How to Persuade a Trump Supporter to Reject and Resist Trumpism
A DIY Guide (v1.3) to Changing Minds Instead of Sending Your Sad Soliloquies or Smug Shouting Right into the Void
By an old-school rhetorician who thinks liberals, conservatives, radicals, and pretty much everyone desperately needs to improve their arts of persuasion, who here posits that the loss of rhetorical skill and virtue contributed to the political hellscape that now engulfs us. But take courage. We shall learn. λόγος δυνάστης μέγας ἐστίν. Annihilate the echo chamber!
1. Know The Soul of Your Audience — Before and As You Engage — To The Fullest Possible Extent. The profound importance of this point nearly overwhelms everything else. Whether you’re persuading a parent or a total stranger, understanding who you’re talking to — from hearsay or intimidate knowledge, their dialect and discourse, even clothing and body language — will ensure you pick the best path to persuasion, perhaps the only path. Try to grasp their demographics (gender, social class, geographical origins, ethnicity), ideology (principled or erratic? Populist or aristocratic? What are their values?), psychology (curious vs. cautious, neurotic vs. confident), motivations (fear? fortune? unmotivated?), morality and religion (judgmental? can you use scripture?), past positions (voted for Bush? Obama? Various policies?), modes of communication (through what media and styles do they prefer to be engaged?). I say “know their soul” as a shorthand for the countless characteristics, all rhetorically relevant, that shape us as linguistic and political beings. Little to nothing is truly irrelevant; even their favorite sport or hobby is an inroad to conversation. If you’re in the dark, respectfully gather information as you converse. Per the ancient rhetoricians, only someone with knowledge of everything could truly be an ideal orator; even politically “irrelevant” skills like geometry were demanded. You should bring a sincere curiosity for the audience and all aspects of life and culture (maybe knowledge of NASCAR, not geometry, will provide a route to persuasion). Furthermore, friendly curiosity nourishes rapport and goodwill, or in fancier terms, dialogism with eunoia.
2. Do Rhetorical Triage; Pick Your Audience for Safety and Efficacy. There are three types of people: the “goners” who are impossible to persuade, the ones who are sufficiently on your side already, and most importantly here, the ones in the middle who have a hope of being persuaded but need your help. This last group is the priority: maybe they’re expressed some doubts about Trump or the GOP before, maybe you’re already friendly with them and will thus have more leverage. If you have a choice, do not engage the most trenchant ones, especially if it’s dangerous (complete strangers? Alcohol involved? High cost of failure?). Pick your battles (but think of them as persuasive discussions, dialogues, and chats, not battles!). Of course, there may be times you have no choice but to engage extreme supporters in your family and close social network. The advice here still applies. Even if Trump does something “unthinkable” (a word whose meaning now slips away) his support will find a floor above 20%: the diehard believers. But we must work hard to discover where exactly this floor rests and start with the more persuadable people. I realize that some readers are so surrounded by Trump supporters that they’ve been forced to delete Facebook, lose friends, and sever connections, so you have my assurances that I’m not trivializing the task of changing minds. It requires great emotional and mental effort, and not everyone can muster that right now. But if you’re willing to try, then here’s what you need to know.
3. Respect and Nourish the Communication Channel. Arguments can be won or lost, but they cease to exist when someone walks away, refuses to speak to you, bans political talk, or you get disinvited from Christmas. Your first goal isn’t win them over, it’s to maintain the conversation so it’s possible to win them over (internet/social media has massively obscured this goal). Every instance of human communication has a channel, and when this gets cut, it’s game over. If they say something bigoted and you walk away in disgust, you may have won on moral terms but you have conceded the rhetorical contest. Obviously, you must walk away sometimes. But it is generally a bad idea for either party to destroy the communication channel (eg. unfriending on Facebook); you should suppress your righteousness and condemnation until you can be sure it doesn’t end the dialogue. Make strategic concessions to some of their best points, building goodwill and proving that you’re engaged in civil dialogue rather than hostile debate. And of course, warmly affirm the true things they say; truths will emerge to which you must be open. Though you may despise some of their opinions, you need to demonstrate that you’re an attentive listener so that they will in turn listen to you (this is not rhetorical rocket science, just Relationships 101).
