Starting immediately after the election of Donald Trump, I began to see a lot of hand wringing over the question of how to talk to a Trump supporter. Some people agonized over losing a friendship of long standing, or even the prospect of banishing a family member from their lives. Then, last year, some of these same people began to report, almost with pride it seemed, that they had blocked these people on social media, or taken that step in some other way to cleanse these people from their lives. But now it is 2018, and we have an election to win. We need not just to capture both parties of Congress, but to reengage with the rest of our nation to make sure our victory is something we can build on in years to come. We need to talk to the enemy because it is still one country that belongs both to us and to them, and we all want a better future than we can expect if things go on as they are.
I am not suggesting that anyone is owed any apologies here. Nor do I expect that reengagement will be easy. But I think there is a way forward. Start by realizing that the typical Trump supporter does not respond to facts and figures, nor do they want to be told what is good for them. Yes, the facts are on our side, and yes, a vote for Trump was a vote for a set of policies that will hurt greatly most of those who made his presidency possible. But that was not why they voted for him in the first place. It was not a rational decision, and neither is their continued support, but it did and does follow its own weird logic. To successfully reengage with a Trump supporter, especially one who was once important in your life, you must first understand that logic.
As the 2016 election cycle wore on, there was an increasingly prevalent view that the system had failed. The working class, in this view, had no champion to turn to. Aided by what we now recognize as a sophisticated Russian propaganda operation, many came to believe that Bernie Sanders was the only politician who wasn’t part of the system, and who cared. Later, again with Russian assistance, the idea spread that Sanders was undone not by a late start or a key lack of organizational efforts in minority communities, but by a sinister conspiracy perpetrated by the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. Almost all of the negatives that surrounded Hillary Clinton originated either in right wing media sources or in Russia, but the Russians especially made sure that this information found its way to left wing political sites, from whence it spread like wildfire. Of course this meant that anger was a prominent feature of the 2016 general election. It drove many to sit this one out, and many more saw in Donald Trump an instrument of revenge. His policy positions made no difference; he was going to destroy the system that gave us these awful choices in the first place. For many, that is still what they want from him. Don’t tell them that this is not normal, because normal never helped or cared about them. If you point out how horrible he is, you may be told how the resistance to Trump is something that never would have happened if someone less horrible sat in the White House. By this line of reasoning, we need Trump to give us something to get us activated and organized. That argument is harder to rebut because there is some truth to it, but it has a horrible cost.
So I think the way to reengage is to present an honest desire to understand where a Trump supporter is coming from. Ask key questions, and then listen like crazy. Don’t try to rebut their arguments; instead, use your questions to subtly guide them to common ground, because it does exist. Let’s consider some questions you could ask.
Do you think the healthcare system in this country could work better for you and your family? How would you change it if you could? How would you pay for those changes? The idea here is not to push universal healthcare on anyone. In answering the question, they may get there on their own, but they may also go somewhere else that is worth the trip. Your job when reengaging is to let them take you there, and then take their ideas seriously.
Can you name one action Donald Trump or the Republican Congress has taken on the economy that has benefitted you or your family personally? If you know someone else who has benefitted, it may be that they have left out important details, so please tell me your story. Here you have the chance to follow up with probing questions, but do not be confrontational. You are asking them not to share your viewpoint, but to help you understand. In doing so, you are helping them to understand as well.
Do you personally know any first generation immigrants to this country? Are any of them working at jobs that you or a family member would want and are qualified for ? Here you are asking them to challenge their own xenophobia, rather than challenging it yourself. Once again, avoid being confrontational; the confrontation that occurs must be within them, not between you. Not everyone you talk to will be a racist or a xenophobe at all. In that case, this question could be a great way to break the ice.
These are just suggestions. I’m sure you can now think of questions of your own, and I hope you will share them in the comments. I hope you will also seek out these conversations, and tell us in the comments how it went. Since the 2016, we have been getting better at fighting for what we want, and that is important. But we must also start to prepare for the peace that I hope will follow that fight. When we finally win back everything we are losing now, how do we keep those wins? I believe we start with a few simple conversations.
I plead guilty to the charge of irony, but there could really only be one song this week: