Want to Get Rid of Trump?
Here’s the right way to talk about impeachment.
The Democrats in Congress have decided to pursue impeachment. For many people on the Left appalled by President Donald Trump’s reign of lawlessness, it comes as a relief.
Not for me.
I support impeachment. But as an expert in progressive political communication, I’m here to offer a warning: There is a right way to do this and a wrong way.
If we approach impeachment as a battle of us versus them, Right versus Left, liberal versus conservative, Democrat versus Republican — we will lose. Not only will we fail to remove the President from office, we will improve his chances of reelection.
Here’s why. As I’ve written elsewhere, Donald Trump thrives on division. His single and singular talent is the ability to turn every political conflict into an all-or-nothing battle between us and them. In Trump’s pathologically tribalized worldview, there is no such thing as a win-win. There is no all for one and one for all. Life is a zero sum game where victory for him requires defeat of everyone else.
This is why Trump has such a hold on his supporters. His message — masterfully communicated implicitly and explicitly through his words and actions — is, “It’s you and me against the world. I am the only person you can trust. Everyone else is the enemy — immigrants, criminals, people of color, LGBTQ folks, feminists, liberals, Democrats, Muslims, other nations, the media, the homeless, the poor — and the only way to protect yourself is to join with me in the fight against them.”
This message works. It works not because Trump’s supporters are bad people, but because humans are biologically primed to think in us versus them terms. We are all tribal beings, and when our tribe is under attack we defend ourselves and our leader.
Progressives are highly tribal too. No, we aren’t as “bad” as Trump. We aren’t locking children in cages or banning people from the U.S. based on their religion, or threatening to round up homeless people and throw them in camps.
But we are contemptuous of Trump’s voters. We question their intelligence. We impugn their motives. We mock their ignorance. We treat them as “lesser than” even though they are our fellow Americans and fellow humans.
This contempt for people who see the world differently needs to stop. Not only is it contrary to a fundamental tenet of democracy — the idea that the opinions of all people are worthy of consideration — but because it plays into Trump’s and the GOP’s hands.
In her forthcoming book, Beyond Contempt: How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great Divide, Erica Etelson shows how progressives inadvertently deepen the left-right divide and strengthen Trump’s hand every time we deride Trump’s supporters, many of whom have been identified as “persuadables” capable of flipping in 2020. “Dishing out contempt feels gratifying,” she writes, but it “allows Trump to play the absurd role of the ‘populist billionaire’ who drains the swamp…of liberal elites who denigrate middle Americans.”
Etelson tells the story of encountering, at a red-blue mixer, four former liberals who changed their political identification because they “got tired of being lectured to and scolded. None of them liked Trump, but they did find his hostility to liberal finger-wagging highly appealing. One of them said he hated Trump but less so every time the Left attacks his supporters.”
This is not an isolated case but a phenomenon I see every day in my work. The biggest barrier to successful impeachment is not Trump or his supporters — it’s the Left’s tendency to otherize and demonize people outside our tribe. When we attack voters on the Right, we are reinforcing Trump’s message — that this is a battle between us and them, that we hate them and they should hate us back, that we can’t be trusted, and that Trump is the sole person who cares about them and their interests.
There is only one way to defeat a politician whose power is derived from a strategy of divide and conquer: Reject the politics of division and unite for the common good.
We can impeach Trump, heal the nation, and eliminate his threat to our democracy simultaneously. For that, though, we need a new narrative. Instead of a partisan battle, impeachment must be a vindication of democracy over autocracy, a defense of rule of law over tyranny. We must rise up, not as Democrats or progressives, but as Americans to save our nation for the good of us all.
By reframing the struggle, we position ourselves not just to mobilize our base, but to grow it. Impeachment is more than just a way to rein in a rogue president — it is a way to make our case to millions of Trump voters — people who will abandon him once they understand what’s at stake.
House Speaker Pelosi understands this and she is doing a superb job keeping her people on message. Earlier today on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Pelosi said there’s “no cause for any joy” in the formal impeachment inquiry into Trump and counseled, “We have to put country before party very clearly in the public view.”
It’s excellent that Pelosi and the Democrats in Congress are using the right frame, but it’s not enough. If pundits and politically active progressives like us continue to treat Right-leaning and Trump-supporting voters as enemies, we will undermine Pelosi’s careful messaging and produce a red backlash rather than a blue tidal wave. People don’t change their minds when they are under siege — they dig in and guard the barricades.
Don’t believe progressives outside Congress are undermining the impeachment effort? Consider this. On Sunday, Senator Mitt Romney tweeted that he considers the allegations against Donald Trump “troubling in the extreme.” When I saw this tweet, I was thrilled. It was the first sign of a crack in Republican ranks. But before I could celebrate, contempt from the Left started rolling in.
Take a look at this reply from Kurt Eichenwald:
Or this one from David Cay Johnston.
The only thing worse than these replies (and the thousands like them) from the Left were the vitriolic tweets from the Right skewering Romney for abandoning his team.
Short-sighted, highly partisan rhetoric like this is precisely the wrong way to communicate about impeachment. It prevents others — voters and politicians alike — on the Right from breaking with Trump. Why should they sacrifice their relationship with their current tribe when we have made it clear they have nowhere else to go?
A much better response would be to thank Romney for having the courage to take a stand and ask him to take the lead on this issue with his Republican colleagues in the Senate. These tweets got it right:
Changing the way we frame impeachment will be hard. Most of us have been engaging in a highly polarized manner since at least 2016 (many of us for far longer). But we are confronting one of the gravest moments in our nation’s history and can’t afford to get this wrong.
To save our democracy, the Left must overcome our basest tribal instincts and reach beyond our current circle of friends and allies. We need all Americans — whether Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, independent or partisan — to join us in this effort. It’s time to welcome everyone — even the latecomers — with graciousness and open arms.
About the author
Dr. Karin Tamerius is a former psychiatrist who specializes in the intersection between psychology and politics. She is the founder of Smart Politics, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching progressives how to communicate more persuasively with people across the political spectrum. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.