4. Massage and Master the Medium; Pick the Best One Possible. Your strategy should be appropriate to the specific medium (dinner conversation, work chat, email, text, Facebook, random social media comments, memes etc.). A book could be written about the nuances of each, but typically we want to shift the medium to something more (1) intimate and (2) thoughtful/extensive. For instance, a private conversation is inherently more powerful than Facebook statuses and walls, where people perform for a public, tribal audience (and for all you know, that random news article comment comes from a Russian robot!). An email or private Facebook message will ensure a more thoughtful engagement than twitter and text because both parties won’t be focused on cramming zingers and wit into 140 characters. Assess their style of communication, and try to bring your own style into partial alignment with theirs (linguistic register, formality, sense of propriety, etc.). As a baseline, choose a style that uses plain, everyday language, conveys openness and curiosity (but with friendly conviction in your principles and purpose). Even ignoring the content of the conversation, you can achieve minor miracles of persuasion with an apt style in an effective medium. Ideally I’d rewrite versions of this guide for a specific media and contexts (your old friend on Facebook; your uncle at family gatherings). For a while, try ignoring the “content” of your political discourse and instead focus on its medium, for this “content” is perhaps a “juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind”. Then, retool the message with insights from its medium. Dialogues that get shut down in a weak medium find new life in a stronger one. Switch if need be!
5. Open With Goodwill; Build Your Ethos; Identify With Audience. Never, ever open with hostility. Don’t even think of using a word that ends in *ism or *ist (racism etc.). The vast majority of Trump supporters have been inoculated against such terms, and have been insulted so many times that you will need to suppress your moral judgements as you initiate conversation (this is a guide for persuading other people, not yourself). Your opening move should be to establish shared values, goodwill, and your credibility as a speaker, humbly identifying with the audience in certain capacities. Convey integrity, but not righteousness or elitism. You need to — at least partially — align your interests and identify with the most noble aspects of the audience. Here are some phrases that may come in handy: like “Since we both agree that [the constitution is crucial] …”, “As a veteran [or as XYZ respected vocation]…”, “We’re both women who have experienced…”, “Since we know the 1% [or Washington elites] are against the interests of the average American… ”, “I respect [XYZ thing about you] so …”, “You’re right to be angry at Washington…”, “Since we both previously supported [XYZ common person] …”, “As someone who [currently or formerly] holds certain conservative beliefs…” and so on. The more of this identification occurs, the more the audience will tolerate the uncomfortable truths you’ll later broach. Identification (as defined by rhetorician Kenneth Burke) was of the greatest discoveries of modern rhetorical theory. It is no exaggeration to say that your ability to identify with the audience will make or break your pitch. In the rhetoric of the campaign against Trump, the kneejerk rejection of identification with (current or future) Trump voters proved disastrous. I am not asking you to sympathize with bigots; I am telling you that you must identify with parts of the Trump supporter’s being, whether it’s their working class identify or some of their more nobler beliefs. Without you producing some kind of alignment between the speaker and audience there will be no changing minds, perhaps the most difficult and uncomfortable truth that readers should heed. Without identification, the only sort of utterances that produce change involve coercion, which is outside the purview of rhetorical theory. Do not threaten, insult, or harass. Identify with the audience and change minds.
6. Work The Rhetorical Triangle. Your means of persuasion fall into three categories famously defined by Aristotle. Firstly, things to do with you, the speaker, and your credibility, character, and authority (ethos). Secondly, the subject at hand (American politics), and all of the facts, figures, and reasoning associated with it (logos). Thirdly, the emotions, beliefs, and values of the audience (pathos). All three have their merits, but for refuting Trumpism, logos and pathos are probably more useful than ethos unless the audience knows and deeply respects you. You can, however, probe their authority figures (celebrities/politicians/heros/athletes) to discover experts who they find credible and are also against Trump. Logos fits with academic and intellectual debate around policies, and is suitable for “idea people” or “show me the data” people. However, logos can be tricky because of the lamentable partisan destruction of centrist “facts”, the delegitimation of many media sources, the scarcity of critical thinking, and the ignorance of logical fallacies. Given the percentages of anti-vaxxers, young earth creationists, climate deniers, etc. (note correlations with Trump support), using “strictly scientific” reasoning, under the purview of logos, may prove extremely tricky. Confirmation bias is off the charts these days; even people with excellent reasoning skills are inclined to “shoot the messenger”. Thus pathos is probably your best bet: grasp the essence of their beliefs and values, and show how Trumpism violates in whole or part something they stand for.
