeper into the more basic motivations. Ask for examples. Notice that people, liberal or conservative, will make a strong general claim and provide one or two examples before saying something like, “and many other times/things.” Trump, for instance, is hardly ever able to list more than 2 examples in support of an assertion. Pause over assertions like this and ask how we know they are true. Stay focused. Do not let the TS shift to different topics. Say, “Let’s come back to that later. I want to hear more about what we agreed to focus on.”
You might encourage more skepticism about political claims. With a True Believer it would count as a victory for them to view Trump with more suspicion. But beware that the skepticism isn’t cynical. I have argued that many TS deep down, perhaps at some sub- or barely-conscious level, know that Trump is always lying. Political discourse is just a game for showing tribal loyalties, not for understanding. So, through questioning try to get the TS to articulate exactly what they think the value of political discourse is. Make the implicit explicit!
You might structure the conversation around a particular article or podcast episode. Give the conversation a “book club” feel. This can help keep focus. If the TS thinks it is “fake news,” talk about what fake news is, how to identify it, and why it is bad. Or read a right wing source and be ready to explain exactly why it is misleading.
Another possible conversation involves identifying political influences. Try to pinpoint the causes that explain why the TS and you hold the politics you do. The causes might be facts about childhood and upbringing, education, work, geography, religion, and media. Work to outline specific details of the causes.
This exercise, somewhat paradoxically, makes politics less personal. We come to see our political views as not the result of some type of isolated, free, silent internal contemplation. We are influenced by forces we don’t control.
Once you have a list of causes, you can start to ask whether they supply good reasons for holding one’s political views. Plus, if one’s politics end up being the result of some contingent factors, this might engender some empathy for people who have differing views.
The goal should not be to reveal inconsistency in the TS’s views. Trumpism is inherently incoherent. In fact, the incoherence is the point. Instead, the goal should be to get the TS to think in their own terms.
Type 2 – “The Partisan”
These are the people who were initially skeptical of Trump, and supported a series of other Republicans during the 2016 primary, but came around out of loyalty to the party. They might be critical of Trump in some areas (like the tweets and personal behavior), but they claim to like the tax cuts and the economy generally, conservative judges, the trade war, and immigration restriction.
Many partisans might be better called ‘negative partisans’. They are motivated less by their like of Republicans and more by their dislike of Democrats. Many people support Trump by default, simply because they couldn’t support a Democrat.
The partisan category also includes single issue voters. Abortion is the biggest example. Gun control is another. Trump knew that he could capture votes simply by proclaiming himself pro-life. The point can again be framed through negative partisanship: many people simply cannot bring themselves to vote for a pro-choice candidate.
Since partisans support Trump because he is the Republican nominee, you’re in a tough spot. It might be difficult to avoid talking about why the TS is a Republican in the first place. But if that is the direction the conversation takes, focus on specific planks of the party platform. The goal should be to convince the TS to abandon one of the planks (at a time). Don’t worry about the ‘Republican’ label. It will hopefully fall away when enough planks are gone.
However, it might be more manageable to talk about why a Republican should support Trump. This is not a trivial issue. Here the goal might be to get the TS to agree that the Republican party is moving in a bad direction. It is possible that the best demonstration of Republican values is to oppose Trump. This is the #NeverTrump mentality. Because the position gives the appearance of principled conviction, it might be attractive to the TS.
Concretely, the optimistic goal is to have the TS vote against Trump. There are 3 ways to do that:
- Vote Democratic
- Vote 3rd party
- Not vote
For single issue voters, there could be two related goals:
- Recognize that it is irresponsible to be a single issue voter. There are many issues important to other citizens. It is good to think about the wellbeing of other people as well. Ceasing to be a single issue voter doesn’t mean voting for a different candidate. But it is a step towards a healthier view of voting and provides more avenues for conversation.
- Recognize that the TS isn’t actually a single issue voter. There are other issues that they care (or could care) about. They might not care enough to have the issue impact their deliberation over possible candidates, but you might try to increase the care through discussing the issue further.
If you are feeling ambitious, you might address the single issue directly. Here the goal would be to convince the TS to be pro-choice in their politics (though not necessarily in their personal morality). It’d be a challenge, but start here.
The goals I listed are for two camps of partisans. You should start by discerning whether you’re talking to a standard partisan or a single issue partisan.
Even if you want to convince the TS to abandon the GOP, you might want to start with the #NeverTrump arguments. I supply a version of one here. You could together take a look at the writings of Bill Kristol, Rick Wilson, and David Frum.
