How will they change their minds?
Trump voters made an enormous mistake, for their country and even for themselves. We can't force them to see it, but maybe we can make it easier for them figure it out on their own.
In the summer of 2003, the Iraq War was popular. Sure, somewhere between a third and half of the public had been strongly against the invasion before it happened. But then it all seemed to go so well. Iraqi armies melted away in front of our brave troops. Our technology seemed invincible, and before long we were helping the liberated Baghdad residents pull down Saddam's statue. All those pessimists who had predicted a quagmire and thousands of dead American soldiers had been proved wrong.
On May 1, President Bush had heroically landed a plane on the USS Abraham Lincoln and announced victory under a "Mission Accomplished" banner. "In the battle of Iraq," he proclaimed, "the United States and our allies have prevailed." There was still some minor mopping up to do — we still hadn't captured Saddam or found his WMDs — but our forces had the run of the country, so that was bound to happen any day now.
A few people knew better. In early July I talked to my best friend from high school, a career Marine who was home already from participating in the invasion. "The real war is just starting now," he told me. But that was a lonely point of view. Bush's supporters were already styling him as one of the great presidents — maybe not quite in the Washington/Lincoln neighborhood, but certainly in the next tier. It was a shame there was no more space on Mount Rushmore.
Sometime around then — I can't tell you when because I hadn't started blogging yet and haven't been able to google up a newspaper account of it — Michael Moore gave a talk in Manchester. At the time I knew Moore only by reputation, so I was expecting to hear some angry rabble-rousing. Instead, he spoke in a compassionate tone that has stuck with me ever since.
The country had made a huge mistake, he told us. (I'm paraphrasing because I took no notes.) And sooner or later events would make that obvious. The way forward was for large numbers of Americans to recognize that mistake and change their minds about the war. How would that happen? Changing your mind about something you felt strongly about was a gut-wrenching process, and we needed to make it as easy as possible for them, so that it could happen sooner rather than later.
More or less, things played out the way he envisioned: By April, 2004, the First Battle of Fallujah made it undeniable that the war was not over, and the Abu Ghraib revelations removed the invasion's aura of moral crusade. From then on, support for the war waned. Dick Cheney's claims that the insurgency was in its last throes, or Thomas Friedman's repeated predictions that everything would be fine in another six months (which became known as a "Friedman unit"), became increasingly unbelievable. The Democrats retook Congress in 2006, and a Democrat who had opposed the invasion got the nomination in 2008 and beat a more hawkish Republican in a landslide. Some public figures who supported the war early on (Hillary Clinton and John Kerry come to mind) admitted they were wrong, but lots more people (Donald Trump, for example) just rewrote history so that they had always been against the war.
At no point in that national mind-changing process was there some stunning new argument that turned everybody around. Anti-war Democrats didn't come up with great new slogans or ads in 2006 or 2008. Demonstrations didn't change minds in the numbers needed. Books and movies didn't do it. Events had to do it.
I think we're in a similar situation now: Electing Donald Trump was a huge mistake. It's not just a mistake for the country as a whole, it's a mistake for most of the people who did it: Working class whites are going to see their safety net shredded and power further consolidate among the wealthy, with no turnaround in the collapse of the kind of good-paying manufacturing and mining jobs people could count on a generation ago. They will lose health insurance, their public schools will decline, their children will have a harder time paying for college, and many will be victims of preventable environmental or public-health disasters.
The limits of propaganda. Many of them have, up until now, been entirely taken in by Trump's bluster and a regular diet of propaganda from Fox News, Breitbart, Alex Jones, and right-wing talk radio. They believe a lot of things that aren't true, and are ignorant of many facts they ought to know. But propaganda can only go so far. You can't, for example, convince a minimum-wage worker that he has a good job, or that we have the greatest healthcare system in the world when he faces a choice between bankruptcy and watching his wife die.
Reality is persistent, and propaganda that explains it away has to keep changing. Eventually people catch on, even if they don't begin each day with The New York Times and end it with PBS Newshour. You don't have to believe the "liberal media" when the news is happening to you and the people you love.
Moore's speech impressed me for a couple of reasons. First, he really believed in his view of reality, so he didn't have to be shrill about it. He didn't need to wish misfortune on the people who disagreed with him, because misfortune was coming whether anybody wished for it or not. He was so certain that he could already feel compassion for misfortune's victims. And second, in spite of recent events to the contrary, he retained his faith in the basic sense of the American people. They/we could be fooled for a while, but not forever.
That's the point of view we need now. If President Trump really does "make America great again" — bring good jobs back to the middle class, fix our education system, produce opportunities for poor people in the inner cities, fix our healthcare system, avoid any further damage from the "hoax" of climate change, win the war against "radical Islam" — then liberalism is done for a generation. And it should be, because he would have proved us totally wrong.
But how likely is that?
And if he makes all those situations worse, as I think he will, how likely is it that the American people won't notice? Or that they will support him anyway, just because?
