According to most commentators, the prototypical Trump supporter is an uneducated, narrow-minded bigot with legitimate grievances against the faltering economy which Trump has skillfully alchemized into violent rage toward non-whites, Muslims and successful women. The Trump voter is a patriarchal authoritarian primed since early childhood to fearfully submit to a bullying father who always knows best. In the circular logic of the authoritarian mindset, might makes right—and so Trump, as the strongman, is necessarily the winner in a competition against losers.
While there is some truth to this profile, it doesn’t capture the nuances of experience, emotion and belief that are about to lead tens of millions of voters to pull the lever for Trump, including, as of July, 11 percent of Muslims, 13 percent of Latinos, 34 percent of women and significant numbers of professionals. Progressives tend to react to such information with groaning disbelief, at which point we either give up or rededicate ourselves to enlightening the ignorant dupes with scads of facts that contradict the false narrative spun by Trump.
As anyone who’s ever tried to reason someone out of their core beliefs knows, the mind filters out contradictory information, particularly the mind of an authoritarian whose panic button is stuck in the On position. Debating them and trying to convince them to dump Trump will make them dig in deeper—that’s what people do when they feel threatened. Also, as Newt Gingrich makes woefully clear in a John Oliver clip, everyone’s got their own set of “facts” these days, so flinging more facts back and forth is futile.
So what should we do instead? To answer this question, I contacted communication guru Sharon Ellison, creator of powerful non-defensive communication and author of Taking the War Out of Our Words. Ellison has trained thousands of educators, government officials and corporate and non-profit leaders, including me, in a novel, straightforward style of communication that avoids the pitfalls of the conventional adversarial approach. She was credited with turning around a trailing gubernatorial campaign by training the candidate in powerful non-defensive communication, and her website teems with testimonials from trainees who’ve achieved communication and relationship breakthroughs they’d never imagined.
I asked Ellison for tips on engaging Trump supporters in ways that encourage them to drop their mental defenses and rethink their position. The starting place, she says, is curiosity.
Instead of blasting Trump or insulting the morality or intelligence of his supporters, first, just get curious. You don’t have to agree; you’re simply gathering information and trying to understand where they’re coming from, even if you believe they’re deeply misguided.
Make it a dialogue, not a debate or an inquisition. No matter how true and rational your analysis is, force-feeding it will not go down well. Nor will a premeditated series of sugar-coated questions designed to subtly lead the person to “get it.” The right question, skillfully and non-aggressively posed, could prompt someone to gain unexpected insights, and when they realize something for themselves, they can more easily accept it.
Your questions should be very specific but posed in a non-judgmental way. (Note that I’m calling the questions “specific” rather than “pointed,” which implies that a question is a weapon.)
Ellison cautions against using general, open-ended questions—some of us gravitate toward these because they feel softer, but they can wind up serving as an invitation to rant. For example, my instinct was to ask Trump supporters what makes them feel afraid and how Trump makes them feel safe. I was envisioning a heartwarming scene in which the person shares his deepest fears, and I empathize so beautifully he then realizes that Trump poses an existential threat to the future of life on this planet. But the more likely outcome of my question, Ellison says, is that he goes off on a tirade about a racial or religious minority and I angrily storm out.
Below is a list of options for curiosity-based questions you could ask. It doesn’t matter how the person answers your question(s)—the answer gives you important information as a basis for asking either another question or making your own statement. Later on, I’ll show you how to follow up with position statements that express your beliefs in ways that can also disarm defensiveness.
May I ask you something about what you just said?
May I ask about what you said when we were talking the other day?
- What are the things that most draw you to Trump? (Though somewhat open-ended, the answers to this question will help you determine what other questions to ask.)
- How would you compare Reagan as president to Trump?
- Have you ever noticed Trump attacking people’s looks or intelligence if they ask him a question he doesn’t want to answer or if they disagree with him?
- Did you see the video of Trump mocking the disabled reporter? What was your reaction? What would you say to your child if s/he treated a classmate like that?
- Do you remember when Trump said that if Hillary Clinton gets to pick her judges, there’s “nothing you can do, folks” and then said, “although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.” Did you think that sounded at all like a veiled threat or not? Do you think anyone out there might take that as an invitation to shoot her even if that’s not how he meant it? Would you feel different or the same if he said something like that as president?
