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Talk to Trump Supporters

I’ve noticed certain trends in FB arguing over the past few months, primarily revolving around Hillary vs. Bernie and Trump vs. anti-Trump. I’ve seen a wide range of the quality of discourse in the Hillary vs. Bernie arguments from very low to very high. Typically the arguments, regardless of quality, receive a high level of engagement (lots of comments). But the discourse around Trump vs. anti-Trump has primarily been limited to memes/videos from pro-Trump, and utter dismissiveness (“just unfriend me if you are voting for Trump”) from anti-Trump, and a pretty low level of engagement—that is, most such posts don’t result in an argument.

If you share just one political view with me, which is that Trump should not be President, whether you identify as pro-Hillary, pro-Bernie, pro-third party, or Repub/Dem-who-can’t-stand-Hillary-but-also-don’t-want-racism/ higher-chance-of-apocalypse-in-the-White-House, I urge you to engage this election cycle as effectively as possible. I am of the mind that people can be influenced, and there are more and less effective ways to influence them. Therefore, I urge you not to automatically unfriend all your FB acquaintances who are Trump supporters. I do think it is critical that we learn to engage with them and change the minds of those who can be changed. I believe that many people who have been convinced to support him on the basis of weak arguments can be convinced to change their minds based on stronger arguments.

I’d like to suggest the following strategies for being more effective when talking specifically with people who disagree with you. I do not claim all these ideas as my own; they are derived from a combination of books and articles I have read, seminars I have attended, and my own experiences:

1) Pick your battles. I’m not suggesting that you pick fights with people who post angry, illogical rants, or post things that are overtly racist or abusive. Chances are, you have rid yourself of those people already. Not everyone has to be convinced not to vote for Trump. Some people simply cannot be convinced. However, there are some people in your universe—your uncle, your former business associate—that you like on some level, and who, despite their support for Trump, do have other redeeming qualities. They probably like you on some level as well, and can be positively influenced by what you think.

2) Attack ideas—don’t attack appearances. The quickest way to devalue your argument in the mind of your opponent is to include attacks on personal appearances. It may sound funny to you to say Ted Cruz has an ugly face, or make fun of Trump’s hair, spray-tan, or fingers, but those attacks are absolutely unpersuasive to his supporters. They even create more sympathy in their minds because they are so unfair, in the same way that attacks on Hillary’s voice or outfits or Bernie’s hair or suits are unfair. Late-night comedians are especially guilty of this and it takes the power out of their argument every time. They do it for laughs from a group that already agrees with them. But have you ever heard someone tell you a joke that you thought was not funny at all, but rather mean? It makes you dislike the joke-teller.

3) Avoid calling people idiots for what they believe. Also, avoid just flatly telling people they are wrong without support. No one believes that they personally are an idiot. And starting out with an accusation that they are wrong tends to make them dig in their heels at the outset. Even if you prove people wrong eventually, they are unlikely to admit it. Democrats have been, um, bad at not calling each other wrong idiots recently.

4) Share personal stories. This is usually the most powerful way to make your point without attacking someone. It is hard to explain to someone that they are racist for supporting him. It is easier for them to see that they are hurting actual Hispanic and Muslim people by supporting him when you share stories. I know legal immigrants who are afraid their status might be revoked and their families broken up. I know Hispanic and Muslim Americans who have been shouted at in public to “go home.” These stories are heartbreaking and compelling.

5) Ask questions to understand what their arguments are. You can’t know if you are being effective if you don’t understand where they are coming from. You may think there is no good imaginable reason under the sun why anyone would support him, but just because you can’t imagine it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist to them.

Why do you support Trump? Do you agree that he should build a wall? Do you agree that we should ban all Muslims from entering the US? Do you think that freedom of the press should be limited? Do you think we should no longer have free trade with many other foreign countries? Your response is going to be different depending on if they say “yes we should build a wall,” or “I don’t agree, but I don’t think he is really going to do it.” Asking that question first is better than starting out by stating “building a wall along the Mexican border is the most idiotic and racist idea I have ever heard of.” They might already agree.

On the flip side, don’t ask questions that are unlikely to solicit a productive answer. If you ask someone “Is there anything Trump could say or do that would make you not support him?” the answer will almost certainly be “No.” That’s like asking someone “why are you wrong?” They can’t imagine the answer to that.

6) Be prepared to rebut their arguments. There are lots of good rebuttals to Trump’s arguments, and if you are an active newsreader, you have come across them. Many of Trump’s supporters may not read the same articles you read (or any at all!) and therefore may not have ever heard a good, reasoned rebuttal before. They might be convinced if they hear one.
For example, you say “why do you want to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S.?” They will probably say what Trump says, which is “well, somebody has to do something about terrorism!” To this, you could lay out a multi-point reasoned argument, like: 1) our police, military, CIA, and government leaders are always, constantly “doing something” about terrorism, which is why they are exceedingly rare; 2) doing “something” is not an answer if that “something” is unconstitutional, racist, and ineffective. The President can’t do those kinds of things.
They have other arguments, like “he’s a good businessman” and “he’s a good negotiator,” both of which can be effectively challenged. They can be more complex too, and be related to how they disagree with Democrats and don’t want to vote Democratic. I think the mistake we are making as anti-Trump citizens is that we are not even asking his supporters why they support him. It is so clear to us why he is unacceptable that we cannot even entertain the idea that other people have reasons, because the reasons seem unimaginable. Let us find those reasons out and do battle with them.

7) Don’t be discouraged if at the end of the conversation, no one tells you “hey, you’re right! I’m wrong!” This is unlikely to happen ever. Most people won’t admit defeat but many will soften their positions, especially over time. And people are more likely to “change their minds in the face of new information” than “admit they are wrong.”

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If Facebook worked like a face-to-face encounter, I’d be more inclined to discourage the un-friending phenomenon. But it’s not. For one thing, Facebook shares information about individuals to others. Far too often, and in the fairly recent past, it’s done so without user consent. It does the same with my connections. Going forward is unclear but, based on ample past experience with violations of user privacy, I’m loathe to trust FB privacy controls with regards to my phone number, my location, my parents location and phone numbers, my sister’s location and phone numbers… my black, muslim, and LGBQT friends physical… Read more »
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