Here in the U.S., the holidays are coming and that means some of us will be sitting down with family and reconnecting with more distant friends. I think there has to be a high priority on talking with those in our social circles who voted for Trump. Let me lay out a little more what I mean.
First, I’m mostly talking to white readers, and especially to white readers, since this is largely our experience and, I think, our responsibility. (Comments welcome from all of course!)
Second, if you’re white and have no kin or acquaintances who voted for Trump, I implore you to wonder why. This is not, I think, something to be proud of but is, rather, indicative of how we got here. If progressive white people don’t know white people unlike themselves, we’re abandoning the work of persuasion where it could be most effective. There’s much talk of the bubbles in which we surround ourselves, so if you’re in one, please get out of it for a spell.
Most importantly, the election is over so that means the temptation to go back to “normal” is strong, going along and passing the potatoes while leaving politics and other bits of “unpleasantness” aside. I think this temptation should be resisted. The election is over, but what’s coming next is not. It’s not clear what power we all have but my guess is that remorseful Trump voters would be a help. So too would Trump voters encouraged to oppose things they may have let slide when it was all ostensibly in service to “campaigning.”
With all that as preface, what I really want to talk about is how to talk to your Trump kin and acquaintances. I retain the conviction that, particularly where personal connections are concerned, polite interaction has value. Likewise, while feeling polite might be hard, being polite might be more heroic. White-to-white disapprobation delivered rudely or uncivilly is usually strategically inept and, worse, can be self-serving. It’s cheap and easy for white progressives to disapprove of the Trump voter and thereby confirm a moral self-conception in which one is not one of them, but what’s the point, really? The quick thrill of being one of the “good guys” isn’t going to move things in a better direction. Signaling that you’re “progressive” has power if you’re trying to make clear to people at risk that you are not a threat and have their backs, but that’s not my target here. I’m talking about how white people talk to white people when others are not in play. In that context, polite can do things. Still, if you’re doggedly or temperamentally committed to more pugilistic interaction, don’t overlook the potency of polite interpersonal disapproval: Consider it giving up your guns-blazing approach for a clever, soft-footed ninja shiv, if you must.
So, here’s what I can muster about how to talk with maximum reach, with some attempt at empathy and concern, and with some hope of drawing out personal connections that can effectively contribute to persuasion. I’m mostly going to be talking from experience here, so factor in that all this comes from the people I know and your people may be different. Please contribute more strategies in the comments!
Bringing one’s personal experience to the table. Many of those I know have themselves very small circles. They may not be encountering people unlike themselves, much less those who are afraid and worried. There is power is using yourself to draw them out of their own orbit. E.g., say to family: “My friends are really concerned about X and I’m afraid for them about this.” My family cares about me and so, by extension, they care about my friends. If they see I’m distressed for my friends, they’re more likely to give uptake to what’s distressing. Saying out loud that people I care about are hurt or at risk makes everything more live and immediate, less abstract and distant.
Connecting with people’s existing commitments. Manichean assumptions about people are not helpful. Most have existing moral commitments that are betrayed or have been overmastered by whatever motivated them to vote for Trump. Invoking those overmastered commitments is useful, not just for persuasion but for seeking to understand what’s going on with them. E.g., if you have Christian family, ask them how they’re squaring what’s happening with their Christianity, invoke Christian compassion and the “least of these” doctrines, invoke Trump’s moral character, etc. If you have kin with daughters, ask them how they’re reconciling Trump’s attitudes and conduct toward women with their care for the women they love. (Yes, I know that being someone’s daughter should not be the resting point for women’s value, but I’m talking rhetorical presentation and emotive connection that might do something, however imperfect in principle.) Tone matters here: The point is not to start quarrels over these commitments, but to express confusion about how everything coheres for them, gently asking them to seek coherence themselves. Here too, my assumption is that expressing puzzlement that someone is not acting on values you thought they had has power to oblige them to explain, to themselves, what they’re doing and sanctioning. And, maybe, to reconsider.
Hypotheticals and, increasingly, actuals. I am trying to harbor trust that not all those I know who voted for Trump can be on board with, e.g., his employing a white nationalist advisor. Likewise with future possibilities that may be coming down the pike. So perhaps it’s useful to pick at these discrete issues, rhetorically inflected to invoke their commitments or your esteem for them – e.g., “You can’t be comfortable with his chief strategist pick, can you? I would think you’d find that disturbing and worrying?” Again, the aim here is to encourage people to lay themselves out and lay out their limits, so that they are encouraged to find them, to find their own limits. To emphasize, I say this in the trust or hope that many have limits that are already being defied.
Deploy disappointment. If your kin and friends care for your good opinion, I think letting them know that you’re disappointed is valuable. It might be especially useful if you frame with respect to your prior expectations of them, e.g., “I would have thought you’d be unable to accept X.” This is closely related to the point above about their commitments, but here what I’m trying to emphasize is that disappointing others and feeling shame before them is powerful stuff where interpersonal relationships are concerned. Stimulating that can be useful, though that likely it won’t happen if you go guns blazing. For me, this is hooked in, emotionally, to wanting to respect and admire those I love and care about. So, the aim here is to let them know when that is damaged. Families and friends do this all the time and often not to the good, but perhaps it can sometimes be on the side of the good.
Struggle. Political discourse is so fraught at present that the impulse to quarrel with Trump kin or friends is going to be high. Anyone following the news will find much to exercise her anger or dismay. Off-loading that anger and dismay onto those around you might feel gratifying. But I think a more promising course is to try not to. Instead, try to struggle out loud. I.e., confess that you are struggling to accept or understand or countenance what’s happening. This is to register the events, but with the personal inflection that more typically belongs to our interpersonal relationships. One isn’t venting but asking someone to see that you are struggling and to register this fact as something that involves them, that solicits their help. To see you angry might tempt others into a host of less useful reactions (“There she goes again.” Or “Why must we talk politics?”). But struggling invites people to try to sympathize and understand, perhaps even, via social contagion, feel some of the struggle as their own.
Don’t not talk. I trust that every white person has had the experience of hearing kin, friends, or acquaintances speak white-to-white in racist ways or with racist inflections. And I’m pretty sure all of us have sometimes let this slide by. Don’t. Prick the bubble they think they’re in and let them know that their views are not shared. It doesn’t have to be done rudely – and indeed, I think doing it with real disappointment is often far more potent – but do it.
Finally, let me just anticipate the objection that all this soft touch, stay polite business is unwarranted. At risk of sounding rude, I don’t really care that your delicate conscience and vaunted personal integrity might not like dissimulation and indirection. I care more that you have some effect on the people you can reach, and I’m thinking for a lot of us, polite is more promising than retracting or letting fly with open anger. If you and yours achieve persuasion through fisticuffs, then I guess you can have at it. For the rest, focus.