- I read about a girls’ soccer game where the home team fans were yelling, “Build that wall!” at the other team, which was mostly Latina and black, and the girls were so upset they weren’t able to finish the game. How do you feel about fans shouting “build that wall” to kids on the other team? If Trump were president, do you think there would be more or fewer of these kinds of incidents?
- How do you react when Trump takes positions that ban entire groups of people from being in the U.S., like sending all Mexican immigrants back to Mexico and allowing no Muslims to enter the U.S.?
- For someone who is very educated, you could ask: Do you think Trump ever suggests solutions, like building a wall to keep immigrants out, because it’s a simple solution and it gives him a way to avoid discussing the more complicated political and economic issues we face as a country?
- What’s your reaction to neo-Nazis calling Trump their “fearless leader”? Why do you think they’re saying that?(If you need a refresher on white supremacists’ love affair with Trump, check out the timeline compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center.)
- Have you seen Trump do or say anything you believe was insulting to women? If so, to what degree do you think that would matter if he were president? (Note how this is different from asking, “How do you feel when Trump insults women’s appearances?” which is more leading.)
- When you see Trump’s lifestyle—private planes and penthouses and his name in gold and all that—does that make you believe he’s very competent and could lead our country well and that it means he would do more for you? To what degree, if any, do you think it’s possible that he is more invested in lining his own pocket and having power over other people?
- Do you think that people who have been left behind in the global economy deserve a bigger slice of the one percent’s pie or a bigger slice of poor and middle-class people’s pie?
- Can I show you a funny gif about this?
- Did you know that when Trump said he’d make sure no one paid a “death tax,” he was giving a tax break only to the wealthy? (Stop there for reaction, then let them know that the estate tax only applies to people whose estates are worth more than $5.5 million.)
- How do you react to all the lawsuits against Trump by small business owners who weren’t paid for their services, and in some cases, I think, went bankrupt? Or all of the Trump University customers suing him and all thoseundocumented Polish workers who built Trump Tower who had to sue him to get paid? Do you think they’re making it up, or do you believe them? If they don’t believe the allegations, ask, Are you assuming it’s not true because Trump said so, or did you check it out? (Note that some of the people suing him are Trump supporters.)
There are several crucial elements in asking these questions without prompting defensive reactions, including 1) staying curious without your own agenda getting in the way; 2) keeping a relaxed tone and letting your voice come down at the end of the question instead of up; and 3) avoiding common (often unconscious) body language, such as shaking your head, shrugging, frowning or raising your eyebrows. Try not to squint, roll your eyes or wave your arms! Become an innocent, open-minded six-year-old who doesn’t have an agenda but sincerely wants to understand something. This stance, if genuine, can be very disarming.
Watch a demonstration of Ellison asking the same question aggressively and curiously. Listen to what words she puts emphasis on and whether her voice goes up at the end of the sentence. Watch her eyebrows, hands and shoulders. Notice how you feel when the very same question is posed with a different demeanor. Now go practice in front of a mirror or with a friend.
Before approaching your Trump supporter, you’ll need to do a little mental jiujitsu to temporarily step outside of your desire to see Trump defeated. If you view the Trump phenomenon with horrified fascination, give the horror a rest and get in touch with the fascination. Let your curiosity lead you rather than your desire to win.
You may desperately want to stop Trump—I get it, so do I. But I’m here to tell you that curiosity can co-exist alongside your political agenda and can be brought to the forefront during a social interaction. It’s essential that you temporarily disable the part of your brain that wants to persuade. (Later, you can always go back to trying to overpower your opponent through the force of your superior intellect and morality and see if that works.)
Stating your position:
If you are talking with someone you’re not likely to see again, you’ll probably want to follow any questions you ask with a statement of your position. If you are talking to someone you know and will have future discussions with, you may want to take some time to think about how to express your own position. You might even find it easier to do this in writing than in person, where things can quickly overheat.
Position statements can be used to share your own views or experiences that contradict any false assumptions you noted. Be careful to frame your assertions as opinion, not gospel, and be sparing in your factual citations. (Watch Ellison make position statements, starting at minute 12.)
Make it like a story, a description of what you’ve read, heard, think or believe and why, not like a statement of fact that counters their position. You’re sharing your story of how you came to have the beliefs you have. (I know, you learned in college to assert your opinion forcefully and unequivocally, but forget all that for now because in real life that stance is highly offputting.)
