Why Unfriending Trump Supporters is a Mistake
Five strategic reasons to keep Trump-loving friends and family close if you’re a Democrat.
Trump supporters are more likely to change with you in their lives.
In late 2015 I got in a spat with my Republican uncle on Facebook. He posted several anti-Obama memes that were untrue and, frankly, racist. I called him out for being “hateful” and he responded with shock and anger. He called my mom and told her he was deeply hurt and hinted that he wanted an apology. There was no way in hell I was giving him one so after that we stopped communicating.
We didn’t speak again until I reached out on Facebook shortly after the 2016 election. By then, in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s devastating loss, I’d started coming to terms with my role in creating the Trump phenomenon. I didn’t yet understand why Trump had won, but I knew I’d done a bad job preventing it from happening. And to make sure it didn’t happen again, I needed to know why my uncle and so many others had chosen to vote for a man who (to me) was horribly unsuited to the presidency.
Once we started talking online, I quickly realized I’d made a mistake cutting him off. During the time we’d been out of contact, he’d gone from strongly disliking Trump to thinking he was the only choice for America’s future. At the same time, he’d gone from sharing racist Obama memes to (unwittingly) sharing straight up white nationalist propaganda. I couldn’t help thinking if I’d stayed connected and engaged, I could have prevented (or at least slowed) his rightward slide.
I also discovered (to my surprise) that even though he’d fallen down the Breitbart-Fox News-Limbaugh rabbit hole, I could influence his opinions if I approached our dialogues with curiosity and non-judgment. For years I’d thought he was a lost cause, but once we started talking — really talking — he was surprisingly willing to listen to what I had to say and change his views when he concluded I was right about something. It became clear that the reason he hadn’t listened to me before wasn’t because he didn’t care what I thought or was impervious to logic, but because my prior approach was always to attack him and everything he stood for rather than treating him like a fellow human being just trying to do his best.
Not just me
It turns out my initial impulse to cut off my uncle wasn’t original. Since the 2016 election, voters on the left have cut ties to family and friends on the right in droves. According to a study conducted by PRRI after the election, nearly a quarter of Democrats blocked, unfriended, or stopped following someone on social media over politics, roughly three times more than Republicans who did the same. Meanwhile, according to polling by the Pew Research Center, nearly half of liberals don’t like being around Trump supporters and if they found out a friend voted for Trump it would put a strain on the relationship.
The reasons given vary, but mostly people seem to think (like I did) that they are somehow striking a blow for racial justice by ending relationships. In other cases, people say they just don’t like people anymore once they “reveal their true selves”. Still others say the emotional stress of being around folks who hold problematic beliefs is just too much because they feel they should do something, but don’t know how or if it will make a difference.
I have a lot of sympathy for these positions (partly because I’ve been there myself), however, I’ve come to the conclusion it’s better to stay connected and do what you can to make a difference rather than retreating into the comfort of isolation.
Important caveat: My argument only applies to people who, like me, benefit from relatively high privilege and suffer minimal personal risk from interacting with Trump supporters. No one is obligated stay in a relationship in which they are personally treated badly due to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or any other ideology that devalues the lives of their fellow humans.
Five reasons to stay in the life of Trump-supporting friends and family.
1. To show them not everyone thinks Trump is great.
If you aren’t around to let others know you disagree with them, they’re likely to assume that you do. That’s because of what psychologists call the false consensus effect: the human tendency to assume that our own opinions, beliefs, attributes, or behaviors are more widely shared than they actually are. By just being present and naming your difference of opinion, you can help people develop a more realistic perception of the distribution of attitudes toward the president.
2. To show them Democrats aren’t as bad as they think.
People on the right end of the political spectrum have extremely negative views of people on the left. Polling by the Pew Research Center shows nearly half of Republicans believe Democrats are more lazy, immoral, and dishonest than they are and roughly a third believe Democrats are less intelligent. Republican perceptions of Democrats are so negative, in fact, that studies show a large majority (63%) wouldn’t even want their child to marry a Democrat — a larger percentage than those who would oppose their child marrying outside their race.
All that negative stereotyping means Trump voters are inclined to discount the opinions of people on the left on the grounds that we’re not credible sources. You can help combat those negative stereotypes just by being open about your beliefs and behaving like a decent person while interacting with Trump voters.
3. To expose them to different news and information.
Media exposure in the U.S. is highly polarized. While most Democrats and independents use and trust a wide variety of news sources, Republicans overwhelmingly trust Fox News (65%) more than any other source. This is problematic since Fox is a “strongly right-biased” news source according to Media Bias/Fact Check and viewers of Fox have been consistently shown to be less informed and misinformed relative to other news consumers.
As a result, when Democrats cut off ties to Trump supporters, they often lose their one remaining connection to accurate information. Even if Trump voters still won’t seek out different information, just being there to say, “Hmm, interesting. I’m hearing something different from other sources. I wonder how we can figure out who’s right” can go a long way toward popping the Fox News bubble.
4. To counteract social pressure to conform.
Human beings are very susceptible to social influence. The perceptions of others shape our perceptions, the beliefs of others shape our beliefs, and the attitudes of others shape our attitudes. Even if we want to be independent, being around others who all share the same view inevitably affects our perspective and behavior.
Some of the most important studies of the power of conformity were conducted by Solomon Asch in the1950’s. To test social influence, Asch asked subjects to measure the length of a line and then had confederates offer a wrong answer. When a subject was the only person in the room with seven stooges who all agreed with each other, they changed their answer to match the group 32% of the time and over repeated trials 75% changed their answer at least once to match the incorrect group.
While the research on conformity is in many ways discouraging, it also offers guidance for those looking to break people free of social influence. In particular, Asch found that when at least one other person gave a right answer, the number of wrong answers offered by subjects fell to 5%. This suggests that being the lone anti-Trump voice in a community of people who support Trump can have a very positive effect on people who are leaning away from Trump but afraid to commit or say so because it seems like everyone else is on the other side.
5. Provide support if and when they decide to change their mind.
Changing one’s opinion about Donald Trump is an emotionally dangerous thing for people to do. They risk alienating friends and family. They risk embarrassment with folks who’ve been telling them they were wrong all along. They risk loss of self-esteem by acknowledging they were duped and misled by the president for so long. They may even lose their sense of purpose if politics is a major organizing force in their lives.
To endure those risks and the emotional cost of change, it will help to have someone by their side who they know will be there for them no matter what. When you cut yourself off from Trump supporters, they may never have the courage to make the transition because there’s no one they trust to help them through the emotional turmoil of change.
I wish I could still be there for my uncle
My uncle died just before Trump’s inauguration so I don’t know what would have happened if we’d kept talking as events unfolded. I’m inclined to think that if the lines of communication had stayed open over the next three years, he would be ready to vote for Biden now or, at least, unwilling to vote for Trump.
Whatever the outcome might have been, though, those two short months taught me an important lesson: never cut people off simply because they disagree with your politics. Every time you do, you sacrifice opportunities for influence and make it more likely they will shift farther in the opposite direction.
Forging and maintaining close ties with people we disagree with is hard. Since my uncle passed I’ve gone on to talk with many Trump supporters on Facebook, including some of his friends and they, like him, say some outrageous and infuriating things. But as challenging as it can be, I’ve never doubted that staying connected to them is the best path forward.
No one ever said making a difference would be easy.
About the Author
Dr. Karin Tamerius is the founder of Smart Politics, a former psychiatrist, and an expert in political psychology who specializes in teaching progressives how to communicate more productively and persuasively with people across the political spectrum. She’s best known for writing the Angry Uncle Bot in the New York Times. Email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.