7. Show Them How Trump and/or the GOP is Inconsistent With Their Own Values, Feelings, Identity, and Position in Society. Now that you understand their values, you need to show (more than tell) them how they’ve been betrayed. We’re working pathos here. You’re not imposing your beliefs on them in a frontal assault, you’re entering their world to show them how they’ve been deceived (be nice initially: they haven’t deceived themselves, attribute blame to other people, or to a wide group that includes yourself). Here is where the Know Your Audience information proves crucial in customizing your persuasive strategy since you’re trying to show them the internal inconsistencies in their thinking (but not in a “told you so” or “you’re a hypocrite” kind of way). Yet as you reveal these inconsistencies, you can slowly suggest that their values are in fact consistent with the massively popular and inclusive movement that is rejecting Trump. To use a crass commercial metaphor, we are “upselling” the audience from a gaudy, ill-fitting, made-in-China suit or dress to a majestic bespoke garment, which indeed is the deal of the century because it’s less expensive (in actual and moral dollars). Only a crappy salesperson would utterly humiliate the customer for picking the wrong option while offering them no alternative. To use a more stately, Platonic metaphor, you need to become the midwife to the wisdom they themselves will birth, rather than “assaulting” them with your knowledge and thus entrenching them in an impregnable fortress.
8. Offer Alternatives and Belonging. We must eventually shift to the personal, social, economic, democratic, geopolitical positives of resisting Trump. And rather than metaphors of rejection, we can use metaphors of belonging to the resistance, to the right side of history (and the resistance is cool, c.f. Star Wars). We shouldn’t forget the social psychology of belonging and rejection; the rejection that many Trump voters experienced before the election lead them to seek a new belonging under Trumpism. Thus we should offer them a better belonging. It is true that America was “divided” by election, but too often we forget there are a hundred other ways to slice its sociological pie. There are dozens of definable groups and subcultures which (1) offer belonging (2) aren’t entirely classifiable with a D or R (3) offer resistance to Trump. Since the audience invariably belongs to one or more of these groups — moms, veterans, fans of a sports team, mechanics, Catholics, owners of corgis, whatever — their belonging is a potential avenue of persuasion. Do not let the audience make a friend-enemy distinction (like Carl Schmidt); and if they must, make sure the alignment is between the majority of Americans versus the elites: Trump, Bannon, Putin, etc.
9. Secure Partial Agreement and Identification; Don’t Be Greedy; Repeat. At the end of the (first) session with a person, you’ve hopefully (1) agreed to keep talking and massaged the medium of communication (2) clarified their values, knowing them more intimately, and identified with them in certain respects (3) moved the needle in the right direction — securing a full disavowal of Trump is ridiculously optimistic. You should now understand some of their hypotheticals: “I would still support Trump if he does X but not if he does Y”. Perhaps you can show them that Y has already happened or is about to happen. Don’t forget the value of diagnostic information: once you’ve identified what’s called the stasis in rhetorical theory — the point at which the argument rests — you know where to devote your effort. Otherwise, you’ll just be talking over each other. The time and effort your spend with the audience — and whether you follow up in the future — depends entirely on your situation. But keep in mind that, if you’re certain you’ll follow up with the audience, you build a stronger argument by doing it slowly and deliberately.
10. In Case of Medium to Massive Success, Obtain a Commitment:
a. Telling other Trump supporters why they changed their mind. Because of their special ethos, a former Trump supporter has unique potential to persuade others!
b. Making calls to representatives
c. Participating in boycotts and protests
d. Reading books about history, society, philosophy, and critical thinking
11. In Case of Total Failure, Spend Your Time Elsewhere; In Case of Mixed Results, Rally and Retry. The genius of your approach comes in its creative tailoring for the person; when you’re frustrated, return to their identity, your previous relationship with them, and their specific sticking points (stasis) on Trumpism. Some people are lost causes; others will take time. The mind is malleable; people both enter and exit cultish thinking. The metaphorical model for persuading a Trump supporter should not be conversion; they will not have an instant, life-changing “religious epiphany” that you somehow inspire. If they do experience epiphanic rejection of Trumpism, it will almost certainly come from within, in reaction to unforeseen events and growing doubts that people like you have fostered. Rather, your model for this persuasive encounter should resemble “getting them in to something”, like a TV show, sport, or hobby; resistance is cool (in addition to being morally necessary). People recommend shows on Netflix to each other on a daily basis; surely it’s possible to recommend better media. If they’re reading Breitbart, you probably can’t swing them across the spectrum to a left-leaning outlet. But you can nudge them leftwards towards a centrist source, or “up” the intellectual spectrum (Breitbart and Alex Jones make National Review look sane). Right now, you’re existing in two different “frames of reference” (especially in regards to media and what is considered factual); the factual/ideological “Matrix” of Breitbart, for instance, seems to have no intersecting points with Huffpo. Yet there are common facts to both worldviews; they both agree that DJT is president, enjoys golf, and has issued certain executive orders, for instance. To this seemingly tiny island of shared facts, you can slowly add enough soil until you have enough ground to stand on for a real discourse. Bringing your two “frames of reference” closer together is imperative; if you can, support your case with facts from close to, or within, their matrix.
