Talking to your friends and family about Trump
From the Economic Justice Committee of Indivisible SF
Trump being in the White House did not come out of nowhere, no matter how much it might have seemed like it—it was the consequence of all of the groundwork that had been laid by the Republican Party, the Tea Party, the so-called “alt right,” and (yes) Russia over many years.
This will not be undone quickly. Trump is merely its most obvious and most horrible manifestation; the country will not go back to “normal” after Trump is out, and even if it did, that “normal” is what produced Trump in the first place.
Many liberal commentators want to talk only about getting out the vote, because higher turnout tends to turn elections Democratic. Getting out the vote is necessary work, but it isn't enough, and with Republican voter suppression and gerrymandering, in many states it increasingly isn’t even possible. If all we do is get out the vote, it means every election is another 2016, another 50-50 chance of another Trump.
We need to change the direction of politics in this country. We need to restore honesty, fairness, decency, openness, respect for the rule of law, and holding equality as an ideal.
We need to convince our friends and family who’ve supported Trump to stop supporting him and start opposing him with us.
This will not happen quickly—we must start now. And it will not happen easily—we must prepare to have some uncomfortable conversations.
To help you prepare, here are some suggestions on what you can do.
Look out for yourself first. If you can’t safely bring up politics, it’s OK to sit this out. You may have to sit through (or walk out on) some unpleasant rhetoric, but if you can’t safely address these issues there, there are plenty of other ways you can help.
But this is not the same thing as discomfort. If you’re just worried that the conversation will be unpleasant, but you’re not worried about it being dangerous to you, we encourage you to speak up. It may not be pleasant, but it is what your country needs from you.
Accept the long haul. This is a marathon, not a sprint; It is OK to make slow, incremental progress. As long as you’re making progress, the country will recover with your help.
Don’t try to “win.” This isn’t a school debate, nor is it social media where “owns” may get you thousands of likes and a moment in the viral spotlight. Think about what you want from them: Convince them on a particular issue? Get them to stop saying harmful things about some group of people? Get them to see how harmful Trump is for the entire country? Get them to recognize the mess that Republican politicians have been making for decades? Open their minds to other (non-conservative) news sources? Get them to see trans/Muslim/Hispanic/Asian/Black/etc. people as people, deserving of equality? Understand them better?
So, don’t try to “win” on a topic. Don’t rely on a theatrical conclusion that exposes all of their inconsistencies—that works in murder mysteries, but in real-life political arguments, they’ll simply conclude that you don’t get it. And don’t argue your position until they stop arguing—that’s driving them away, not convincing them.
Your goal should be to get them to agree with you, or at least to respect your position as something they should think about rather than write off. That requires working with them where they are; it requires long-term work and incremental progress; and it requires staying grounded in your political principles and in principles of rhetoric.
Listen. Many Trump supporters fell for his rhetoric because they felt like he was addressing a concern they have. Acknowledge their concern, explore where it comes from (racist stereotypes? legitimate economic concerns?), explore how Trump’s proposed solutions don’t solve the problem/make it worse/cause other problems (and, in the last case, ask them to explain the trade-off and why it’s a net positive), and provide alternative solutions.
If you listen to them, and they feel like you are hearing them and understanding where there’s coming from, they’ll be much more willing to listen to you.
Pick your battles. You will not convert an entire houseful of Breitbart-reading Republicans into trans-inclusive feminist Berniecrats in an evening. This work is going to mean letting a lot of things slide at first; mentally acknowledge the awfulness of whatever awful thing they said, and maybe make a mental note to bring it up later, but if you’ve got momentum on something, keep up your efforts on the topic you’re on to convince them conclusively.
Just, y’know, don’t let everything slide. We encourage you to speak up in the moment, or to seek an opportunity to bring up the matter after the fact, possibly in a more private setting (i.e., not at the dinner table with everyone else). And if you can’t do that, try to commit to bring it up the next time they say something like it.
Private is more effective than public. Any sort of audience introduces a performative aspect that sabotages candor. The closer you can get to a one-on-one, face-to-face conversation, the more frankness and openness each of you will bring to the conversation, and you’ll need that to truly reach them.
