Why Trump Has Such a Hold on His Followers
And what you can do about it.
There he goes again.
The other night I was over at my mom’s house and got sucked into watching MSNBC. The talking heads were bemoaning Donald Trump’s latest outrage, speculating about how to respond, and openly questioning whether anything anyone does can make a difference.
It’s easy to understand why they are feeling hopeless.
President Trump has a remarkable track record of saying outrageous, unthinkable things and getting away with it. From “shithole countries” to “grab ’em by the pussy” to Charlottesville, he’s proven preternaturally adept at avoiding political consequences for his behavior.
For people on the left, this teflon presidency is infuriating and crazy-making. It’s the kind of thing that inspires calls to “take the gloves off”, stop fighting fair, and at the extreme end of the spectrum even respond with violence.
While understandable, such calls are based on a misunderstanding of what makes President Trump so powerful. And, if acted upon, would hurt Democratic chances in 2020 and the progressive movement as a whole.
Trump’s Greatest Strength
Back in 2016, Michael Moore called Donald Trump an “evil genius.” I disagree. He is an extraordinary political animal, but he shows no indication of possessing the intellectual, emotional, moral, or creative superiority that true genius requires.
What Trump does have is an extraordinary impairment: a pathologically-tribalized worldview.
All people are xenophobic to one extent or another and a certain degree of ingroup favoritism and suspicion of outsiders is to be expected in any group. Research shows this ethnocentrism is not simply a function of intergroup conflict. Even when membership in groups is arbitrarily assigned and members are fully aware of the method of their placement, people still view their group as superior.
And it is perfectly normal for this ingroup-outgroup bias to color one’s political beliefs. The average voter’s preferences are mostly determined by their social groups, including which political party they belong to, rather than any ideology.
Trump, however, is not normal. For him group membership isn’t just an important factor in his perceptions of the world, it’s the only factor.
This is why Trump frequently reverses policy positions. From health care to foreign policy to the economy, the best predictor of the President’s stance at any given moment is what will reward him and his tribe while punishing his enemies.
It is also why Trump lies so frequently. For him, reality is not some outside objective truth, but whatever configuration of facts best serves him and his tribe while disadvantaging his enemies.
It is also why Trump terminates members of his administration and burns political allies with ease. You are either with him or against him. Fall out of lock step with the tribe and you become the enemy.
Tribalism and Trump’s Supporters
Trump is successful because his hyper-tribalism dovetails perfectly with this polarized moment in American history. He didn’t create the divisions fracturing our republic and he alone didn’t exacerbate them, but he has capitalized on them spectacularly.
By virtue of his obsessive us-versus-them thinking, Trump embodies the national zeitgeist in a way no one else can, serving as a powerful organizing force for people on both sides of the divide who already view each other with animosity.
Like Trump, his followers view the world through the us-versus-them frame, a frame made all the more salient and powerful because of its synergy with Trump’s own personal psychology. In its super-powered state, the frame is strong enough to shape perceptions of reality and render Trump voters indifferent to his flip-flops and lies.
Through tribalism, Trump has created a self-reinforcing system. The more he lashes out at others, the more they strike back at him and his followers. And the more people strike back at Trump and his followers, the more he and they feel persecuted. The escalating sense of persecution binds his followers to him ever more tightly.
How to Make A Difference
Because tribalism is at the core of Trump’s appeal, it also holds the key to his undoing. When divisions are overcome and animosity is defused, Trump’s charm fades. Without the us-versus-them wrapping, he can be seen for what he really is: a man with no guiding values, no original ideas, and no vision for the future other than ongoing battle.
Progressives have been slow to recognize the ways in which striking back at Trump within a tribal frame strengthens his hold on the right. The one leader who unquestionably understands this is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and it’s why she is slow-walking the drive for impeachment. It’s not that there is insufficient political will or evidence of wrong-doing to impeach Trump. It’s that voters will line up along party lines, eliciting and hardening support for Trump that might otherwise not exist. This doesn’t mean impeachment is impossible, but it must be done the right way.
To succeed against a leader who derives his power from division, the only path forward is unification. This is bitter medicine for progressives to swallow, but it is the only cure for what ails us. After more than two years organizing under the intrinsically divisive “resistance” label, reaching out to voters on the right is hard.
Here’s what you need to do to make a difference with the Trump voters in your life.
1. Don’t attack.
If you are looking to undermine support for the president, the worst thing you can do in an interaction with one of his supporters is to go in with guns blazing. Whether your weapons are name-calling, questioning people’s motives, or debate, the result is the same: you will push them farther into Trump’s camp. People are drawn to Trump because they share his tribal perspective. When you attack, you are validating their vision of the world as a dangerous place where people like them are in a war against people like you. That heightens their identification with and affinity for the president.
2. Keep personal relationships alive.
After the 2016 election, progressives cut off personal relationships with conservatives in droves. While it may have made people’s personal lives easier to avoid those with differing views, from a strategic perspective it is a serious problem. By severing ties, we have reinforced their sense of persecution and eliminated an important link to reality. Instead, we should be maintaining and strengthening our relationships with people we disagree with because doing so shows we are not the enemy and weakens Trump’s hold.
3. Hear them out.
Many Trump supporters have a lot to say. Sometimes they want to share Republican talking points, sometimes they want to share their experiences, and sometimes they have thoughtful policy analysis and facts. It is important to listen to their perspective patiently and respectfully. Listening is not the same as agreeing. Listening is not the same as normalizing. Listening is simply treating someone as a fellow human being. Until we do this, Trump supporters won’t overcome their sense of persecution.
4. Agree where appropriate.
There are so many things we disagree with Trump supporters about that it’s easy to lose track of how many things we do agree on. An essential step in healing the political divide is coming together around the places where common ground exists. In general, agreement on policy is hard to come by, but agreement on emotions, values, and goals is easy. Be sure to talk about the ways in which you agree before diving into areas of disagreement.
5. Gently nudge them toward progressivism.
Healing the divide is not the same as ceasing to advocate for what you believe in. We can reject Trump and the politics of tribalism while simultaneously pushing for a progressive future. However, we need to change the way we advocate. We need to stop thinking in terms of defeating our enemies (that’s a tribal frame that inherently strengthens Trump) and start thinking in terms of achieving victory by building support for the progressive vision (that’s a unification frame that inherently weakens Trump). This means sharing our vision for the future in a way conservatives can hear.
6. Invite them into the fold.
All human beings need to feel as if they belong. Trump supporters will not leave him unless they feel there is some other place for them to go where they will be accepted and valued. It is not enough for progressives to stop attacking those we disagree with, we must also be gracious enough to invite them to join us in the struggle. This means welcoming them as fellow humans before they are ready to join us as fellow progressives.
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.
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