12. Alternate Plan: Ignore Trump Entirely and Focus on The Massively Broken Swampy System. If Trump is infallible for this audience, then you have the option of focusing on the cowardice of the political elite and its worst members, especially the manipulators and sycophants who are using Trump to gut institutions and programs that some Trump supporters actually value. But you don’t need to start with the GOP: you can include a wide array of spineless democrats, sleazy lobbyists, sly oligarchs, and general jerks who are against the masses. You can even — and this may be hard to stomach, so don’t do it if you think it ugly — portray Trump relatively sympathetically, revealing his manipulation by more powerful forces (Putin/Bannon/Wall Street etc.) who are keen betray Trump’s “positives” (his promises to reform the system, as hollow as they were), and in fact argue that Trump has been co-opted by The System to shore up its power. Many Americans will agree, in a fairly bipartisan sense, that Washington is broken. You can thus explain that the demand of the people for reforming Washington has been, yet again, subverted by insiders.
Ultimately, Shift Blame to The True Causes, and Agree to Fix Them. Taking a long view of history, the roots of the Trump crisis have virtually nothing to do with the man called Trump. Only a uniquely awful combination of 3, 5, or 10 systematic causes, swelling up over the past decades, allowed him to win. You and I will differ on their exact nature and extent, but potential causes or “factors” include: decades of neoliberal policy exploiting the working classes who eventually find external scapegoats, disenfranchisement and gerrymandering, a hyper-partisan media sphere with few centrist arbitrators, terrible civic engagement and knowledge, an erosion of democratic ideals or tolerant “American values” (whatever those may be), a resurgence or unmasking of resentment and bigotry, an education system that fails to produce sufficient critical thinking, and other long-term issues that transcend individuals like Trump and Clinton. Intelligent conservative commentators agree that only a fundamentally damaged republic could yield Trump. It is absolutely true that the individual named Trump must be defeated, but on the other hand, America’s obsession with the individual in general — his or her morality, successes, and scandals — numbs voters to systemic machinations. So in a fully rational world, wouldn’t it make sense to start with the fundamental causes instead of the circuitous path I proposed? Of course, but we do not live in a fully rational world. And the Trump supporter you’re engaging almost certainly does not have the patience and background of a political scientist. Thus, the model I propose builds up from friendly or face-to-face elements — your relationship to the audience — to slightly more abstract ideas about the failings of Trump and the GOP —and finally to the systemic issues that are hardest to understand, yet found expression through Trumpism. In academic debate we can skip right to this last level; in the real world, our path is rarely this direct.
Potential Lines of Argument Based on the Identity of the Audience
By this point, you might be stewing over the specific Trump supporters in your life, and generating more persuasive ideas than I could ever suggest because of your intimate knowledge. But to spark your thinking, here is a list of arguments that you can combine, customize, or reject based on what you know about the audience; note how many of the categories overlap:
Religious => argue his policies and personality are immoral according to their religion. I will break it down further. Evangelical and knows scripture: argue via scripture. Evangelical and doesn’t know scripture: argue via prominent evangelicals against Trump and teach them a bit of scripture. Catholic: argue via Pope, Catholic refugee support, scripture. Jewish: argue via Bannon/alt-right/neo-Nazi/support for Trump. Muslim: play the lottery, you found a true rarity.
Atheist/agnostic (and scientifically minded) => reveal terrifying implications for scientific research under Trump
Woman => respectfully make analogies between narcissistic, creepy men they know and DJT; incoming antiwoman policies
LGBTQ: => extremely unlikely, but argue the obvious (via Pence)
Parent => make analogies about bullying and respect among kids and the spoiled brat values DJT represents
Millennial => argue about the destruction of their future, the class warfare waged against them, their abuse as scapegoats for problems caused by their parents’ generation, and throw in a dank meme or two
Non-white => focus on cultural or ethnic community’s reaction against Trump, specific hate crimes, etc.