Doubly so online: Comments sections and Twitter are very bad venues for these discussions, because the stakes are so much higher in a conversation before the public. DMs (direct messages) are better; text messages are better; phone or video calls are way better; in person is optimal. (Even if you otherwise converse more fluently through text.)
Prepare to respond to unpleasant or aggressive “jokes.” From racist anti-#BlackLivesMatter memes to things like “triggered” jokes, some conservatives—especially those immersed in right-wing internet communities—will say things that upset you or trigger PTSD, or at the very least not be funny to you like they are to them.
Depending on your circumstances and the “joke” in question, you may need to disengage, laugh along for your own safety, or walk out. That’s OK; again, take care of yourself first.
If you can remain involved: Train yourself to not immediately laugh upon recognition of a joke or otherwise laugh along. Question the joke. You could feign ignorance, or acknowledge that you got it but are questioning why it’s funny. Make them explain it. Make them defend it. Nothing kills the humor of a “joke” faster than having to explain it.
If you question why it’s funny and they say “it’s a joke,” one option is to respond (while pointedly not laughing) that a joke makes people laugh. If they assert that you didn’t get it, tell them to know their audience, or to make better jokes.
Another option is to press the question of why their joke is funny. You can explicitly state that a joke is not necessarily funny; there are jokes that aren’t funny, and (this is one of them | a joke that throws [marginalized group] under the bus is not funny).
Don’t debate people’s humanity. Refuse to budge or hedge on fundamental principles like the fact that trans women are women, the fact that trans men exist and and are men, nonbinary folks exist and are neither men nor women, the fact that women and nonbinary folks have the same rights as men, and the human and Constitutional rights of Muslim, LGBTQ+, disabled, and non-white (and especially Black) people. If you’re white, cis, not Muslim, etc., ask whether they would apply the same standard if you got pulled over/went through an airport/otherwise entered a situation that’s dangerous or oppressive to some people.
Educate yourself, and prepare to educate in turn. Much of privileged people’s apathy or (mild) antipathy toward marginalized groups is more lack of awareness than active malice. They think marginalized people are coming for their privileges, rather than fighting for equal rights.
Read first-hand accounts by trans people, Muslim people, disabled people, Black people, women, etc. of the oppressions and microaggressions they face. Use this knowledge to refute allegations that oppressed people are actually just trying to gain an advantage on “us” the privileged.
Debunk the myth of political correctness. “Political correctness” is a myth; find ways to say “actually, it’s not about [the thing they think people are mad about]; it’s about something much deeper, much more interesting, much more substantive, and something we can do something about.”
As Neil Gaiman said, “political correctness” is really just treating other people with respect.
Example (CW: sexual assault): When the Access Hollywood/Billy Bush tape came out, some Trump supporters thought people’s problem with it was the language he used—hence Trump’s own defense of it as “locker room talk.” Tell them that it wasn’t about his choice of words; cite the examples of feminists and other anti-Trump protesters who’ve used the word themselves (“… grabs back”); conclude with the point that it wasn’t about his words, but about the acts that he was describing. Even if he’d described his actions in the cleanest, most clinical way possible, he would still be describing sexual assault, a crime, conduct that is not OK at all and is a disgrace upon the office of the President of the United States.
Facts vs. propaganda
You’re fighting Alternative Facts. Conway’s statement was misconstrued by many to mean that the Trump administration was going to straight-up lie to people, which, yes (see Sean Spicer’s very first White House press conference), but also no. What she meant, and what Trump supporters heard, was that they were going to be providing the Real News that the Lying Liberal Media don’t want you to hear.
That’s what you’re up against. Trump supporters live in a media bubble of lies, misdirection, and early-Holocaust-style scapegoating of already-marginalized groups. (Trans women creeping in bathrooms! Black people threatening cops! Chinese people stealing your job! Call this ICE hotline if you have concerns about any suspicious immigrants!)
That bubble is an entire, roughly self-consistent framework of lies, half-truths, misinterpretations, and bigotry. When you argue an individual point that contradicts what they know, they’ll simply disbelieve you (or refute you, with (bogus) sources!). You’ll need to be able to weave your arguments into that framework so that you—or they—can eventually pull the thread to start dismantling it.
