How to Talk to a Trump Voter

Following the election of Donald Trump, an awful lot of people became obsessed with a slice of the electorate that voted for him—white working class Americans. Frank Rich wrote a good summary of that phenomenon almost a year ago.

While many, if not most, of those in #TheResistance of the Democratic base remain furious at these voters, the party’s political class and the liberal media Establishment are making a concerted effort to convert that rage into empathy. “Democrats Hold Lessons on How to Talk to Real People” was the headline of a Politico account of the postelection retreat of the party’s senators, who had convened in the pointedly un-Brooklyn redoubt of Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Democrats must heed the rural white enclaves, repeatedly instructs the former Pennsylvania governor and MSNBC regular Ed Rendell. Nicholas Kristof has pleaded with his readers to understand that “Trump voters are not the enemy,” a theme shared by the anti-Trump conservative David Brooks. “We’re Driving to the Inauguration With a Trump Supporter” was the “Kumbaya”-tinged teaser on the Times’ mobile app for a roundup of on-the-ground chronicles of these exotic folk invading Washington. Even before Trump’s victory, commentators were poring through fortuitously timed books like Nancy Isenberg’s sociocultural history White Trash and J. D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, seeking to comprehend and perhaps find common ground with the Trumpentariat. As measured by book sales and his appeal to much the same NPR-ish audience, Vance has become his people’s explainer-in-chief, the Ta-Nehisi Coates, if you will, of White Lives Matter.

It is possible that for many of the people Rich named, there was an ignorance about the world view of white working class Americans. But as someone who mostly grew up in a small town in eastern Texas that is now represented by none other than the infamous Louie Gohmert, it all sounded pretty familiar to me.

The big message was that “liberal elites” need to develop a sense of empathy for Trump voters. With my background in both therapy and politics, that was a message that resonated. Along with Barack Obama, I’ve long thought that this country suffers from an empathy deficit.

But there is often something missing from a focus on empathy. It must be accompanied by a call to personal responsibility. I learned that lesson the hard way during my first job as a counselor for young people who were chemically dependent. Being empathetic with their plight wasn’t enough. They needed to take ownership of their own lives and road to recovery, otherwise my empathy was nothing more than co-dependence.

The question about how to talk to a Trump voter is relevant for most of us. It is rare to find a person who doesn’t come in contact with them as family members, co-workers and friends. That’s why I found Briahna Joy Gray’s recent article pretty fascinating. She explores whether shame is an effective tactic.

There are some errors in Gray’s piece (i.e., Trump has not withdrawn from the Iran deal…yet) and some things I disagree with (i.e., I think that Trump’s emotional unfitness for office is what sets him apart rather than his shamelessness). But her major contribution is to rely on social science to distinguish between shame and guilt. The distinction might not be the way the two words are used colloquially, so stick with her beyond your reaction to the semantics.

According to a 2007 study by June Price Tangney, Jeff Stuewig, and Debra J. Mashek, shame, guilt, embarrassment, and pride each function as emotional moral barometers that help individuals to assess and correct behavior…While the person experiencing guilt thinks “what a terrible thing I did,” and then considers the effect their actions have had on others, the person experiencing shame thinks “what a horrible person I am,” and searches for a way to preserve their self-esteem.

For Gray, this makes shame ineffective as a political tool.

If shaming feels cathartic, but is counterproductive to the goal of changing hearts and minds—which is, after all, indispensable for political success—perhaps we should shift from shame to guilt.  If we narrow the focus from castigating the deplorable person to rebuking the deplorable belief, might we expand our appeal?

On the specific issue of racism, that distinction lines up perfectly with what Jay Smooth said years ago on avoiding a conversation about someone being a racist and, instead, pointing out that what they said/did was racist.

I would suggest that holds true across the board. For example, sending shame-based messages that Trump voters are bad people is never going to be an effective strategy, no matter what your goals are. That is the part of Gray’s advice that I totally agree with.

But I’m not sure that Gray has effectively identified the difference between a shame-based and a guilt-based message. In pointing to examples of shame-based messages to Trump supporters, she quotes this tweet from our own David Atkins:

That is clearly a “what you did” message, and not a “who you are” message.

The other thing that Gray misses is that shame has a lot less to do with how a message is sent than it does in how a message is received. In a subsequent video, Jay Smooth says that the “what you said/did was racist” message leads to a constructive conversation only about 10 percent of the time. For the other 90 percent, it is met with: “how DARE you call me a racist!”

As the research Gray links to documents, that is because people develop patterns of being either shame or guilt prone.

In the realm of moral emotions, researchers are also interested in dispositional tendencies to experience these self-conscious emotions (e.g., shame-proneness, guilt-proneness). An emotion disposition is defined as the propensity to experience that emotion across a range of situations (Tangney 1990). From this perspective, shame-prone individuals would be more susceptible to both anticipatory and consequential experiences of shame, relative to their less shame-prone peers. That is, a shame-prone person would be inclined to anticipate shame in response to a range of potential behaviors and outcomes. In turn, such an individual also would be inclined to experience shame as a consequence of actual failures and transgressions.

The truth is that a shame message suggesting that “you are a bad person” is pretty much guaranteed to elicit defensiveness. But a guilt message that “you did a bad thing” will also illicit defensiveness in a shame-prone person. As someone attempting to hold a reasonable conversation with a Trump voter, that is not something you have any control over—which is a hard thing for many liberals to admit.

So far I’ve basically said that empathy minus a call to personal accountability is problematic and that, while shame-based messages are ineffective, we don’t have control over whether or not someone hears them as shame-based. I haven’t addressed anything that might be productive.

To get to that, we first have to assess whether or not the Trump voter’s identity is tied up in their support for the president. For people who feel their identity threatened (which significantly overlaps with those who are shame-prone), any disagreement is going to be heard as a “you are a bad person” message. I rarely see situations as hopeless, but with those voters, it’s probably not worth the effort. No amount of empathy will suffice and, beyond joining them in their politics of resentment, no policy proposal is going to win them over.

That sort of narrows down the field. I’m sure there are people out there who voted for Trump because they thought he promoted policies they agreed with. Most of them have probably started to question whether or not they made a good choice. Having a robust policy discussion about Trump’s failures compared to Democratic alternatives could be very fruitful in those situations.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.