Recently descended from, or works with, immigrants or refugees => argue his immigration/refugee policies are unamerican and hypocritical
Businessperson => argue trade policies and travel bans will hurt bottom line
Working class => argue DJT is impoverishing them and enrich the 1% by expanding “the swamp”
Military => Trump is a coward (McCain, Vietnam, etc.) and dangerous (entering unwinnable wars)
True (ideologically consistent) conservative => argue Trump is a danger to conservatism since he doesn’t respect its intuitions and values
Elderly/Sick => focus on ACA and social security
Independent => argue that the GOP are spineless scyophants who can’t control the negatives of Trump and will block him from doing some of the occasional good things he proposed
Populist => identify with their anti-elite sentiment, but explain that right-wing populism is a betrayal of true populism, which favors the left
Ask a Rhetorican:
Q: Are you advocating Machiavellianism or realpolitik? Why can’t I just tell them precisely how awful I think their beliefs are? Isn’t this manipulation? A: No. I am encouraging people to (initially) suppress moralizing and condemnation of voters in a persuasive situation in service of the greater moral cause of ending Trumpism. Furthermore, I encourage sincerity and condemn manipulative schemes in general (eg. pick-up “artists”). The only “insincerity” I’m promoting is holding back your potential burning desire to insult or dismiss Trump voters, because this destroys the possibility of engaging with them in dialogue. It is not Machiavellian of me to espouse fighting the contemporary echo-chamber. Precisely the opposite.
Q: So you’re asking me to engage in warm dialogue instead of calling them Nazis? That’s not radical enough for me or demands too much emotional labor. A: At this point, the strategy I’ve outlined is one of the more radical and subversive (but still honest) ways of causing change. Smug superiority that destroys communication channels is a disastrous strategy, thus I’ve tried to outline its mirror image. I agree it’s emotionally taxing and never said it was easy.
Q: If you teach people rhetoric, won’t the bad guys use it too? Didn’t Hitler use rhetoric? A: Everyone already uses rhetoric for a spectrum of moral purposes ranging from pure evil to pure virtue (c.f. the eloquence of MLK). Hardcore Trump supporters will have difficulty hijacking this guide for their own purposes because if they had the broad philosophical and humanistic education that deep rhetorical study demands, 99% of them would have rejected Trump. Etiamsi in utramque partem valent arma facundiae, non est tamen aequum id haberi malum, quo bene uti licet.
Q. What sources have shaped the rhetorical and philosophical thinking behind this guide? A: Many of the explicit or implicit terms I use come from Aristotle, but there are spiritual elements from Plato, Cicero, and Quintilian; on the modern front, Kenneth Burke and Mikhail Bakhtin are important.
Q. How can I help improve this guide? A: from readers in dialogue with Trump supporters, I would appreciate constructive feedback about successes and failures. From people who study rhetoric, philosophy, political science, etc. I am curious what you think of my (very ad hoc) method, apologize for the many oversimplifications, and welcome any comments.
Q: Why did Trump win? What does this teach us about resistance and rhetoric? A: To the dozen or so worthy factors and explanations that are already circulating, the rhetorical element should be added and accounted for. In America, the normative rhetorical standards of political discourse — around propriety, eloquence, the necessity of actual policy proposals, the dignitas of politicians — were already crumbling long before Trump’s rise. He represents about a decade’s worth of decay crammed into a year. Yet had these norms been in healthy condition, his rise would have been impossible. There are many different kinds of audiences, and too many critics of Trump made the rhetorical mistake of addressing a “universal” audience, as if orating on the grand stage of history itself, rather than a situated one, which was reading Breitbart on their phones.
If we think about the rhetorical situation of America via Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle — ethos, pathos, logos — the element of logos has been largely eviscerated in the discourse of politicians and the commentary on those politicians. An assault upon and defense of ethos has swelled up in its place, with a ridiculous amount of airtime devoted to the personalities of politicians instead of their policy proposals. Pathos has always held a key place in the form of voter values, but its emotional content has been rearranged into the most expedient emotions (fear, resentment, etc.). If and when logos is fully annihilated in politics, we are all doomed, thus we must nurse it back to health. This will require, however, building the channels and relationships for its return, and defending the very possibility of dialogue between disagreeing parties and worldviews. There are massive, insidious forces at work in the modern world that splinter and separate knowledge and political beliefs into Balkan states, information silos, alternative universes, partisan epistemologies, or whatever metaphor you want to use. Here we must not be complicit. Healthier dialogue, in and of itself, cannot overcome these forces, but my hope is that this guide is a small contribution to those resisting the present crisis.
Rhetoric alone has undertaken the managing of private as well as public matters. For what could be thought up or said in the conduct of our affairs that does not require the power of oratory? … It teaches us to be provident and to avoid adverse things before they happen. If they should happen through chance or ignorance, rhetoric alone will come to our aid and will support us with hope or consolation. It adorns our successes and mitigates our disasters. It intimidates our enemies and strengthens our friends. It founds, preserves, and enlarges cities. It both promulgates and abrogates laws. But it is really foolish to want to enumerate all this, for the number of things that men have drawn from rhetoric, as from a divine fountain, is almost infinite. — George of Trebizond, a 15th century humanist