A Path Through Trump’s Minefield

So, you want to win an argument with Trump supporters? Don’t try.

Facts and logic are not just ineffectual (because of confirmation bias), they are counterproductive (because of identity protecting reasoning–IPR). Take climate denial as an example. Attempting to persuade a climate denier with facts is a waste of time because deniers can easily find facts and theories on the web confirming their denials. Worse, by defending climate science, we trigger an IPR feedback loop that reinforces a constellation of related core beliefs and values such as: experts are out-of-touch elitists, God has dominion, government is the problem, free markets are good, globalism threatens freedom, and your climate hogwash is threatening not only who I am but my children’s future. That is, as soon as we raise the issue of climate change, we trigger a denier to defend core beliefs and values tied up with their identity; hence, we help them rehearse their arguments and we fuel their concern that their identity is under threat. Our rational, wonkish, scientific explanations are completely counterproductive.

George Lakoff has a distinguished track record of public service and scholarship excellence. He has written extensively on the topic of framing, values, and language that support progressive causes. The following tips are excerpted from a blog he wrote after Trump’s nomination. Here are few key take-homes how we respond to the dilemma raised above:

  • Know their key frames: guns, gays, god and increasingly climate, expertise, abortion, immigration, media, black lives matter, bathrooms, universities, …
  • Don’t activate one of those frames. It doesn’t matter if your are supporting or critiquing the topic (be it climate, immigration, expertise, media, or Trump more generally). Once you activate it, you end up reinforcing it (see: IPR reasoning, above).   Admittedly, following this advice greatly limits the opportunity for reasoned public discourse, which is the grave danger of Trump because he is pushing more and more issues into this frame-activating, identity-protecting-reasoning space.
  • Don’t mention or critique false claims or fake news. Doing so just activates a frame. See: don’t activate the frame.
  • Go positive. Give a positive truthful framing based on values. Equity. Opportunity. Safety. Justice. Freedom. Dignity. Integrity. Children. Family. Love. Respect. Health. Faith. Even environment. Progressives have powerful values (I identify with them!), but we don’t admit them or mention them.
  • Values come first, facts and policies follow in the service of values. Facts matter, but they always support values. (See: go positive.)
  • For example, reframe your discussion of climate change. Start with owning that you are concerned about the security of your community, the safety and health of your family and neighbors, and the declining opportunities for your children to lead productive, dignified lives. Then tell a story about what you want us to do. Hint: all of these values are impacted by climate. (See: go positive.)
  • Use repetition. The more it is heard or seen, the more it is believed, regardless of what it is.
  • Stop defending “the government.” Talk about the public, the people, Americans, the American people, public servants, take back freedom, etc. Public resources provide for freedom in private enterprise and private life. The contribution of public resources to our freedoms cannot be overstated. Government Regulations protect freedom. Start saying it.
  • Avoid nasty exchanges and attacks. Take the high ground. Be hard on principles and problems; be soft on people. Practice civility, good humor, and empathy. Don’t protest against free speech by others, even if you disagree with them. Don’t threaten to punch them in the face, that is fascism.
  • Give up identity politics. No more women’s issues, black issues, Latino issues, LBGTQ issues, Muslim issues, Autism issues,… Their issues are all real, and need public discussion. But they all fall under freedom, justice, safety, equity and other values and principles. Identity politics divides. We are weaker and more easily conquered when divided. Twigs are stronger when in a bundle.

Alternatively, we could stop being conciliatory and stop dancing around Trumpists. Instead of worrying about offending and triggering their frames, we could mobilize and build a political movement around our frames and values. We have the numbers. Do we have the strategy and guts for real politics? (see Norris, Centerism is Dead)


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Hull is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability http://cligs.vt.edu/
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