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No opinion has been altered by an insult regardless of the insult’s accuracy. Speaking truth to power is the first prescription in the resistance playbook, but truth is inefficient when addressing passionate angst. Emotional pain brought President Trump to office. We liberals need a communication strategy that speaks to universal unity and the virtue of empathy in the same way that Trump’s campaign spoke to governmental discord and bipartisan hostility.

In March 2016, I wrote in Madison365: “When comparing two tragic tales, how does one convincingly insist that black pain is more deserving of advocacy? History, facts, truth, logic, and argumentation: these are inefficient when addressing purely emotional pain. The ardent Trump supporter will not be swayed by your truth. With that said, we have two choices: write them off or find a new way to discuss systemic racism.” America decided to write them off. We liberals must find a new way to discuss issues with Trump supporters by taking them seriously.

American liberalism is in a dark period. Do we obstruct President Trump as ardently as possible, becoming hypocrites who once panned conservatives for obstructing President Obama? Do we resist strategically while risking the normalization of the most unqualified President in United States history? The Republicans control all three branches of government. To what extent is resistance even a possibility? And does resistance ultimately perpetuate the trend toward bipartisan animus that began during Bill Clinton’s tenure?

We need to find a new way to discuss systemic racism with people who voted for Trump. Granted, we tried. Hillary Clinton was the wrong avatar, an imperfect embodiment of values which are accurately described by conservatives as divisive. Discussing racial inequality is naturally divisive. We liberals insist that our culture is inundated with racism, sexism, Islamaphobia—on and on, the list of Clinton’s deplorables. We insist that humans must seek enlightenment about racial issues, but simultaneously bemoan how racism is too pervasive, too systemic to be changed in a single generation.

For conservatives, who have an individualized view of racism, this is a troubling worldview. We liberals have muddied our argument by calling conservatives “racists” as individuals while defining “racism” as systemic and social. For those without college degrees, these distinctions are banal. So I ask myself — at the risk of offending my most militant friends — why do we liberals keep calling conservatives racist? Is it accomplishing a goal?

Truth holds little weight in 2017. Enacting social change requires more than speaking truth to power. Even if every racist you label a racist this year is very, very racist, what have you accomplished? It feels good to feel smarter than the people in power, but being correct is different from doing right. Jill Stein was a moral candidate, and voting for her may have been “correct,” but it was not right because it helped Donald Trump to be elected. The strategic choice is often unpalatable, maybe morally offensive to some, but speaking truth to power is not working. It is time to strategize.

Trump voters felt deprived of dignity. We liberals responded by telling them that black people have harder lives. Insisting that an impoverished white voter is more privileged than our black President may be correct, but it is not right. No strong coalition was ever built by guilt. No person defines their own life as easy.

American liberalism relies too heavily on critical thinking to capitulate to “alternative facts,” so adopting Trump’s strategy wholesale is not tenable. We need unity without losing diversity. How do we discuss the truth without alienating voters? We appeal to materialism. President Trump acknowledged one universal truth during his campaign: every self-interested voter believes they have gotten the sh*t end. Hillary Clinton assumed that the Obama-induced status quo was working for her base, but no one is satisfied with the status quo. Not now, not ever. Every voter wants more.

Bernie Sanders laid the groundwork for a coalition of the working class. President Trump has used “us against them” – the “good Americans” against undocumented immigrants and ineffective politicians. It worked. Let us do the same – American workers against American owners. Ever-increasing automation and multinational corporations set the stage for the upcoming showdown. In my hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin, our residents feel lucky to get an hourly wage from Amazon when Chevrolet provided a salary and benefits only one generation ago. The new normal will require a broad coalition.

People of color are right to be skeptical of this type of unity. Historically, white workers have always been willing to abandon people of color when it becomes financially convenient. We liberals have no choice — we must do better for each other. Trump’s success is undergirded by racism, but as we liberals acknowledge, racism is too pervasive to resolve in the course of a single generation. The urgent need to win the mid-term elections and the Presidency in 2020 necessitates calculated rhetoric, coalition building, and strategic resistance. Trump’s supporters do not see themselves as racist. Let us begin conversations that start with their concerns. We may discover that our concerns are more common than we realized.

Written by Matt Zeller

Matt Zeller

Matt Zeller is an English Teaching Specialist working for the University of Wisconsin’s PEOPLE, a program dedicated to helping low-income students of color succeed in college.

3 COMMENTS

  1. No point in talking to Trump voters while they are still flushed with their victory. Extend an olive branch, and you are likely to haul back a stump. Later, when those high paying jobs for people with little education, and few skills, don’t materialize, maybe. In the meantime I suggest that we not listen to those who would have us abandon “Identity Politics”. In my mind all they are saying is ditch the blacks and the gays, muslims etc. And that is so wrong, because diversity is the strength of the liberals even if we don’t always go about it very elegantly. We can use this time to get to know each other better. We can locally work on the issues that matter to us. Join BLM, buy your groceries from a Halal grocery, go to a Native ceremony. We didn’t lose the last election as much as we got screwed. So keep marching! and lets go get em’!!!

  2. Wow. Where to start.
    First: self-empathy. Before opening our mouths, be aware of our own frustration, anger, heartbreak, and fear. Be aware of our desire to ‘prove Trump supporters wrong.’ Accept those feelings as legitimate, and accept the fact that they are likely to undermine our effectiveness in any one-on-one conversation if we don’t keep them under control. Take a deep breath and resolve to do our best to model only calm, mature, and constructive behavior in the coming conversation.