Example (CW: sexual assault): Did you know that Sweden is the sexual assault capital of the world? It’s actually because they have a much broader definition of sexual assault, but conservative media (as it seeks to demonize socialist Scandinavia) leaves that aspect out. If they bring up this topic, fill in that gap and get them to wonder what else conservative media hasn’t told them.
Read what Trump supporters are reading. This means Breitbart, the Drudge Report, and InfoWars. If you have cable, it means watching Fox News. You may want to use Private Browsing/Incognito windows, to avoid poisoning the ads and YouTube recommendations you get.
Because Trump supporters inhabit the Alternative Facts bubble, they are immersed in a completely different worldview. You can’t just reach in and pull them out; the bubble is not so conveniently literal. You need to meet them where they are, and lead them out incrementally. That’s part of why this work will take so long, and be so unpleasant; you are going to need to learn what they believe and why they believe it.
You’ll also need to cross-check the “knowledge” you gain from these media outlets against real reality, and figure out what they left out, exaggerated, distorted, or made up. That’s both to keep your own head right and to provide you with talking points when Trump supporters cite their sources.
Learn to identify legitimate news sources, and pass that knowledge on. In the age of both actual fake news as well as “FAKE NEWS!,” you’re going to have to both discredit illegitimate sources and defend your own real news sources.
For real news, look for reporting that cites named sources; trust outlets whose news reporting sticks to facts and whose analysis and opinion pieces are clearly marked (as opposed to conflating all three together); know trustworthy names well-known (NYT, WaPo) and less-well-known (ProPublica, Teen Vogue) and who’s behind legit newcomers (The Intercept, Axios).
For possible fake news, beware of sites you’ve never heard of (could be just making stuff up); reporting with an obvious ideological slant (e.g., anti-immigration) or dubious interpretations of facts; reporting that doesn’t cite anyone; articles that digest an article on a different site that digests an article another site that that digests an article on another site (possibly coming back around to a different article on the first site!).
Tell them about Snopes. Consider leading with a couple of favorable Snopes articles that debunked hoaxes about conservative politicians, so they know it’s not partisan/not part of the “Lying Liberal Media.” If they’re amenable, you may also want to suggest Media Matters, though that is specifically a watchdog on conservative media—but that makes it a good response to “where can I find examples of [insert conservative media outlets] spreading disinfo?”
Learn to spot ads—including “sponsored recommendations” (ads disguised as links to similar/related articles) and “guest content” (ads disguised as columns or other feature content). Install an ad blocker, and get your family to install ad blockers as well. In this age in which deep-pocketed actors, including Russia, are using ads to influence politics, you need defenses. If possible, consider buying paid subscriptions to your legit news sources to make up for the ad revenue you won’t be giving them.
Also, on social media, beware of who retweets/shares content from whom. Is the original source the author/publisher, or is it a topic account that’s “aggregating” content from who-knows-what sources? Is the original source a trustworthy party? How did it get into your feed to begin with—was it an ad, was it retweeted/shared by an anonymous topic account, or did it come from a person or legit outlet that you follow?
If facts won’t work, argue from principles. Ideally, you could point to the facts and they would settle the matter, but when they have Alternative Facts to base their own positions on, that won’t work. It’ll be your facts from CNN vs. their facts from Fox News, your facts from Newsweek vs. their facts from Breitbart—a stalemate. If you anticipate this happening, consider arguing from principles instead. Use the Constitution, religion (e.g., the Bible) if you have that in common, and your own personal principles.
There's right-wing, and then there's right-wing
Separate conservatism from Trumpism. This goes both philosophically and rhetorically. The Tea Party, Russia, and Trump perverted the Republican Party, exploiting the vulnerabilities that the party had created for themselves. The Republican Party cultivated a xenophobic, jingoistic, cisgender-supremacist, heterosexual-supremacist, white-supremacist mindset that they could use to build and reinforce a Republican identity; Trump (and his backers) came in and played to that very mindset.
But there is a good conservatism that is a reasonable and valid political position. Many of us may disagree with some or all of it, but it’s nonetheless distinct from the Trump agenda that Indivisible chapters all over the country have come together to resist. Consider the conservative voices like Bill Kristol, Evan McMullin, and even Glenn Beck and Ron Paul who’ve been speaking out against Trump; some (like Paul) out of principle, and some (like Beck) out of recognizing what they have wrought.
