A lot of people don’t think Donald Trump would be a good president. In fact, his disapproval ratings have been at historically high levels for a major-party presidential nominee for a while now, and seem to be rising as he bulldogs his way into controversy after controversy. The Washington Post reported this week that seven out of ten Americans have an unfavorable view of Trump, a shockingly high percentage that is the highest yet recorded during this campaign. (Hillary Clinton has some popularity issues of her own, but they aren’t nearly as dire, nor does she reflect nearly so sharp a departure, tone- and policy-wise, from normal American politics.)
On the other hand — clearly, tens of millions of Americans do like him. You don’t win a presidential primary — totally steamroll it, in Trump’s case — if you don’t have a lot of fans. While there’s always a gap between how Democrats and Republicans view the candidates in a given race, when it comes to perceptions of Trump’s appeal and qualifications for the presidency, his supporters and opponents are inhabiting different universes.
So while presidential races often lead to strife among family and friends who disagree, this one feels like it’s going to be a particularly stressful time for those in “cross-candidate” relationships, families, or friendships. Because of Trump’s uniquely bombastic, proudly know-nothing persona, the stakes seem higher and things feel more personal (doubly so if you’re one of the millions of Americans who is a member of one of the ethnic or religious groups he has attacked).
So what to do if you’re disgusted by Trump, but are in a close relationship with someone who is walking around with one of those “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hats. Is there anything you can do to sway them out of the terrible decision they’re five months away from making?
The short, easy answer is no: Political persuasion techniques don’t have a good track record of, well, persuading. Researchers haven’t really hit on a lot of approaches that work, because political preferences tend to be deeply and strongly held, and tend to come from a place that has more to do with emotion than careful deliberations (this is true of all voters, not just Trumpkins).
That said, there are some important ideas to keep in mind when you’re arguing about politics that can at least help nudge the odds in your favor a bit. Below are three of them.
1. Try to get them to engage in “active processing.” It’s easy to brush off political arguments that clash against your own beliefs and preferences. One way around this tendency is to figure out ways to get people to actually think about — truly and deeply think about — the argument you’re making. This sort of thought is known as “active processing,” and one way to trigger it is to dig into is to make an appeal to your friend or family member’s own life.
Take Trump’s repeated statements bashing Muslims and Mexicans. In all likelihood, your Trump-supporting friend can remember a time when they themself were unfairly labeled as bad or treated unfairly simply by dint of some form of identity or group membership. So if you start your debate not by talking about Trump, but by asking your interlocutor to tell you about a time they felt they were treated unfairly by dint of who they are, and then pivot (gently) into some of Trump’s racist arguments, you might have a better chance of prevailing. So the argument becomes less “How could you support such a racist candidate?,” and more, “Doesn’t the stuff he said about Latinos and Muslims remind you of that time someone judged you unfairly?” The second argument is far less confrontational, far more personal, and at least a little bit more likely to succeed. In one recent study, at least, this technique seemed to move the needle on people’s views on transgender rights in important ways.
2. Quit with all the debunkings. Trump is, even by political standards, a prolific and ostentatious liar. He also has no grasp on public policy whatsoever, and in most cases hasn’t really bothered developing a platform or coherent positions. Trump says things all the time that aren’t true, and his fibs and misrepresentations cover everything from his own business background and acumen to major public-policy debates. Even after one of his claims has been debunked, he’ll repeat it over and over again.
Given all this, it’s natural that anyone arguing with a Trump-supporting relative would start by pointing out all the stuff Trump has lied about and/or gotten wrong. That would be a mistake, though. Over and over, political scientists and psychologists, not to mention various other researchers, have shown that when it comes to political arguments, we don’t really respond to factual appeals. This technique can even lead to the dreaded “backlash effect” in which challenging someone’s views by providing disconfirming evidence causes them to cling tighter to those views.
The reason debunking often doesn’t work is that, as I hinted at above, most people don’t come to their political preferences having carefully and logically sifted through their options. Rather, they come to them from a more gut- and emotion-driven place. Trump’s fabled impregnable border wall (that Mexico will pay for, naturally) is a wonderful example of this principle in action. It’s a horribly impractical idea that would cost billions and do all sorts of harm, but the voters excited about it obviously haven’t run the numbers or looked closely at the proposal (there isn’t even a detailed proposal to look at) — rather, the wall, as a symbol, speaks to their feelings about immigration and humiliation and American greatness and whatever else. (Trump voters aren’t alone in doing this, of course — can you confidently say you’ve never thrown your support behind a political idea because it felt right, without knowing the full details?) So if they didn’t care about the numbers when they adopted their belief that the wall is a good idea, why would pointing to the project’s impracticality cause them to discard the belief?
3. Make the argument about the values they care about, not the ones you care about. This is another common mistake. If you’re like most Americans, Trump offends, annoys, and enrages you for any number of reasons. These reasons may feel really important to you, they may get you fired up, but remember: you’re not arguing with yourself, but rather with someone who supports Trump. And as social psychologists like Jon Haidt have argued and shown in their research, one of the key reasons people disagree about politics is that they have very different senses of morality. To oversimplify a bit: For conservative, in-group/out-group distinctions tend to matter more than they do for liberals; for liberals, care for vulnerable people often trumps us and them.
So if you’re going to have any chance at convincing them, it’s important that you operate from their level or moral reasoning. This is a very context-dependent tactic, of course. If your Trump-supporting relative is a patriotic flag-waving type, for example, you might start by emphasizing to them how great America is and how damaging it could be to hand over the country’s keys to someone who has shown so little real interest in leading. If your relative is more business-minded, for example, you might gently explain to them that while Trump puts on a good show, for decades he didn’t pay many of his vendors what they were owed, and his management of his casinos has been lacking at best. If he can’t run his own businesses, isn’t there a chance he’s not the best pick to run the country? Sometimes, this will involve adopting arguments that don’t really reflect yourself and your own political views. That’s fine — because again, your views aren’t the point here.
Again, there are important limitations to keep in mind. It’s unlikely you are going to sit down with your Trump-supporting brother or uncle or friend, talk things out, and walk away having convinced them to stay home or to vote for Clinton. If persuasion were that easy, our country wouldn’t be mired in polarization and partisan gridlock.
But it’s still useful to have these tools at your disposal — knowing the details about how people form political opinions, and under what circumstances those opinions can potentially change, can at least prevent you from getting flustered and stumbling immediately into argumentative quickstand. If you want to know more details about all this stuff, much of the research that informs this post is explained, in greater detail, in my articles on how awareness is overrated, how to win political arguments, how to convince conservatives man-made climate change is real, and the potency of “purity” arguments when it comes to fears over genetically modified foods.
Good luck out there — let’s make political arguments great again.