By Doyle Srader
We all knew the story of the 2016 and 2020 elections: Donald Trump won in 2016 because Democrats either stayed home or cast protest votes, convinced Hillary Clinton would win easily. So now, after four years of Trump being Trump in plain sight, all we had to do was stay focused and be sure to vote. Right? Blue wave? Democrats would take back the Senate? Joseph Biden would win such a slam dunk that the Republican Party would limp away and disband?
Two weeks ago, a lot of people thought so.
I lived in Texas for the first quarter century of my life, then eight years in one of the most remote, rural parts of that state. Until I moved here, Louie Gohmert was my representative. I was, and am, a Southern Baptist. If that’s all you know about me, I sound like a Trump voter.
I’m not. But I am very bilingual.
I’ve also spent a little under half my life teaching communication to college students, including classes about listening, conflict management, argumentation and the lifespan of relationships. Some of those lessons fit this moment.
First, we don’t have a content problem: We have a relational problem.
I know the same as everybody that Trump lies unashamedly in plain sight. Doesn’t matter. Fact-checking him won’t cost him any supporters.
And I’m as horrified as anyone by voter suppression as a strategy. But when a big segment of the population copes with crippling fear by turning to the cohesive group that welcomes them, it’s easy for them to want only their votes to count and nobody else’s. And when unreasoning terror is what underlies a wish, flimsy excuses for its fulfillment become persuasive. You’ve talked yourself into believing things that didn’t stand up to scrutiny because you wanted them to be true. It’s not a Republican thing; it’s a human thing.
When anyone thinks their solidarity as a member of a besieged group is all that stands between them and disaster, then loyalty will crush principle without a moment’s discomfort. That’s also a human thing.
Second, we are following the same pattern they are, and that makes us part of the problem.
Now, it’s not in the same context. I have in mind the Republican position on abortion, which white evangelicals (like me) offered as the chief reason they supported Trump. I’ve understood for years the difference between, on the one hand, wanting to reduce the number of abortions that happen, and, on the other, lashing out in fury against abortion. The steps in pursuit of those two goals have virtually no overlap.
But all the mocking of Trump voters is the exact same mistake.
Every time we parody something Trump or a Trump supporter says, we give voice to our outrage, but we do nothing constructive. It is an utterly losing strategy to attack Trump voters, because Trump’s core strategy is to attack. We get torn between the impulse to rise above it and the opposing temptation to respond with mockery, and the tension pulling us in both directions waters them both down.
We cannot win a spiral of attacks with Trump, or with any Trump loyalist. They’re better at it than we are, period. That will not change. And if it did change, it would be the most Pyrrhic victory imaginable.
So what must we do? We must listen.
I’ve been fascinated lately by the work of two professors from Israel, a country with some experience in trying to unsnarl stubborn knots of hatred. Avraham Kluger, a business professor at Hebrew University, and Guy Itzchakov, a professor of human services at the University of Haifa, have demonstrated in a series of studies that if people speak about their resentments and hostility to a listener who gives them a feeling of safety, they draw on attitude-relevant knowledge to soften and nuance those commitments, and ultimately back away from them. It’s when they feel defensive that they ignore flaws and contradictions in their attitudes, and bear down with all their might. Maybe you’ve seen that exact behavior from a lot of Trump supporters. I certainly have.
I can hear people seething at this, saying we shouldn’t have to unilaterally disarm, we shouldn’t have to respond to outrage with patience. And I would refer you to my colleagues in the counseling field who could explain to you that when you get stuck in your proclamations of what should be, you paralyze yourself and stubbornly replay all the broken tactics that keep you mired in your problems. ν
Doyle Srader lives in Eugene.