Conservatives (and especially libertarians) believe that government should be limited in scope; that people’s freedom, rather than government control, should be the default; that government should be transparent; that cronyism is bad; that government spending should be scrutinized; that taxation should be tightly controlled; that government should spend less than it brings in in taxes (in business terms, turn a profit). Again, you can disagree with any or all of these, but they’re valid positions to have. Find the ones your friends and family hold, and use these positions as footholds to pull apart the evil barnacles that have crusted on top.
You don’t have to turn your friends and relatives into flag-waving leftists; the immediate priority is to turn them against Trump.
Know the signs of white supremacism. From the “14 words” to Pepe the Frog, and white-nationalist slogans old and new, be on the lookout for signs that any of your friends or family members have gone beyond being Trump-supporting conservatives and have gone over into full white supremacism. It’s not always clear-cut; there are white-supremacist overtones in much of the rhetoric from conservative media (and even some Republican politicians, not least the man in the White House) nowadays, plus much of what you see in pro-Trump social media (i.e., those racist memes they’re laughing at). So it may take some patience and cautious probing.
If a friend or family member is a white supremacist, this frees you up from talking politics—it won’t work—but also means you have a much harder decision to make: Look away and be silent, and thus remain not a target of them and their buddies; work with other family members and/or mutual friends to intervene; or tell them you’re dropping them from your life because of the ideologies they’re espousing. (It’s OK to mix and match: You don’t need to drop them from your life immediately; you can take time to think, and/or to try an intervention first.)
Also, simply ghosting on them is always an option. Yes, even if they’re family. If someone is a white supremacist, you owe them nothing, and—especially if you are at risk—you must take care of yourself first.
Debating white supremacists is a non-starter; you’d need to first convince them that people of color/Jewish people/trans people/etc. are people in equal terms with cisgender heterosexual white people. That’s a tall order even in the long term, and they’ll be happy to have the debate for the possibility that they could convince you even a little bit.
Getting a white supremacist friend or family member to turn away from hate is extremely difficult, long-running, intensive work, and a completely different task from political arguments. As such, it’s beyond the scope of this article. We wish you the best of luck, and safety in however it goes.
Learn dog-whistles. Dog-whistles are terms that have a literal meaning that we outside the Alternative Facts bubble hear, while Trump supporters hear a very different meaning, often a racist/white-supremacist one. For example, when they talk about “Indivisible” being funded by “George Soros,” some of them really believe that (having heard it a million times from a million of their peers, so it’s absorbed truthiness), while others are really saying—or hearing—that “Indivisible” is a Jewish plot. When they talk about “law and order,” they (some of them) mean cracking down on Black people.
Learn to recognize when someone says a dog-whistle, and take that opportunity to ask them to clarify/expand upon what they really mean. If they struggle to articulate it “because this is going to make me sound racist,” you’re getting close. Or, they may not know the history/actual meaning of the term; fill them in, and be sure to have reputable sources (such as the Southern Poverty Law Center: https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2015/racist-skinhead-glossary) to cite.
Use #NotAllMen as a lever. “Not all men” is an all-too-common retort feminists hear whenever they describe or discuss patterns of harmful behavior they’ve observed from (mainly) men. If not given in so many words, it may take the form of men replying “I’m glad I don’t do that” or “who does that???”—it can be subtle and it can be unintentional, but nonetheless, the message delivered is “I’m not one of the bad ones you’re talking about; aren’t I great?.”
But if you turn it around, it’s a powerful rhetorical tool. Not all men, but so many of them—if you’re not one of them, what are you doing about it? And it’s not restricted to bad behavior by men; it’s something you can use any time someone would say “but I’m not one of the bad ones.”
Find the things that your Trump-supporting family and friends don’t agree with Trump about. Maybe they’re pro-immigration, or pro-reproductive-freedom, or amenable to a universal basic income, or like having health insurance, or any of a million other things. Acknowledge, explicitly, to them, that not all Trump supporters. When you acknowledge the good in them, that lets them know that you’re not an enemy, and it opens the door to a productive conversation about the things where you do disagree.