Be careful with humor. Progressives loved it when Elizabeth Warren responded to Trump’s threat to assassinate Clinton by calling him “a pathetic coward who can’t handle the fact that he’s losing to a girl.” Warren’s tweet is funny but throws gasoline on the fire, further enraging and entrenching Trump supporters, and potentially, provoking more verbal and physical violence.
Here are some examples of how conversations might play out, with Q&A followed by position statements:
You: May I ask you a question about something you mentioned yesterday?
Trump supporter: OK.
You: When you said you appreciate it when Trump talks about making America great again, do you think that his vision for America looks to the past or the future?
Trump supporter: Um, a little of both I guess. I mean, there’s plenty in our history to be proud of and we don’t want to lose that with all these illegal immigrants coming in and changing everything.
From here, the conversation could branch off into any number of topics. Below are examples of non-defensive statements concerning job creation, energy, taxation, government regulation, trade policy, terrorism and how to make America great.
You: In what ways do you see immigrants changing things?
Trump supporter: Well, a lot of them are terrorists, for one thing, and the rest of them are looking for handouts.
You: What do you mean by handouts? (Resist the urge to put air quotes around the word “handouts,” sigh, sneer or roll your eyes.)
Trump supporter: My dad always said, “Give a man a fish and he’ll fish for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll fish forever.”
You: I agree that it’s really important to give people the skills and education they need to support themselves. I look at some of the things other countries are doing with free higher education and job training, and I see the U.S. just falling further and further behind and sending so many jobs overseas. With the technology already available and some training, millions of Americans could get work putting up wind turbines, for example, instead of mining coal and getting black lung disease. I listened to Trump’s speech on economic policy, and he didn’t mention education or job training. And I noticed that most of the products he sells are made in China. It makes me see him as someone who doesn’t truly care about creating jobs and makes me not trust that he has a positive vision for the future. And I wonder if that’s maybe why a lot of people, especially working-class white people, are moving away from him or are just so fed up they’re not voting at all.
Trump just scored a zero on an issue of importance to the Trump supporter. Also, if other people are abandoning Trump, this is further food for thought. Consider yourself done unless…
Trump supporter: Sure, he’s got proposals—he wants to cut taxes and government regulations. That frees up corporations to create jobs.
You: I was curious, so I went and looked up Trump’s tax cut proposal. I noticed that most of the tax cuts are for the wealthiest [point!] .2 percent and for corporations, and the tax cuts for working-class people are really minimal. Under his proposal, corporations would only be taxed at 15 percent, but the middle class would have to pay 25 percent. And that seems unfair to me, and what worries me is that these tax breaks take billions out of the budget so that there’s not enough to pay for really essential things like schools and safe roads and bridges.
From what I’ve seen over the years, tax breaks for corporations and for rich families like Trump’s don’t trickle down to regular people and really damage our ability to rebuild our country.
You’ve stated your belief that doing the same thing in the future will not yield a different outcome but said it subjectively, as your own experience. Other people can then compare that to their experience. This creates an invitation for your Trump supporter to make her own predictions about the future rather than mindlessly parroting Trump’s. If she insists that Clinton plans to raise taxes on the middle class, invite her to watch a short video of Clinton’s speech with youor summarize it as follows:
You: What I heard her say was that she would not raise taxes on the middle class. The transcript of the speech says, “We aren’t going to raise taxes on the middle class,” and she’s confirmed this several times since then.
As for government regulation, a perennial GOP punching bag, you might say:
You: When Trump talks about cutting government regulations, it reminds me of when they cut the budget for food inspectors and we started having a lot of E.coli outbreaks. It seems to me like cutting regulations helps corporations that want to cut corners on safety to increase their profits. And that scares me because I look at a country like China with very lax regulation and all the adulterated food scandals there—remember when that company put toxic chemicals in infant formula and thousands of babies went into kidney failure? So from my perspective, those regulations make me feel safe—I think they protect us.
You’ve expressed your concerns about food safety and your belief in the value of regulations, and this might lead one to reconsider their blanket disapproval of government regulation.
OK, what if your Trump supporter cites Trump’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other free trade pacts?
