So…I’ve had a lot of folks respond to this piece by asking me if I think it’s okay to hate Trump or…
Jennifer Hoelzer

Thank you for your thoughtful response.

I agree with you, actually. Americans find themselves in very awkward circumstances politically, and the many prominent “purveyors” of hate as a major reason for that. Trump intentionally facilitates the hate, even though I don’t think he ever hated Clinton before the election began (and perhaps still doesn’t, because [edited] I don’t know when I can believe the things he says).

Political Polarization as Religion

The problem we face is a religious one. Not formally religious as in Christianity or Buddhism, but religious in the sense that conservative and liberal beliefs often have characteristics of a religion:

  • They have “preachers” who give “sermons”: Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh on the one hand, Rachel Maddow and John Oliver on the other — and there are a great many small-time preachers all over the place. Some of these preachers are relatively good people that rely on evidence and investigation (even if their presentation of that evidence isn’t always fair), while others rely more heavily on innuendo and assumption, but they all have a political ideology that provides a lens through which everything is viewed.
  • They are built upon some beliefs that adherents take on faith, with no substantive evidence, like that Obama is a socialist Muslim, that Hillary’s 30,000 deleted emails included evidence of criminal activity, or that Hillary’s is evil in her heart and kills people (?!). On the liberal side I’d point to certain beliefs about gun violence, or nuclear reactors, or the humble plastic bag (which is said to be environmentally devastating).
  • It provides group cohesion. Many people go to church mainly for because that’s where their social connections are; so it is with active political groups. And whether it’s church or a political group, questioning the group’s beliefs can get you in trouble socially, so most people would rather just believe as the group does. Note: it’s far easier to just believe as the group does than to keep track of which ideas you have no evidence for.
  • Perhaps most importantly, people in a religion hear their own sermons and ignore the sermons of other sects. In modern politics we see this in the Echo Chambers of Cable News and a more invisible problem now pervades the internet, as machine learning algorithms only show you content that you “like”. This will become more important in the future, since machine learning shapes the entire world; even without that, the U.S.-style polarization is likely to spread since many places have a selection of highly biased media. Plus there’s the social networks, in which conservatives and liberals form cliques and rarely communicate with each other.

In religion, all of this is generally okay because religions are generally peaceful and do not interfere with government. Political religion, on the other hand, is a huge problem that is causing the hatred and conflict we see.

Trump didn’t invent any of this, but he took the whole variety of right-wing belief systems and, instinctively, I think, knew how to act as a preacher for all of them, regurgitating out every right-wing meme and myth he encountered with no regard for their veracity. I like to call hm a yuge liar, but I think the truth is more subtle: he doesn’t care if what he says is true. All that matters is that it feels true to his supporters, and finding “truthy” things to say is easy, just by observing whatever memes are viral among conservatives.

Unfortunately, I think Trump’s strategy has recruited a massive number of new people into the base of “religiously political” conservatives, and emboldened the most fringe elements: racists, misogynists, and extreme nationalists. (I think Trump doesn’t intentionally recruit the lunatic fringe, but it’s bigly great to have their vote.)

(In fairness, Clinton lies too, roughly four times less frequently than Trump, but it’s more than enough to rile up the conservatives, especially when you add all the true things she says that the Right believes are false. She speaks falsehoods often enough that I wonder if some of Trump has rubbed off on her, God help us).

The point is, these folks and their conservative religion aren’t going away, and we need a solid strategy for reconciliation. I can’t actually name any strategy that would work, but obviously it will involve not hating the other side.

I used to be Christian. I have learned that Christianity is false, but I want to explain something very important about my “deconversion”: atheists in general didn’t budge me. I budged myself, after encountering a book of evidence from a former member of the same religion. I would like to talk about this a little, because I suspect that since politics is somewhat like religion, the same conclusions may apply. Despite all the correct things the atheists said about religion and Christianity, their arguments fell flat in several ways:

  • Their arguments were often irrelevant. For instance, atheists love to talk about how “ridiculous” the Christian “mythology” sounds. This has no effect on a believer, since to him the ideas don’t sound silly, and logically, “sounding silly” doesn’t make an idea false. Plus, using the word “mythology” sounds condescending and dismissive to a believer, even though the word is logically correct in the mind of most non-Christians. Moral: Mocking conservative and Trumpite beliefs is useless, no matter how silly their beliefs get.
  • You can’t convince anyone they’re wrong if you use the wrong tone, sound biased, or fail to appear balanced, because it makes them want to dismiss you. You have to make them feel that you care about them, and that you’re not attacking their beliefs, but merely seeking the truth. It’s tricky to get this right, and it helps if you used to be one of them — not just as a rhetorical device (“I know what it’s like to be in your shoes!”) but because a former adherent can predict what manner of speaking will get a good reception. Overstating your case, belittling their concerns, telling them they’re stupid, and other common tactics makes the other side dismiss you immediately. Mentioning a flaw in the other side without mentioning perceived flaws of your side is seen as hypocrisy. Also, catch more flies with honey.
  • It’s far more difficult still when you’re trying to “destroy” a core element of their identity, as Christianity is for many people and conservatism is for some. If you’re seen as hating or dismissing any part of Christianity, Christians may take it personally because they identify deeply with the religion. Similarly, if someone deeply identifies with Trump they will see your hate for Trump as hate for them personally, although I rather doubt that there are a lot of people who identify deeply with Trump. A lot of people identify deeply as conservatives, though. It’s almost impossible to convert someone away from conservatism or any other ideological stance. It’s better to look for common ground.
  • Third, you really have to engage with them on their level, using arguments that appeal to their way of thinking, because usually they will not (and perhaps cannot) understand your way of thinking. (Sometimes this seems impossible, as with my Trump-supporting mother, whose manner of thinking is inscrutable — we’re not close.) An argument is ineffective if it was not understood, or if it relies on a fact that the other side doesn’t believe.

I used to worry that political corruption combined with America’s massive debt would cause some terrible calamity if we didn’t elect new anti-corruption leaders in 2016. We wasted the chance to deal with political corruption, but luckily I now believe I overestimated the importance of the debt, which, while massive, is by fiat. As long as the dollar is strong, the government could always increase its revenue by “printing money”.

But our problems keep getting bigger. Now we’re suffering not only from polarization, political gridlock, and corruption, but we have a mountain of irrational hatred to deal with. What do we do?

[Addendum] I guess I’m kinda off on a tanget. Sorry about that. I guess my point is, communicating with “the other side” is a minefield. I don’t think you quite navigated that minefield successfully in your piece, but I’m very happy that you made the effort, I wish more of us would, and I suspect that healing this country will require some kind of systematic, organized, large-scale movement that takes into the account the ideas I outlined above.

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