My argument involves the claim that Trump is only accidentally enacting a Republican agenda. He plainly has no deep conservative convictions, except perhaps his anti-immigrant mindset. He is a ‘low information voter’. Each day he exhibits not only his vast ignorance about the world but also his complete disinterest in learning. These are non-partisan facts.
Not everyone would be responsive to this argument. If the TS starts proclaiming Trump’s expertise (likely about the economy or “deal making” in general) you will need a refutation. Or you might shift into a conversation about how we are able to determine whether Trump is having success.
A risky but possibly effective route would be to show the extent to which explicit white supremacy has infiltrated the Republican Party. Educate yourself on this issue: look at voter suppression and intimidation techniques, including the move to add a citizenship question to the census; the role of Stephen Miller in the administration; all the racist violence that has been carried out in his name, with only his ambiguous disapproval; and so on. You must be prepared to argue that white supremacy is integral to Trump’s appeal and governance. That is, someone cannot support Trump without also supporting the darkest aspects of his agenda. (This strategy would be best after you have built up a sizeable amount of good faith.)
Single Issue Partisans
A strategy that you might use with single issue partisans, but also standard partisans, is Trump’s authoritarianism. A part of American ideology is that authoritarianism is bad. People on both sides agree, although the agreement is starting to break down. Many True Believers claim that they would accept Trump performing plainly unconstitutional authoritarian acts like ignoring a Supreme Court ruling. But a partisan will claim to care about the constitution and democratic structure. This provides an opportunity for you since Trump plainly does not care about either.
I place this strategy in the section about single issue partisans because, until now, the question of whether we should have a transparently authoritarian president has not been an explicit aspect of elections. Foundational parts of the country are now up for debate. This means that single issue voters are forced to expand the number of issues they care about. They must now consider issues that were previously (for the most part) shared by both parties. So you can address authoritarianism in your attempt to fulfill the goals of showing that single issue voting is irresponsible (when authoritarianism is on the line) or that the TS isn’t a single issue voter (when there are elections, like this one, that place more fundamental issues on the line).
You can make the same type of case using my argument about Trump’s incompetence. Hopefully basic competence—an issue plainly on the line again in 2020—is an issue that all voters care about.
Although it conflicts with some of what I’ve said, you can try to argue that there are elections in which we should all be single issue voters of a certain kind. These would be elections in which authoritarianism, basic competence, or something else that threatens the continued existence of the country as we know it are on the line. Of course, you’d need to argue that this election is such a case. But this strategy has the benefit of moving the conversation away from hot button issues and all their associated talking points.
Besides the above strategies for single issue partisans, you might want to discuss their pet issues directly, likely abortion or guns. I do not encourage this approach. I see no real path to success. Nevertheless, here are some strategies.
You might want to drive the conversation towards basic liberal values. Do we want to live in a theocracy? This question is germane because pro-life voters are motivated by religious claims that they are pushing onto others by their act of voting. In other words, the claim that abortion is murder (or more accurately, that it is the type of killing that requires legal prohibition, unlike killing other animals, in most cases) requires a claim about the personhood of the embryo that cannot be settled definitively without every citizen accepting a religious claim. (And even if they did, it still wouldn’t be definitive.)
So a pro-life voter has two options: 1) convert every citizen to their religion, or 2) push a religiously-motivated law on everyone. In 1), no pro-life law would be required since (almost) no one would seek an abortion. In 2), we are talking about theocracy. Theocracy is in opposition to basic American values of liberalism. If the pro-life voter sees this, they might either reconsider their position (and notice that they can, quite coherently, be personally pro-life and politically pro-choice) or bite the bullet. If they bite the bullet and endorse theocracy, besides getting to a depressing place, you can then discuss basic liberal values. However, I’m not optimistic about your chances of convincing an avowed theocrat to change.
Another option—which would require plenty of research—is to claim that anti-abortion laws are ineffective. They don’t decrease the amount of abortions by much, if at all. They also have many negative externalities. Women’s lives become much harder and more precarious. Thus, although it might seem strange, the best route towards minimizing abortion in the long run would be empowering women through increasing their opportunities and health options now.
Single issue gun voters are likely to have an image of Democrats as gun-snatching anti-2nd amendment extremists. Suffice it to say, the image is a gross misrepresentation. In my view, the Democratic Party, even its more progressive faction, is extremely moderate on the gun issue. So you might make a small amount of progress by showing how the Democratic Party of today is no real threat to gun owners.
