Harrumph...How To Talk About Trump
November 8, 2019 7:20 PM   Subscribe

How do you have a conversation with Trump supporters about politics, or anything related to politics?

I've found that no matter how I try to have a conversation with Trump supporters about anything related to politics, they are always hyper reactive, to the point of being hostile and irrational. Anybody who questions them on anything is immediately called a hater (or a never Trumper if they are a conservative/Republican). I've tried various soft touches, indirectness, etc., but it's like walking on egg shells. There just seems to be no way to have a normal back and forth exchange.

It's disturbing to me both personally and for the general well-being of society because having a conversation shouldn't be this hard, and certainly in the past I've never seen similar situations.

Why are they so explosive, and is there a way to talk to them without them igniting?

Please share some possible approaches and techniques that I can try.
posted by Dansaman to Human Relations (22 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Speaking as someone who identified as conservative back in the 90s, they are reactive because deep down they know they're being assholes.
posted by notsnot at 7:37 PM on November 8, 2019 [38 favorites]

I think something you could try is asking them to explain one one policy is better than another. If you just ask what they like about his immigration policy or whatever, they'll say "well those folks are taking our jobs." But if you ask, why do you support detaining children rather than deporting them, they may find themselves actually thinking about stuff.

But many Trump supporters see themselves as victims and him as the deliverer. It's very easy to inject that into many other topics. So basically you have to avoid talking about any victims at all, because then they can say "but the real victims are..."

It may be preferable to go with something constructive, like what do you think rural and urban communities need to learn from each other, or how do you think we should be securing voting infrastructure against interference and hacking.

Honestly it's going to be hard for you to carry this plan out because it takes two to have a conversation. There's no guarantee, as you've found, that the person on the other side is willing to make the effort you are. In fact they may decide you're weak to attempt it. Sad as hell, I know.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 7:48 PM on November 8, 2019 [8 favorites]

Just like any other conversation, try listening more than speaking. Don't try to convince the other party of anything, just listen to what they have to say and respond respectfully. If it goes into negative territory, walk away and agree to disagree. Look at the other person as just that, another person, not as an "X' supporter (for both sides). Just as strongly as you feel your opinions are correct, they feel just as strongly about theirs. Their values may differ from yours but that's okay. There are good and bad people on all sides.
posted by hrhcc at 8:27 PM on November 8, 2019 [7 favorites]

They are explosive because right wing media has trained them to react that way. If you consume enough right wing media, you will experience a remarkably consistent and comprehensive set of stimuli all of which are intended to produce an angry response. Trump supporters especially are exposed, over and over again, to the same messages reinforced across different programs, ads and social media comments. You have experienced the result - it’s like walking on eggshells because they have probably experienced the stimulus and every little stimulus gets a big response. And it’s a downward spiral when combined with the victimization they often feel, which is also deliberately reinforced by right wing media.

The only way I’ve been sort of able to have a dialogue about politics is to have a third party be the trigger in an outlandish way, which sort of “exhausts” or diverts the reaction and lets me make points which they receive more calmly. I would not say it’s more persuasive, though.
posted by odin53 at 8:30 PM on November 8, 2019 [16 favorites]

They’re touchy because both they and the guy they support are punchlines. They watch late night talk shows — or even daytime talk shows — the same as everyone else.

I doubt you can have a satisfactory conversation with someone who is taking a pounding like they are. Hunkering down is human nature.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:16 PM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

What is your goal in these conversations? Why are you having them? What are you expecting the other person to gain from or get out of these conversations?
posted by lazuli at 9:56 PM on November 8, 2019 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: @lazuli Why do any two people have a conversation? Out of interest and curiosity, to learn and to grow, to be social and share, to bridge gaps.
posted by Dansaman at 10:09 PM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I stumbled across the "Ask Trump Supporters" subreddit (link) for the first time recently, and it seems like they're at least attempting civilized political topical threads, mainly for the purpose of seeing how the opposing sides think. Still somewhat confrontational, but at least moderated.

The level of discourse leaves something to be desired, esp. from the right who appear to mostly be repeating talking points and not engaging too deeply on specific topical threads, but in broader abstract threads it can be somewhat insightful. I know IRL is different, but seeing how those threads play out may at least give some ideas on some of the more successful approaches to specific topics.
posted by p3t3 at 10:13 PM on November 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

@lazuli Why do any two people have a conversation? Out of interest and curiosity, to learn and to grow, to be social and share, to bridge gaps.