You: I agree with you that the TPP could badly damage our economy and environment—it’s being negotiated in secret by the rich and powerful whose only goal is corporate profits. Did you know that Mike Pence has been one of the leading advocates for the TPP and that he supported all eight free-trade deals that came up for a vote when he was in Congress?
Trump supporter: Did he? Well, that’s Pence, not Trump.
You: What I don’t understand is why Trump, if he’s so against the TPP, would nominate someone so staunchly in favor of it, especially given that Trump has said he plans to empower his vice president to be in charge of all domestic and foreign policy. If he’s so against the TPP and knows that Pence is strongly in favor of it, why would he give Pence a lot of control over whether we end up with the TPP agreement or not? That makes me think that Trump’s criticism of the TPP might not be sincere and that he’s saying it to make us see him as a “blue-collar billionaire,” as Sean Hannity calls him.
Trump supporter: You don’t actually believe Clinton’s against the TPP, do you?
You: No, I don’t. I don’t agree with her on every issue. My much bigger worry is about Trump’s reactiveness. He gets so worked up when someone disagrees with him and reacts like a bully, calling names and trashing people. I think it would be too risky to have him in office. I’m worried he might do something or egg on others to hurt vulnerable people, like the way he mocked the disabled reporter and encouraged people at his rallies to beat up on protesters. After the election, I plan on getting involved in political efforts to demand that the president—whether it’s Trump or Clinton—and Congress vote down the TPP and start serving we the people, the 99 percent.
You: Do you think that keeping Muslims out of the U.S. will stop terrorism?
Trump supporter: Of course, that’s just common sense. I know they’re not all bad people, but you never know who’s been radicalized, so best to be on the safe side.
You: I’ve read about some of the stuff that ISIS puts out. ISIS says it wants the U.S. to keep Muslims out because that will help them recruit new supporters. I’m afraid that keeping Muslims out leaves us falling into ISIS’s trap.
You’ve given her a new “common sense” position to think about.
Making America Great Again
You: What are you the most proud of about our country?
Trump supporter: This is the land of opportunity where if you work hard, you can be whatever you want to be. That’s the American dream—at least it used to be that way. Regular folks have been left behind and forgotten.
You: Have you worked hard and felt like you didn’t get to cash in on the American dream and nobody cares?
Trump supporter: Exactly.
You: I’m with you—I want a president who’s going to stand up for regular people and build an economy that works for everyone. When I hear Trump talk about making America great again, I think about all these people who say they were cheated by Trump—the students at Trump University and small businesspeople who didn’t get paid when one of Trump’s businesses went bankrupt. And that doesn’t sound great to me; that sounds unfair and unpatriotic. And it seems to me that Trump says he’s looking out for the little guy but is really just trying to increase his own wealth and power at the little guy’s expense. When I heard him say recently that, if he loses the election, that’s OK because then he’ll just go back to his “very good way of life,” that confirmed for me that he doesn’t really care whether or not he gets to make the changes he’s talking about for the average American.
You validated her values, expressed empathy for her and then extended that empathy to a broader set of victims of Trump’s predatory nature. Nicely done!
It’s OK to end the conversation here—don’t expect her to say, “OMG, I see now that Trump is a dangerous, fraudulent superpredator, and no way in hell will I vote for him.” You’ve given her something to think about, and that’s sufficient. Don’t ruin it by laying a “gotcha” statement on her. Instead, thank her for talking with you—remember, you asked her to talk, so she deserves your appreciation, even if you didn’t like what she had to say.
If someone starts rethinking their beliefs, they may develop enough doubt to vote for Clinton or a third-party candidate like populist Jill Stein, or more likely,sit out the election (not a good thing for democracy, but then neither is Donald Trump). Everyone wants to think of themselves as a decent person. Click on the light bulb in their minds that illuminates the gulf between common decency and Trump.
Give it a test drive and share your experience in the comments so we can learn from each other. Some Trump supporters may have felt ambivalent all along, and if we communicate without trying to convince them to agree with us, they may realize it themselves, before the election instead of after.
By keeping the tenor of the communication respectful, rather than sinking to the new low set by Trump, you’re implicitly recognizing the other person’s humanity. If you’ve achieved nothing else, you’ll leave the conversation with your integrity intact and will have allowed the person to feel what it’s like to be on the receiving end of simple human decency. As poet Audre Lorde wrote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”