That aside, you can also attempt to show that the GOP has turned guns into a culture, and therefore a cultural issue, for deeply cynical reasons. Guns are indeed a real political issue, but the GOP’s approach (at the behest of an organization like the NRA) has been all about money: allow gun companies to make large sums of cash by manufacturing an identity around guns, by turning mass shootings into an impetus for increased gun sales. People don’t like to know that they are being manipulated. But chances are that if a person is a single issue gun voter, they have been. Liking guns is different from voting only on the basis of the gun issue. So you must be able to build the case that the right-wing furor over guns is not really based on principle or reverence for the constitution. It is about falling prey to a scheme to make money.
Finally, the TS might be a negative partisan. This is a tricky conversation because this type of TS has a fairly rational view: if the Democrats are really as bad as the TS thinks, it makes perfect sense to vote only for Republicans. So the conversation might best be served by painting a more accurate picture of the Democratic Party. You can ask what they disapprove of so strongly and then show that Democrats—or those who have the real power—do not truly support or prioritize it.
The TS might also not fully understand the details of the Democratic platform. There are ways to explain many of the major policies (i.e. without talking points and buzzwords) that make them quite reasonable. If a policy is identified as ‘socialist’, the TS knows it is bad. But if the policy can be described differently (perhaps from the perspective of the benefits the TS would receive), the TS might be inclined to see its merits, even if they don’t immediately support it.
The general strategy is to diffuse tribalism. Try to frame the conversation in a way that makes it difficult for you and the TS to have easy recourse to your tribal loyalties and vocabularies.
Type 3 – “The Fence Sitter”
These are the famed “swing voters.” They are leaning towards Trump, and wouldn’t call themselves “supporters,” but need some good reasons to vote for anyone else. They probably do not pay close attention to politics. They likely think that being moderate is roughly equivalent to being reasonable.
We can divide the Fence Sitter type into two:
- Most likely they have an unorganized array of political opinions that don’t track the partisan divide, like being pro-marijuana legalization and anti-immigrant. And the opinions aren’t strongly held anyway. It might even be fair to say that they don’t have any real political views. They are inclined to fairly fringe and unnuanced versions of policies from both parties.
- They might say that they could vote for a moderate Democrat but not a progressive like Bernie or Warren. They agree with the critiques of Trump but don’t want to go with the crazy socialists. They might view themselves as fiscal conservatives of some kind, perhaps by worrying about the debt.
The most immediate goal here is simple: vote against Trump. By the nature of the Fence Sitter, it is attainable.
A more abstract goal would be to get them to think about the nature of centrism. By engaging with this issue you might move them towards the left more permanently.
Another goal is to get them to be more engaged in politics. Get them to form real political views.
Because the Fence Sitter isn’t “into politics,” you might spend less time asking questions. Come prepared with a case to make for a candidate or a particular liberal/progressive policy. Show how it affects their life. Healthcare would be a good example. The Trump GOP has no healthcare idea. The GOP consensus—which Trump has adopted by default due to his lack of interest in the issue—is that it is literally too easy for poor people to see doctors and get medication. Does the Fence Sitter endorse this?
It is good to have a positive or constructive vision of politics. So it is probably best to start there. But this TS likely doesn’t see just how bad Trump is. And the GOP has been building to this for decades. Consider reading about polarization together. This book is standard. I dig deeper here.
For instance, the fact that the Fence Sitter is put off by politics and likely thinks both sides suck (likely equally) is itself a product of GOP manipulation. The cynicism and frustration is precisely what they want. If you can show how this is the case, you might raise the TS’s consciousness in a way that makes deeper political conversation possible.
This guide is not an argument that you should talk to TS. It has been a collection of suggestions for how to talk to them if you do. The goal of a Democratic victory in 2020 is only indirect. It might, and ideally will, come along the path towards the reconstruction of political discourse.
In my view, its destruction will be the most enduring legacy of Trump and the current GOP generation. It has robbed the country of the ability to realize many beneficial policies. It is good to focus on fighting to enact the policies nonetheless. But more fundamentally, the GOP has robbed the country—and especially its own supporters—of the ability to talk productively about what politics should be.
But we can believe that the GOP has made a pivotal strategic mistake. With complete destruction comes infinite possibilities for something new. If political discourse is foundational to politics (and Trump has done us the benefit of showing that it is), we can rebuild the foundation in a way that makes a better politics possible—and indeed contributes to that politics. We can see that political discourse is politics. The reconstruction of the possibility of conversation is one and the same as the creation of a better politics.
In that case, I believe the question of whether you should talk to Trump supporters is seen in a new light.
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