If sharing is your goal, or curiosity, then maybe don't question them on anything. Active listening techniques might work better.

Also, if you use "Why?" a lot, stop it completely. It will absolutely make even the most sympathetic conversational partner defensive. If you absolutely must ask for clarification -- which is different from asking for justification, which you should not do if you're trying to get someone to share -- use variations on "how come?" or "what makes you value that?"
posted by lazuli at 11:00 PM on November 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: I also just found a recent article in the NY Times that is relevant:

How to Get Trump Voters and Liberals to Talk: Don’t Make Anyone Sit in a Circle
posted by Dansaman at 11:20 PM on November 8, 2019

Any conversational partner will be "reading" you at the same time you're "reading" them. And that read, on both sides, will be conditioned by prior expectations about what drives this other person.

This thread is helpful as a guide to some of those defensive expectations. After all, in answer to a question about engaging civilly with Trump supporters, four of the first five responses were from people arguing that (a) Trump supporters are just assholes and secretly know it, (b) Trump supporters unfairly claim victimhood and aren't willing to make any effort in conversation, (c) Trump supporters are all brainwashed by right-wing media, and (d) Trump supporters are ridiculous punchlines.

These are extremely mainstream positions on the left, so you should assume any Trump supporter you speak with believes that you believe this about them. If you want them to not react defensively to the first small move you make in one of these directions, you may need to go a ways to demonstrate good faith/ respect up front.
posted by gallusgallus at 3:57 AM on November 9, 2019 [15 favorites]

First of all, I think it’s great that you want to do this.

Second, when I was young, I was an obnoxious fundamentalist Christian (not all fundamentalist Christians are obnoxious, but I definitely was). My wise older brother said something to me that I have never forgotten: “I think I can learn something from you, but you don’t think you can learn anything from me.” He was completely right. And this is too often the problem with both sides.

So think about what you can learn. Maybe ask, What would you like me to understand? What do you think I don’t get? A lot will probably be about their feelings. Never argue with people’s feelings. Think about your motivation. If you secretly go into a conversation thinking you’re going to change their minds, it’s probably not going to work. And watch YouTube videos of Mr. Rogers talking to children. I aspire to listen to everyone the way he listened to children.

Also, everything gallusgallus said.
posted by FencingGal at 6:22 AM on November 9, 2019 [16 favorites]

I have had some non-hostile conversations with Trump supporters, basically using the Active Listening techniques that lazuli linked to, and also putting some effort in to find any possible areas of common ground, even minor ones.

Here's the thing I learned from that, though - there really really is a strong element of cult of personality and epistemic closure; they are simply not existing in the same reality as the rest of us. All of their information is from sources that ignore or minimize anything negative about him, and so they in turn simply ignore or deflect anything that doesn't fit their belief that he is accomplishing great things.

Example 1) A Trump supporter who admitted there is much not to like about him, but offered that "At least he keeps his promises." His evidence for that? The thing where supposedly Trump donates his salary to charity. Besides the fact that this may not actually be happening, which I did not mention, I started to subtly probe into (paraphrasing), "Really? That's it? What about the wall and replacing Obamacare with better and cheaper and turning America into a manufacturing powerhouse again and and and and?" Nope. A few hundred thousand dollars a year sent to charity was enough to buttress the idea that Trump is an honest man, everything else got blown off as "not his fault."

Example 2) I wound up in a conversation with a vet whose wife died of cancer years ago while they were stationed in Germany (meaning she got really astounding medical care, both Army docs and German hospitals, and it cost him nothing.) From that we found common ground on the idea that America really needs to treat its veterans better and that some form of universal health care would be a fantastic thing to have in the US.