At the same time, remember—and, perhaps, remind them—that they hitched their wagon to the Trump Train despite those issues. When they support Trump, they’re materially supporting these policies that they disagree with. Ask them what they’re doing to oppose those policies instead. (They could, for example, call their Members of Congress!) And continue working to convince them on everything else.
Separate identity from action. Your friend or family member may feel frustrated by being called a racist, a sexist, a transphobe, etc. for the policies and behaviors of the President they support. “You’re a racist,” “You’re a misogynist,” or whatever, is a statement of identity, and one that most people (aside from white supremacists/“men’s-rights activists”/etc.) will immediately deny, because that’s not what they consider their identity.
You might be tempted to say “well, you are a racist/sexist/whatever,” and maybe you’re even right. But a statement can be simultaneously true and unhelpful. It’ll come off as name-calling; it’ll achieve nothing. If the goal is not to simply call them something (even to call them what they are), but to get them to change, a different approach is needed.
Instead, be very clear that you’re condemning actions and policies and even opinions, not condemning the person you’re talking to. As Christians put it, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Say “that policy disproportionately affects people of color” or “these bills oppress transgender people and don’t help anyone.” You can even explicitly say you don’t consider the person a racist or a sexist or whatever, but the policy they’re supporting or advocating for is a racist/sexist/whatever policy.
When they assert they’re not a racist/sexist/transphobe/Islamophobe, etc., believe them—and ask what they’re doing to put that into action. “Good! Yes, all lives do matter—including Black lives, right? … So, they’re out there protesting; what are you doing?”
Argue from conservative principles in addition to your own. For example: One of our principles is that everyone has an equal right to access bathrooms. You absolutely should fight for this principle if you think your audience will accept it.
But many conservatives won’t buy an equal-rights argument, at least on its own; you’ll need to argue from a conservative principle, such as that government shouldn’t be involved in restricting who can access which bathrooms.
They’re not mutually exclusive. You can try arguing the civil-rights principle and backing it up with the conservative principle. “Everyone has an equal right to use the bathroom; the government shouldn’t interfere with that.”
If needed (this will be a judgment call on your part), you could even go straight for the conservative principle, skipping your own. Please use this tactic judiciously; if there’s a chance they would accept the principle that everyone has a right to use the bathroom in peace, that’s a much more significant improvement in their politics. But if all you can do is get them to stop supporting or advocating for harmful policies, that’s still something.
If it helps your decision-making: Think about what change you can get from the person you’re talking to. Can you get them to take up a positive action, like advocating for reproductive freedom or bail reform, or are you limited to harm reduction, like not advocating for bathroom bills or spreading racist memes? This will depend on the person and your relationship to them.
Ideally we’d get all of the above, but in practice, there’s often a point past which they’ll stop listening to you. Make whatever change you can, and we wish you the best in making these decisions.
Know where conservative arguments are coming from. Continuing the same example, we know that the claims being used to justify bathroom bills are bogus, meant only to sow FUD against transgender people (especially trans women), because they’re promulgated by the “Family Research Council” for the purpose of oppressing LGBTQ+ people.
When you know where these arguments are coming from, you can work to undermine them. What does the “Family Research Council” actually do? If the answer is “protect the family,” what families? Protect them from what? Do they protect LGBTQ+ families from those who would rip them apart and oppress them and deny them equal rights? Do they protect gay people’s rights to visit their partners in the hospital and inherit their estates? Do they protect immigrant and DREAMer families from being ripped apart by ICE? If not, what are they actually doing?
Many of these arguments get justified on ostensibly Christian grounds. A libertarian (not to mention Constitutional) argument against this is that it violates the First Amendment; a country that forbids establishing a state religion cannot be a Christian theocracy. If you bind everyone in the country to Christianity-derived laws, then the country is a Christian theocracy in effect.
In addition, there are Christian arguments against conservative positions. There are Christian arguments in favor of LGBTQ+ equality, reproductive freedom, and—most obviously—socialism, along with everything else. What would Jesus do? Seek these arguments out and consider using them if the political discussion turns religious.
