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Main | Christmas, counted down »

Persuading Trump supporters: mostly useless

Two new articles, one by Sabrina Tavernise and one by Dale Beran, ask liberals to re-think their stance towards Trump supporters. Tavernise’s piece looks at a more conventional slice of the president’s support:

“We’re backed into a corner,” said [Jeffrey Medford, a small-business owner in South Carolina], 46, whose business teaches people to be filmmakers. “There are at least some things about Trump I find to be defensible. But they are saying: ‘Agree with us 100 percent or you are morally bankrupt. You’re an idiot if you support any part of Trump.’ “

He added: “I didn’t choose a side. They put me on one.”

Liberals may feel energized by a surge in political activism, and a unified stance against a president they see as irresponsible and even dangerous. But that momentum is provoking an equal and opposite reaction on the right. In recent interviews, conservative voters said they felt assaulted by what they said was a kind of moral Bolshevism - the belief that the liberal vision for the country was the only right one. Disagreeing meant being publicly shamed.

Protests and righteous indignation on social media and in Hollywood may seem to liberals to be about policy and persuasion. But moderate conservatives say they are having the opposite effect, chipping away at their middle ground and pushing them closer to Mr. Trump.

“The name calling from the left is crazy,” said Bryce Youngquist, 34, who works in sales for a tech start-up in Mountain View, Calif., a liberal enclave where admitting you voted for Mr. Trump is a little like saying in the 1950s that you were gay. [Really! She wrote that! - Ed] “They are complaining that Trump calls people names, but they turned into some mean people.”

Mr. Youngquist stayed in the closet [! - Ed] for months about his support for Mr. Trump. He did not put a bumper sticker on his car, for fear it would be keyed. The only place he felt comfortable wearing his Make America Great Again hat was on a vacation in China. Even dating became difficult. Many people on Tinder have a warning on their profile: “Trump supporters swipe left” - meaning, get lost.

Leaving aside Ryan Grim’s observation (“I missed the Times article in 2009 that worried tea partiers were alienating liberals with their protests”), let’s assume that liberals - whose party does not control the presidency, either house of Congress, the overwhelming majority of statehouses, or the Supreme Court - are somehow helping Trump more than his own party or supporters. And let’s also stipulate that given the Democrats’ low fortunes at the moment there certainly needs to be more people voting left to make progressive policy a real force again. How is the left alienating these supporters, and what can they do to address it?

According to Medford, the message he’s hearing is “Agree with us 100 percent or you are morally bankrupt. You’re an idiot if you support any part of Trump.” Here’s my quick take on the president: One of his first actions in office was to attempt a Muslim ban; he’s begun an unconscionable roundup of undocumented immigrants; he habitually lies - even about stupid and obvious things like the margin of his popular vote loss and electoral college win; he appears to get more of his information from cable news than presidential daily briefings; he’s bragged about (and been accused dozens of times of) sexually assaulting women; and he has denounced the press in terms more reminiscent of a dictator than a leader in a democracy.

That list is by no means comprehensive.

The Medfords of the world may like Trump’s cabinet appointments, have high hopes for tax cuts or industrial revitalization, think there is some kind of tangle of red tape and regulation that’s keeping the economy in the doldrums, etc. Even if all of those things are true it comes down to value judgments. In my estimation the things he is doing are terrible and outweigh whatever dubious benefit his supporters are holding out for. What should liberals do - look at that laundry list of horrible actions and say, but maybe we can work with you on an infrastructure bill? I don’t see why the left should be so willing to bargain away its own values, especially when the right’s values are always taken to be sacrosanct and not up for compromise.

My response to Medford is that I think his moral compass is terribly skewed, that at a minimum he puts other considerations above Trump’s flamboyant ignorance or his virulent racism and sexism - and that perhaps he is actively in favor of them. There isn’t anything I could say, as Tavernise seems to believe, that could somehow persuade Medford these things are sufficiently bad for him to stop supporting Trump. So the goal is not persuasion but the protest Tavernise has such a dim view of. (Though again, there was no corresponding alarm raised in 2009 about Tea Partiers luxuriating in righteous indignation or not reaching out to the left.)

I don’t see a way around that at the moment. Much of the left is strenuously opposed to almost everything the president is doing, and I think there are good reasons for that. Yes, we will take a dim view of his supporters, and again I think that is perfectly understandable. Some might say mean things to Trump supporters and make them feel bad. But make no mistake - none of that pushes anyone anywhere. It might embolden them to openly declare their support for him when they had previously kept it quiet (I wonder why), but the gulf in values between the two is vast. Saying “you’re an idiot” isn’t going to cause anyone to decide racism is fine. It might not be a nice thing to say, but it doesn’t have the power to invert whole value systems.


Beran’s piece is much longer, and a fascinating read. He traces the development of the alienated young men that formed in 4chan, then goes through how they ended up being an important bloc of Trump’s support. Years ago it began as “a group of primarily young males who spent a lot of the time at the computer, so much so they had retreated into virtual worlds of games, T.V., and now the networks of the internet.”

People like those in Tavernise’s piece represent, in Beran’s telling, a group that longs for a return to a 1950’s style society where a man could either be a family breadwinner or a cosmopolitan playboy. Either of those roles presuppose a good job, though. For those who never lived that life, or were not even raised on images of it - those who left school with no real prospects, who get by on “gig economy” errand-type jobs, or drift in and out of low-wage service sector ones - the idea of being a breadwinner or a playboy is outrageously farcical, offensive even.

For these young men - and they are predominantly men - the inability to take on one of these traditional roles, along with a social awkwardness that prevented them from easily reimagining gender roles in a way that 1) made them comfortable mingling with women and 2) actually got them out among them, put them in a place of “masculine frailty, pride, and failure.” And unlike their more nostalgic counterparts in the Trump camp, there is no sepia-toned past to hearken back to, just despair and ironic nihilism.

Near the end Beran writes:

Here the notion of sexual-difference-as-illusion is not performing the work it was built to do, rather the opposite. Ironically, it works to convince alienated men that sex/gender has marked them as unique sort of outsider/failures, who cannot be accepted even into the multicultural coalitions that define themselves by their capacity for acceptance. In this way, 4chan’s virulent hatred of gender-bending “safe spaces”, though not justified, makes at least a perverse sort of sense, one tangled in wounded masculine pride.

He doesn’t excuse their outlook or suggest liberals have some special obligation to cater to them, but simply says they are out there and exist in a system the left might be able to ameliorate. He also has the good sense to not imply there is some single, simple solution that will turn them all into vocal socialists. Most of the responsibility is theirs, anyway.

To seek out another - face-to-face or online - is to express vulnerability, and if one chooses to spend lots of time in a community that mocks such sentiment, one can expect to spend a lot of time single. It’s not like there’s going to be some army of kind hearted liberal women who, for the good of the country, start seeking these guys out to get them laid already. Until they are ready to reach out a little, and risk the stung ego that inevitably accompanies rejection, and reach out again and again until it finally clicks with someone, they’ll have to take their solace in their message boards and video games - and to know their choosing to do so ain’t the bitches’ fault.

Beyond those most intimate circles, though, the left can forcefully push an economic agenda that promotes well paid, dignified work. It won’t be backwards looking, won’t try to reinvent an era of heavy industrialization and Levittowns. But it’s certainly possible to once again have a jobs policy that offers meaningful work to everyone - including and especially for those who view it as an important part of their gender role. With a little imagination and a lot of effort we can once again offer the largest part of our people a reinvented job landscape. That will, in turn and over time, give those who have given up the chance to reinvent themselves.

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