Helping People Disown a President

In years of Obama's presidency, and in the first 2 weeks of Trump's, people have asked me how to convince others to disown their favored president. With Trump already underwater in favorability ratings, and hitting a record in reaching a majority disapproving of his work as President, he's got a lot of Americans looking for ways to hobble him by reducing his popularity further. Such a popularity reduction would create an incentive for the GOP-led Congress to work against him.

Reducing popularity means turning supporters against a president. But many people looking to gain those converts are taking altogether the wrong approach. They're relying on the same wedge-style messaging that they find very emotionally compelling, and repeating those on social media in the hopes that this messaging will resonate with others. It won't. Nor will general screaming and name-calling--for those looking for an alternative to this latter tactic, I recommend Dale Carnegie

For those looking for messaging that's more likely to convert people away from supporting a candidate, I provide the following advice. We'll use Trump as the case study here as he's in office right now. The main takeaway here is that the art of persuasion has nothing to do with how right you are, or how noble your cause: it has all to do with appealing to others. Objections such as, "but evil!" are not helpful in your ultimate task. This also isn't about equivalence, about right or wrong, about validating anyone's point of view. As a reader said, "this isn't about being right, it's about winning."

Don't: Draw Hitler Mustaches

Evil seems to be the name of the game. When Obama was in office, some his opposition called him a Communist, drew Hitler mustaches on him, said he wanted to declare martial law, was the antichrist, a racist, and all sorts of other stuff. Obama supporters rolled their eyes. It didn't work.

The same is going to go for any other president, including Trump. Drawing Hitler mustaches is seriously not going to work--I don't care how many parallels you draw to Nazism. The Nazi meme has lost its power through over-usage (Hillary Clinton got it, George Bush got it, even pre-Internet presidents like Reagan got it). It's a boy-who-cried-wolf problem. Until someone actually rolls in and says, "I am a Nazi and I want to put millions into concentration camps and mass-murder them," your comparisons to Hitler will fall on deaf ears... even if the wolf is right at the door. So put that one aside. Nobody's going to listen to it, regardless of how you back it up.

Don't: Tell People their Purported Values are Evil

But beyond Nazi comparisons, a lot of common appeals repeat the same values-based messaging that resonated with them. Typically, it's framed in such ways that are very black and white, and more or less paint a candidate's positions or their supporters as evil. 

This works for people who are already of a certain persuasion in how they frame and message their values, but the wedging of the past 20 years that has made certain messaging so effective on one side, has made it particularly ineffective on the other. Each tribe frames values their own way, and using your tribe's valuation language will backfire on the other tribe.

Here are some examples:

1) Trump is a racist/misogynist/xenophobe/Islamophobe/etc. Why won't this help convince people to abandon him? You'll cite all sorts of stuff he said during the campaign, and say, "see?" But most Trump supporters also saw the same campaign you did, and decided either to interpret him with different conclusions, or that it wasn't important enough for them to vote for Clinton. You haven't given them anything new to work with: all you've done is lump yourself in with other detractors they haven't listened to in the past. 

You also set yourself up for the, "but X did it and it was fine" argument. So with respect to the accusations of Trump sexually assaulting women, a Trump supporter could bring up that Bill Clinton has accusations of sexual assault and rape, "and it was fine when he did it." Don't set yourself up for this kind of argument, as it's going to hurt your ability to be persuasive.

2) The immigration ban is Islamophobic / a Muslim ban. Similar to the above, assume a Trump supporter is just as informed as you are. They have decided it's not Islamophobic, so telling them it is Islamophobic is going to get you into an argument over the meaning of Islamophobia. Calling it a "Muslim Ban" will hurt your case as well: someone may counter, "9 of the top 10 countries with the largest Muslim populations aren't on the list--it's clearly not a Muslim ban." You've then lost credibility. 

3) The Mexico Wall is bad for human rights. Again, similarly: someone may counter, "why is it a human right for someone to enter the United States without a visa?" You're going to have a hard time convincing a Trump supporter that someone has a human right to enter the United States without a visa, so don't get into that argument.