And then . . . any hint of a suggestion that Trump and/or the party he leads are not all that interested in veterans care or improving health care, are maybe even maybe kinda actively working against these ideas just got ignored. Like, literally, bizarrely ignored, like I hadn't even said anything. The Trump guy would just repeat his assertion that we need to take better care of vets, or that we need improved health care, or would just change the subject entirely, or would just assert that Trump is very definitely working on those things, but would not (could not) cite even the slightest bit of an idea about how he's supposedly working on health care. It didn't matter what any sort of facts were - he knew Trump was working on issues this guy supported.
posted by soundguy99 at 6:24 AM on November 9, 2019 [10 favorites]

I think the question "what are your goals" is a really good one. If your goal is to change their mind, or to persuade them that they are wrong, that's going to vastly increase your chance of the conversation going poorly. If your goal is just to genuinely understand them better (which does not mean you have to agree with them), that's going to increase your chance of the conversation going well. It's really hard to stick with that second goal, but I do think it can help.

I am going to make a couple of guesses as to what is going on, based on your comments and questions. Forgive me if I'm making leaps here that are inaccurate. They are just guesses:

You say you have tried "indirectness" as a strategy. That suggests to me that you have been working on the "change your mind" goal as opposed to the "understanding" goal. I think this because I can't see why someone would feel the need to indirectly try to understand someone.

Also, you have described the people you are talking to as being irrational. This suggests to me that you're thinking is that they are basically wrong and not thinking straight, and that you are right and thinking straight.

The goals you name are to be curious and to learn and to grow. I think for many of us, we go into conversations thinking those are our goals, but then our goals shift. When you talk to these folks, what they perceive - accurately - is someone who thinks they are irrational, who thinks he is right and they are wrong. That person, furthermore is indirectly trying to change their mind, which is to say he is trying to persuade them that he is right and they are wrong, while also denying what that this is what he is doing, which can be pretty frustrating.

I want to make clear: I'm making a lot of inferences here about you that might be wrong. I'm curious if they resonate.

Also I want to make clear: If you are doing the sort of thing I'm describing, it's not because you're a deficient communicator, it's because you are human. These are traps that all of us fall into a lot of the time when talking about tough issues: We go in thinking "I just want to be a good listener here" but we end up actually doing something very different. Being a good listener to people with whom you strongly and passionately disagree is *hard*.
posted by ManInSuit at 7:57 AM on November 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

Also, if you do eventually want to sway their opinions, understanding them first -- without arguing against them -- is generally a good first step. Building understanding, building relationship. As the article linked above shows, the conservative didn't change his mind on gay marriage because of rational arguments but because he became friends with a gay man.

It's slow and frustrating and can be/feel manipulative if it's not genuinely coming from a place of authentic desire to connect with another human being, and it's also the only pathway I've seen mentioned, again and again, by people doing this sort of thing professionally (e.g., people trying to deprogram or de-escalate terrorists, white supremacists, etc.).
posted by lazuli at 8:40 AM on November 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

One thing that helps me guide political conversations with Republicans or centrists (I'm a US based non-white leftist) is to try hard to find a single value that we both agree upon near the beginning of the conversation. When we inevitably argue different methods to stay true to that shared value, I occasionally (but repetitively) remind them of that value we have in common, and how much I like and respect them for having that view.

The above may seem like a silly or patronizing thing to do, but I've found it can keep us from falling too far into heated or accusatory dialogue.

Occasionally, it'll result in them trusting me enough to share really personal details about their lives and how they reached their current political opinions.
posted by el gran combo at 9:09 AM on November 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'd suggest that it may not be useful, despite your intentions:
“I think what most liberals are missing is that this isn’t about right and wrong, it’s about winning and losing. I’ve attached my entire worldview to this man and I am going down with the ship. Not one of you is going to convince me otherwise.” - schml, /r/asktrumpsupporters
posted by WCityMike at 9:17 AM on November 9, 2019 [10 favorites]

It seems to me like the Trump supporters I know are fine with talking about politics. They just don't want to talk about Donald Trump, because they know I probably think they are a moron and an asshole for liking Donald Trump. So I try to talk about my opinions and their opinions in a way that doesn't bring up federal politics and isn't implicitly about federal politics. You can talk about climate change or inequality or foreign policy without referring to how the current government is or is not doing the thing you agree with.
posted by value of information at 10:11 AM on November 9, 2019