Trumpism will fail as a political movement because the people who voted for Trump will look at their own undeniable experiences and change their minds. It's something they will do for themselves, not something we can do to them or for them. The best we can do is to help that process along. So how?
We won't overpower them with vehemence. Trump supporters already know that we don't like him, that we think he's a horrible person, and that we think everything he says is a lie. They knew that when they voted for him. Repeating all that in a louder voice is not going to turn them around.
Does that mean we should just shut up? Not at all, but it should influence the way we express ourselves. We need to think of ourselves as Avatars of Reality: persistent, implacable, but not boiling over. In terms of protests, for example, large groups of people holding a vigil are better than small groups having a riot. Publicly supporting somebody — American Muslims, the undocumented, black neighborhoods that feel terrorized by police, the working poor who depend on Medicaid or ObamaCare or Planned Parenthood, communities damaged by de-regulated pollution — is better than just being anti-Trump.
On social media, just trading insults plays into Trump's hands, because his insults are as good as ours. His model of political discourse is two tribes of people yelling at each other; it doesn't matter who's right, just who is on your side. Our model is that reality exists and presents problems the public needs to deal with.
To remain true to our model, we need to keep drawing the discussion back to facts and plans and personal experiences. That doesn't have to be complicated. (This week I saw somebody on Facebook claim that Trump had more integrity than Clinton, and I responded with a fact: Clinton has never had to pay $25 million to settle a fraud lawsuit.)
Trump, of course, will continue to assert his own facts. But fantasy lacks the stability of reality, so he will have to keep changing his story as events unfold. One by one, here and there, people will catch on.
The low-information voter. Trump himself almost never loses sight of the fact that he is speaking to the low-information voter. It's rare for an interviewer to draw him deeper into an issue, and it never goes well for him. (Chris Matthews got him talking specifics about abortion, and his staff was walking that back for the next week.) That's why Twitter is his primary form of public communication: It's all about reaction, not explanation.
Feeling superior about that is too easy. I believe Trump won by beating Clinton decisively among low-information voters. (That's hard to prove, because low-info voters aren't as easily identifiable as racial or economic subgroups. You can use education as a proxy, but that involves some biased assumptions.) So people who only pay attention now and then are precisely the ones we need to turn around.
That was also true about Iraq. If your whole experience of the Iraq War was watching on TV as smart bombs went down smokestacks and joyful Iraqis pulled down Saddam's statue, then nobody could convince you the invasion had been a bad idea. Eventually, though, even the most poorly informed voter started to wonder: "Why are we still losing soldiers if the war was over months ago?" and "If we're winning, why do we have to take Fallujah again?" Thoughts like that didn't have to be deep or complicated.
Two things to remember about low-info voters:
- They respond to stories and experiences more than statistics. It's important to keep bringing policy questions back to the people who are getting helped or hurt. It's best if you can lay out a scenario where a policy will hurt the listener himself. Next best is to explain how you're being affected. Next best is to relate things you've seen yourself rather than learned through the media. (So don't just read about stuff, go places where you will see things, and then testify to what you've seen.)
- They care about results more than processes. This is particularly maddening right now, when all the effects of Trump's policies are still theoretical, but the process violations are everywhere. But while the high-info voter looks at a hole in the fence and immediately imagines the wolves getting in or the sheep getting out, the low-info voter doesn't.
Amplifying that second point a little: People who watch politics closely are horrified that Trump hasn't released his tax returns or put his assets into a blind trust. All other recent presidents have done that, so the sense of violation is immediate. But to a low-info voter, those sound like technicalities. So you always need to make the connection to results: His businesses are wide-open doors for pay-offs, and we know so little about his finances at the beginning of his term that at the end we won't even know whether he has robbed us blind. Reagan said, "Trust, but verify." We aren't in a position to verify anything about Trump.
The importance of popularity. The darkest imagining of liberals right now is that Trump's election heralds a descent towards fascism or some related form of non-democratic government. Trump has roused such nativist/racist passions and shows so little respect for the norms of democracy that the question "What wouldn't he do if he could get away with it?" seems to have no answer.
Other Republican behavior — the unprecedented obstruction of President Obama, up to the point of ignoring his Supreme Court nominee; the moves to suppress minority voting in states where Republicans have power; and most recently the post-election rule-changing in North Carolina — point to a party that has lost all principles and stands only for its own power.
All that raises the questions: What if there are no more meaningful elections? Why would changing people's minds even matter?
That fascist scenario requires President Trump to take audacious extra-constitutional action which Republicans in Congress, in the military, in the courts, and elsewhere in government either actively support or passively go along with. But Republicans at the moment are not unified behind Trump. They could become unified, if he becomes the kind of overwhelmingly popular president that it would be political suicide to oppose. But that's not where they are now.
Trump begins his term having received only 46% of the vote, and with an unprecedented unfavorability rating, even after a post-election bump. This is before the fog around his policies resolves, as it must, into a budget proposal and a plan for healthcare.
In the next year or two, his popularity is key to avoiding the most negative scenarios. If he remains as unpopular as he is today, or gets more unpopular, then the darkest scenarios will never manifest.