4) Donald Trump wanting to deport undocumented migrants is xenophobic/racist. You'll quickly get back that Obama deported more undocumented Mexican migrants than any previous president. "Why weren't you mad then?" they'll ask. 

All of these arguments amount to putting a value judgment on a person or their policies, and set you up for long arguments about the meanings of those values, or set you up to get a fact tossed back at you that you can't counter. These will grind your case to a halt and turn off your interlocutor. Generally avoid them. Even if you avoid the argument or the fact, most of these examples are so well-known already that most people have already made up their minds about the good/evil involved: you won't convince someone to agree with your valuation statement that doesn't already agree with it.

(Another good illustrative example of this:

  • "Abortion kills a baby with a heartbeat."
  • "Abortion restrictions are waging war on a woman's right to decide what she does with her body."

Just consider how many pro-life or pro-choice activists have been persuaded by these.)

Do: Focus on Agreement and Effectiveness

As surprising as it may be, Americans agree on a lot of stuff. We want a good education system for our kids, we want everyone to have the opportunity to work and be financially stable, we want to be safe and to feel safe. We express these values in different ways.

To convince someone to give up their president, you need to convince them that the president is not delivering on the values that they hold, in the same language with which they express those values.

Generally, nobody likes somebody that's doing a bad job. People can make all sorts of logical twists to decide what the guy on their team is doing is good/right, but anecdotes of disaster are hard to cover... even when it's not the president's fault. (For example: presidents are popular when the stock market does well.

A more effective tactic to getting someone to abandon their president, therefore, is to convince them that what they care about is going poorly. Let's look back at some of the examples above:

1) The Immigration Ban. It's meant to keep us safe from terrorists. But the number of Americans killed in terror attacks on US soil from inhabitants of these countries since 1975 is 0. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey--which didn't make the list--have a whole bunch. So what's going on?

Students and maybe green card holders are getting hit by the ban. There are hundreds of anecdotes here: an MIT student can't go back to school. A director can't go to the academy awards. Families are split, scientists are stuck out of the country. Some airports were in chaos trying to deal with the order that was vague and short on direction.

In short, there's a lot of pain, and little evidence it's going to keep anyone safe. This is an argument about effectiveness. People that support the ban are afraid, and had confidence Trump was going to be able to pull it off. The way the ban has worked out in the first few days is pudding-proof, rather than conjecture about right and wrong. Talking about it in these terms is far more effective.

2) The Wall. Trump promised to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. If someone supports the construction of the wall, it's going to be tough to turn them off from it. If we're talking effectiveness of the policy, then someone may cite studies that show low-skilled immigration pushes down wages for low-income workers, and then accuse you of not caring about the poor. Don't fall into that trap.

To fulfill his promise of "Mexico" paying for the wall, Trump has proposed a 20% tariff on Mexican imports. But far from that putting the burden on Mexico, it puts the burden on the American consumer. And it does so in a deeper way than if it was just paid by taxes, because the top 20% pay 84% of income tax--so a tariff shifts the burden further to the very poor people that the wall is trying to protect. 

This is an argument about effectiveness. Instead of saying "the wall is bad," ask people why they support the wall, and you might be able to make the case that the wall is hurting the very thing they want.

There are plenty of other examples and opportunities to make the case on effectiveness. There were opportunities to make the case about effectiveness for past presidents, as well. Grandiose statements about good and evil are going to cause people to harden their shell, dig in, and burrow deeper into their tribe. Arguments about effectiveness--especially if the outcome is particularly bad--will plant the seeds of doubt in people's minds.

Whether they grow or not in an individual person is a different story. As we know in sales, it takes time, and some people won't buy even the best product. But sales is a numbers game, as is politics. If you want to convince someone to abandon their support of a president, plant the seeds of doubt in their mind that will appeal to their values, and let them grow.

 

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Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.