Use class arguments. The appeal of Trump and the Republicans in Congress is that Republican voters believe they’re going to “drain the swamp” of 1%ers controlling government, and bring power and prosperity back to the people.
It’s all a scam, of course. Trump has done the exact opposite in his cabinet, and the Republicans in their actions; their tax cut scam exemplifies that their goal is nothing short of robbing the poor and the middle-class to further enrich the already-rich.
Fortunately for you, we have an entire year of examples to draw on. Question the qualifications of Trump’s buddies who are now his Cabinet Secretaries; question how sabotaging the healthcare market and raising taxes on the poor is meant to help anyone outside the 1%.
Not to mention history, of course. These policies are, as always, advanced on the theory of trickle-down economics: That the gains at the top will “trickle down” to the rest of us. This has been their premise for four decades now; we know by now that no such thing happens. What we need to do is invest in our infrastructure, in our society, in our people—and yes, this investment should come from government.
Learning from the past
Study history. Learn the history of the Civil War (and the mass-produced monuments that followed); redlining; the Civil Rights Movement; the gay rights movement; the Stonewall Riots; ACT UP; the early AIDS (initially called “GRID”) crisis and the Reagan administration’s reaction to it; Reagan’s policies in general (hint: he was not as much of a far-right/laissez-faire extremist as Fox News gives him credit for); universal income and basic income; GamerGate and the Tea Party and their connections to the so-called “alt-right”; the US’s response to Jewish refugees from the Holocaust; US government overthrows in places like Iran, Panama, and Hawaii; the Red Scares and McCarthyist scapegoating and fearmongering; the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; disabled activism that produced the Americans with Disabilities Act and helped defeat TrumpCare—all of the things that got us where we are today, for better and for worse.
Study the Holocaust. This isn’t hyperbole. There’s a saying: The Holocaust didn’t start with deeds; it started with words. The scapegoating of LGBT folks, Jewish and Muslim people, immigrants and non-white folks of all stripes—all of it laid the groundwork for the horrible deeds that followed. Sound familiar?
Read the history of events such as the Nazi burning of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for the Science of Sexuality) and its research into LGBTQ+ people. Read about Nazi propaganda against Jewish people and other groups. Read about Nazi efforts to catalog and publish allegations (not even convictions!) of immigrants committing crimes. Recognize how much of what happened then is happening today.
As folks have said since last year, if you’ve ever wondered what you would have done during the Holocaust: You’re doing it.
Continuing the work
Ask them to talk politics with you year-round. Popping into their lives two or three times a year ain’t gonna cut it—not as long as they’re in the Alternative Facts bubble the rest of the year. If you’re both on Facebook, consider re-friending them and being an anti-Trump voice in their relevant posts’ comments sections. Or, try setting up a regular date and time to have a phone call to talk politics—or a standing invitation to call you up any time they want an anti-Trump opinion on whatever Fox News is saying at that moment.
Other good reading
The above are rhetorical/strategic suggestions; for something a little more tactical, Civicist had a good article in 2016: https://civichall.org/civicist/talking-to-relatives-who-voted-trump-a-thanksgiving-field-guide/
“Building a House: Using Rhetorical Strategies to Persuade” by Bailey Poland: https://www.baileythebookworm.com/single-post/2016/11/15/Building-a-House-Using-Rhetorical-Strategies-to-Persuade
Two-page abridged version of Bailey Poland’s article by Hawnuh Lee: https://twitter.com/the_author_/status/826411539271913472
“So You Want to Fight White Supremacy” by Ijeoma Oluo: https://theestablishment.co/so-you-want-to-fight-white-supremacy-2b5735f22f9
“Uprooting Racism” by Paul Kivel: https://smile.amazon.com/Uprooting-Racism/dp/B0722DNVYT
“Confronting Political Intimidation and Public Bullying” by Indivisible SF member Roddey Reid: https://smile.amazon.com/dp/B075G3BJLS (covers the history of US politics, especially from the right wing, over the past several decades)
“Beyond the Headlines” by the European Association for Viewers Interests: https://eavi.eu/beyond-headlines-online-news-verification-game/
“Beyond Fake News” by the European Association for Viewers Interests: https://eavi.eu/beyond-fake-news-10-types-misleading-info/