    Two: Before opening our mouths, remind ourselves of the other’s humanity. By force of will if necessary, believe that under the right circumstances the Trump supporter would happily support equal rights and freedoms for everyone, but is prevented from doing so by circumstances outside his or her control–social conditioning, fear for his/her own safety and well-being (even if misguided, the fear is real). Be aware that the Trump supporter probably does have some real challenges–perhaps inability to purchase a home, to find a family-supporting job, to get into college or put his/her kids through college, to have as much economic security as his/her parents, whatever–and that these legitimate fears and frustrations may be feeding some counterproductive behavior.

    Third, before opening our mouths, be aware that we likely have a large pool of shared values with the Trump supporter. Chances are great that they share our commitment to our right to self-government through elections (even if they see it threatened by different things than we do). They share our desire that our community’s kids get a good education (even if they see a different path to that goal.) Chances are they share our sense that hard work and honesty should be rewarded, and that laziness and dishonesty should not–even if we see that conduct in different circumstances. You get the idea. DO NOT NEGLECT to articulate those shared values. Say them out loud, confirm them, clarify them. Be prepared to do that several times during the conversation. Never let them get out of sight, for as long as the conversation continues.

    Fourth, be aware of the argumentation ploys that set your teeth on edge. Then, when the Trump supporter uses them, let them wash over you without response, and resolve not to use them yourself. Example: Telling someone else what he/she believes and caricaturing with labels. When he/she calls you a ‘socialist,’ quickly put your own belief in your own words (e.g., “If by ‘socialism’ you mean someone who is in favor of sensible regulations, yes, I do believe that we, the people, have the right and the power to control the conduct of corporations created under our laws to prevent them from poisoning our water.”)
    Example 2: Stating beliefs in the form of sarcastic questions. Notice the difference between “Since when did it become a capital offense for a 12-year-old to play with a toy gun in a public park?” and “I don’t want to live in a community where 12-year-olds risk death by playing with a toy gun in a public park. We’re never going to stop 12-year-old boys from playing with toy guns–or sticks that look like guns–but we should be able to refrain from shooting them.” Both statements make it clear where you stand, but the first statement insults the other by inferring that he/she believes something absurd (that it’s literally a capital offense to play with a toy gun in a park). The second is an irrefutable statement of your own belief. That is, the other might be able to argue about what standards we SHOULD have for police conduct, but cannot argue with the fact that you don’t want to live in that community.

    And that’s just the start…

  3. Wow. Talking to Trump voters. Where to start.

    First: self-empathy. Before opening our mouths, be aware of our own frustration, anger, heartbreak, and fear. Be aware of our desire to ‘prove Trump supporters wrong.’ Accept those feelings as legitimate, and accept the fact that they are likely to undermine our effectiveness in any conversation if we don’t keep them under control. Take a deep breath and resolve to do our best to model only calm, mature, and constructive behavior in the coming conversation.

    Two: Before opening our mouths, remind ourselves of the other’s humanity. By force of will if necessary, believe that under the right circumstances the Trump supporter would happily support equal rights and freedoms for everyone, but is prevented from doing so by circumstances outside his or her control–social conditioning, fear for his/her own safety and well-being (even if misguided, the fear is real). Be aware that the Trump supporter probably does have some real challenges–perhaps inability to purchase a home, to find a family-supporting job, to get into college or put his/her kids through college, to have as much economic security as his/her parents, whatever–and that these legitimate fears and frustrations may be feeding some counterproductive behavior.

    Third, before opening our mouths, be aware that we likely have a large pool of shared values with the Trump supporter. Chances are great that they share our commitment to our right to self-government through elections (even if they see it threatened by different things than we do). They share our desire that our community’s kids get a good education (even if they see a different path to that goal.) Chances are they share our sense that hard work and honesty should be rewarded, and that laziness and dishonesty should not–even if we see that conduct in different circumstances. You get the idea. DO NOT NEGLECT to articulate those shared values. Say them out loud, confirm them, clarify them. Be prepared to do that several times during the conversation. Never let them get out of sight, for as long as the conversation continues.

    Fourth, be aware of the argumentation ploys that set your teeth on edge. Then, when the Trump supporter uses them, let them wash over you without response, and resolve not to use them yourself. Example: Telling someone else what he/she believes and caricaturing with labels. When he/she calls you a ‘socialist,’ quickly put your own belief in your own words (e.g., “If by ‘socialism’ you mean someone who is in favor of sensible regulations, yes, I do believe that we, the people, have the right and the power to control the conduct of corporations created under our laws to prevent them from poisoning our water.”)
    Example 2: Stating beliefs in the form of sarcastic questions. Notice the difference between “Since when did it become a capital offense for a 12-year-old to play with a toy gun in a public park?” and “I don’t want to live in a community where 12-year-olds risk death by playing with a toy gun in a public park. We’re never going to stop 12-year-old boys from playing with toy guns–or sticks that look like guns–but we should be able to refrain from shooting them.” Both statements make it clear where you stand, but the first statement insults the other by inferring that he/she believes something absurd (that it’s literally a capital offense to play with a toy gun in a park). The second is an irrefutable statement of your own belief. That is, the other might be able to argue about what standards we SHOULD have for police conduct, but cannot argue with the fact that you don’t want to live in that community.

    And that’s just the start…

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