Given how well our economy is doing, Donald Trump is a surprisingly unpopular president. The only president who’s been less popular at any point in his term to date has been Harry Truman.
Yet if the past is any measure (and I think it is), we know he’s going to play to his base. We’re going to see and hear about issues like the caravan and the wall even more as 2020 approaches. He knows he has to stoke racial fires in order to prevent people from voting differently after his first two years of tax cuts for the wealthy.
Because his chances of reaching out beyond his base are low, the second part of the Republican strategy is to try to sow cynicism, fear, uncertainty, and doubt within the various constituencies that could align against him.
We will see character attacks from all angles seeking to divide us. Already, we’re hearing that Kamala Harris is not black enough and that she inhaled marijuana. We’re hearing that Amy Klobuchar is angry with her staffers. That Beto O’Rourke isn’t progressive enough. Simultaneously, the entire field of Democrats is too progressive and what we really need is a billionaire centrist. Also, that Kirsten Gillibrand doesn’t eat chicken right.
Some of this negative coverage may be seeded by various special interests who don’t want an actual populist, or it may just be the nature of the daily news cycle. If it bleeds, it leads—and these days, the competition for bleeding on the internet is fierce. As we get closer to the election though, look for more fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Much more of it will be seeded and eventually, they’ll only have one candidate to smear.
Make no mistake though, this will be the strategy: try to divide any opposition, convince people not to vote, and/or bring other candidates down below Trump.
The question then is: How do we fight back against a level of negative campaigning that might be above anything we’ve seen before?
Ignore the noise
This is some great advice from Chris Hayes.
Hayes suggests focusing instead on:
- What their worldview is
- What their platform calls for concretely
- How they’ve conducted themselves in the past as a window into how they might be in the future
- Who will they fight for?
- What will they fight for?
- Can they be trusted to do what they say?
Hayes’ advice is good advice, but I also understand that people are people. We like entertainment. We like gossip. As much as I’d like to think we could all just take the advice above, I know in my heart it’s not true because we’re not the logical creatures we like to think we are.
So what we also have to do is help get people to a place where we can have honest logical conversations without our primal fight-or-flight instincts. This involves being able to break down tribes and teams.
Don’t try to argue with someone
Arguing, more often than not, tends to reinforce beliefs rather than change them.
Instead what I do with folks is to simply tell them that I’m on their side. For example, with Bernie folks or people who are Beto supporters or whoever it may be. I establish that we want the same things.
The easiest way to do this is to talk about what you like about the person. And be honest. Don’t be phony. But I can almost always find something that I like about Democratic candidates.
Then, and only then, might I say something about who I support. And I try to do it in the spirit of “This is what I believe and here’s why I believe it.”
This allows people to make their own choices. More importantly, it establishes us as allies fighting for the same thing—even if we disagree on how to get there.
The reason this is important is because after the primary, regardless of who wins, we’re going to want to unite.
Once we leave behind the moral outrage, the sense of injury, the distinct cadence of each scandalous speech, it is clear that 2017 Trump is not very different from 2016 Trump on his way to power. Everything he’s done in the White House is more of the same: An enemy (unpatriotic minorities, the lying liberal media, anyone who doesn’t fit into the side of good in his Manichaean vision) is cartooned, blamed for all of society’s evils and offered in sacrifice as a scapegoat for the United States’ problems. The purported solution remains simple: Shame them, silence them, build a wall around them. The basic premise is still that the restoration of the country lies in the destruction of its enemies.
It does not matter that he is eroding the nation’s democratic institutions. That this combat is dangerous, hypocritical, built on lies. That you, after all, are innocent. His supporters are sure that you are to blame. Until you can convince them otherwise, they will cheer him on. The name of the game is polarization, and the rookie mistake is to forget you are the enemy.
According to Rondón, normal politicians collapse in the face of scandal because it shows them falling short on their promises. Trump offered a much different deal: “If you vote for me, I will destroy your enemies.” In this world, every scandal simply looks like some kind of political attack by an “enemy.”
This is why scandals will not take down Trump. It’s also why he needs to be seen “swinging back” at the enemy they want destroyed.
The question that he says you have to ask yourself is: Will this help show them that I am not their enemy?
Trying to prove you’re right will not. Showing that you care will.
The easiest way to do this is to fight with someone on something. Even if it’s trivial, reach out. Go to lunch with someone from the opposite “side.” Find a sports team that you both like. Find a food that you both have in common.
Instead of arguing, build a bridge by finding something in common.
If you can establish trust—and only if—then you can push a little bit more and maybe have some more difficult conversations. All too often, however, we want to jump to the fighting. Fighting and division is what Trump wants. He wants us fighting with each other, especially.
As Rondón recommends: “There is indeed a place for your legitimate moral outrage: not the dining table but the voting booth.”