I would suggest looking into the work of Daryl Davis, a black man who made a lifelong hobby of successfully deconverting members of the KKK. Writing from former neo-Nazis or actual Nazis about what allowed them to make a break from that ideology might also be helpful. There’s a vast body of work available on how to deprogram people from cults that might also be useful. I don’t think people upthread chiding you about automatically assuming Trump supporters are “wrong” and you are “right” are really engaging responsibly or helpfully here, or maybe they don’t understand racist nationallst movements very well, but none of that shit about humbling yourself and not patronizing these people is really appropriate here, or effective.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 10:13 AM on November 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Here is Daryl Davis on this topic:

"Invite them to have a conversation, not to debate. A debate is I want to make my point, you want to make your point, and we're going to fight it out. That tends to get their guard up. You say, hey, I want to have a conversation with you. I want to understand why you feel the way you feel. I want you to convince me that I need to change my way of thinking. And I appreciate your sharing your views. I'm interested in how you feel. And that's what a lot of people want. They want to be heard. They want to be able to speak their mind freely without fear of retaliation or somebody beating them over the head for their views or ramming their own views down the person's throat. So give them that.”
posted by ManInSuit at 11:04 AM on November 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

For me, the best way to "talk" to a Trump supporter is to try to be the best human being I can be. I try to be zen. No need to talk about what I think about politics. The truth is always there no matter what is said. Go beyond.

Identity politics is the new reality (actually a few decades long now, I suppose) and my approach is to not talk about politics at all with people who are locked down in identifying with Trump or who wrap their identity around any political agenda. Why go down that road when so many people identify with their position as its their actual self you are disagreeing with and not the policy or position? Your average person (including myself) has a surface-level knowledge of politics, mostly obtained through television. Many people are picking their tribes and sides through emotion. They want to feel right and when you disagree with something they identify with, they feel wrong, and feeling wrong is unbearable for many people.

I work with a Trump supporter and it's easy for me to avoid politics. I allow her to talk. She doesn't talk much at all about politics because she knows I am not a Trump supporter and I never broach the subject. (I expressed my feelings when Trump was elected. My exact words were "I hate Trump", which was hostile on my part, because for starters, I didn't know she loved him.)

It's not that I don't have" the goods" to offer a legitimate counter argument, it's just that I find discussions on politics unproductive with most people because most people are on edge and hold onto their opinions tightly. My coworker is probably not going to change her mind and I don't need her to. Just as I'm sure you are not trying to sway opinions and only wanting to have a legitimate and intelligent discussion.

There are people out there that are capable of having adult discussions about politics on both sides. Although, some people who support Trump are going to have a difficult time with it because some actually enjoy viewing people as the enemy, just as Trump does. They like antagonism and get a thrill from viewing people as idiots, just as Trump does. They want to feel superior and smart and they have a lot of fear. This is a human thing and not just a Trump thing but most Trump supporters are fear-based because why would an awake person follow an egomaniac? This is why discussing politics with egomaniacs is futile, it's better to show them that you see their humanity.

There is much to care about in the world. Humans are suffering and democracy is fragile and something to fight for to the death. However, the daily ego trips and happenings and personality of Trump is not worth mentioning. He's a blind person in massive amounts of emotional pain. He is identified with thoughts and operates from ego only and has followers who also operate from ego. This is why discussions are hostile and irrational.

There is nothing to do but let it unfold as it will. Hopefully the world is becoming more awake and the best thing to do to foster awakening is to not argue positions of the mind. Maybe Trump is helping more people to be aware of their own ego trips and identifications with their minds. Trump is suffering heavily and maybe some people will notice their own suffering and see how it's not working and find another way. Since my method is to not talk politics, some Trump supporters assume that I am on "their side". They believe my silence is agreement. I find this interesting as well. It's okay. I allow them to think as they will. There is nothing to prove. Reality cannot be destroyed.
posted by loveandhappiness at 12:00 PM on November 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

Why do any two people have a conversation? Out of interest and curiosity, to learn and to grow, to be social and share, to bridge gaps.

i read lazuli's question as more "what is the context for these conversations" because that's what i myself am wondering? are you just... approaching strangers? on the street? striking up political conversations with coworkers, acquaintances, etc whose opinions you know you don't share? because in my personal experience this is not a normal thing that people do unless they are either actively soliciting donations for a candidate on the street, or are attempting to evangelize in order to change someone's mind. it's very hard to casually and without agenda inquire about these things and most people who think they are in fact doing so casually are. not.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:50 PM on November 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

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