On April 17th, my Berkeley Indivisible group hosted a two-hour discussion on “Reaching out to Trump voters,” featuring UC professors Arlie Hochschild and George Lakoff. Participants learned how to approach a group that some consider a lost cause.
After November 8, many progressives were dismayed to learn that one or more members of their family had voted for Donald Trump. It wasn’t some random Republican in a remote red state, it was someone they had shared holidays and vacations with. It was a beloved member of their family.
Indivisible was founded with two primary values in mind: inclusivity and nonviolence. Reaching out to a Trump voter is a reflection of inclusivity, including everyone in the conversation. Involving every voter regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, or how they voted on November 8th.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn defined nonviolence as “love in action.” Certainly reaching out to a family member who voted for Trump is love in action.
Conflict-resolution studies suggest ten tips for talking to difficult people; ten lessons that are applicable to talking to a family member who voted for trump: First, do it in private. This is not a conversation that should take place in a typical family setting such as Thanksgiving dinner after a couple of drinks. Second, leave plenty of time for the conversation. This is not a conversation that will consume only a few minutes; allocate several hours. Third, begin with the well-formed intention to listen to the member of your family who voted for Trump. Fourth, make sure that you have the energy to do this. If you are getting over a cold and didn’t sleep the night before then today is probably not a good time to have a difficult conversation with “Uncle Al.” Fifth, sustain eye contact. This is a good practice in all intimate conversations but particularly important in dealing with difficult people.
Sixth, recognize when you are “triggered.” Recognition of triggers is worthy of a special training; suffice it to say that if, during your conversation with Uncle AL, you suddenly feel very angry or you have gone numb, you are likely “triggered.” Seventh, if you are triggered it’s okay to ask for a timeout. Take the time you need to collect yourself. Eighth, it’s a good idea to practice your interaction with Uncle Al ahead of time; that is, have a friend play the part of Uncle Al and practice a conversation about why Uncle Al voted for Trump. Ninth, it’s okay to take more than one session to talk to Uncle Al. If after an hour, you feel your energy drain, it’s okay for you to say, “We’ve accomplished a lot. How about scheduling another meeting.” Finally, if more than one member of your family voted for Trump, take them one at a time. (Save Aunt Minnie for later.)
After reading Hochschild and Lakoff, I deduced seven observations they share about reaching out to Trump voters:
1. Listen: Trump voters expect liberals to disrespect them. Therefore, no matter how outrageous Uncle Al’s statements may be, listen, and perhaps comment, “I’m interested that you think that.”
2. Do not insult Trump. Hochschild and Lakoff’s writings make it clear that Trump voters identify with Trump; to them, he’s successful, politically incorrect, and a guy who has beaten the system. When they say something positive about Trump, reply, “I hear what you say but I’m worried about corruption and safety. Corruption because Trump will not reveal his tax returns and safety because of his ties to Russia. What do you think?”
3. Clarify your own values: Trump voters have different values from liberals. Before you talk to Uncle Al, be clear about your own values. For example, do you believe that we are “our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper?” Search for common ground. For example, does the Trump voter believe in “the Golden Rule?” How does that belief apply to treatment of people of color?” George Lakoff suggests: we ask Uncle Al, “What actions are you most proud of?”
4. Recognize worldview: Trump voters see the world as an elaborate hierarchy (with rich American white straight Christian guys at the top). Nonetheless, most Americans cherish the myth of “the little guy who started out with nothing and fought his way to the top.” Search for common ground on the concept of fairness; everyone deserves a chance.
5. Be careful about climate change: Most Trump voters do not believe in global climate change. Rather than take on this issue in general, talk about a specific local issue such as contaminated drinking water. Say, “I believe that we should protect our children from contaminated water. Don’t you agree?”
6. Be careful about race, ethnicity, and national origin: Many Trump voters live in segregated communities and do not know immigrants or have social contacts with people of color. Search for common ground by referring to “the Golden Rule.” “What would Jesus do if he saw a Black man being beaten by the police?”
7. Take back patriotic symbols: Search for common ground using the symbols of patriotism: flag, constitution, and love of country. You can say, “I’m reaching out to you because I love you and I love America.”
Trump voters are not “deplorables.” There’s a way to reach out to beloved family members who voted for Trump. It begins with listening.