We want to start by thanking the four self-identified conservatives (3 of whom voted for Trump) who helped Stephanie and Nathan write this post.
One conversation I had a few months ago with a dear Republican friend of mine keeps coming back to me this week. When I asked him who the Trump supporters were he said, “Nathan, you will never know. Because they will take one look at your college educated hipster ass and decide that you will judge them for supporting him.”
And this proved to be very true. Not one person in my life—even those I have a strong feeling voted for Trump—not one person leading up the election admitted to me they voted for Trump.
And that’s on me.
Because many of us progressives have not been great listeners.
Many white progressives, especially those of us who grew up in conservative towns and churches, slowly distanced ourselves from our conservative childhood friends and family members.
Some of us have unfollowed them on social media.
Some of us tried one too many times to call our uncles out on some racist or homophobic comment and on the drive home were told by our moms in no uncertain terms to, “Just let it go.”
To be fair, it’s hard to live and work in our “rainbow coalition.” Not that we are perfect, but we are getting better at building real cross-cultural friendships and working alongside our LGBT and co-workers of color.
And it feels jarring to go from a place where inclusive language and celebrating diversity is a core value to listening to our rural cousin talk about “the Mexicans.”
It’s uncomfortable and often times humiliating to go from proudly marching with Black Lives Matter Signs to sitting across the dinner table as your aunt rails on the “rioters.”
I’m not proud of this, but more than once I have found myself in the middle of a discussion standing up for the protesters while omitting from my argument that I was at the protest. And I know that I am not the only to have had this experience.
But now that Trump won, many of us are feeling the need to re-engage with some of the people we have unfollowed, because we are, and must be, the bridge builders between two worlds. We have heard our co-workers talk about their fears, and we have watched our aunt share memes about Obama’s birth certificate.
And those two groups don’t seem to talk directly to each other very much.
So it is on us, any of us who feel caught in the middle (not just ideologically but circumstantially), to help be a bridge to bind up the deep wounds of mistrust in our country.
If you have made a promise to yourself (or are willing to make one!) that you are going to reach out to your Trump voting loved ones – here are a few lessons we have learned that might help you navigate the upcoming conversations.
Labeling People Doesn’t Work aka DON’T JUDGE
There is a liberal lexicon that we are continually refining and re-defining: White Privilege, Racism, the new White Supremacy, Ally-culture… These are very important conversations that we need to keep having.
But we probably need to leave our liberal lexicon out of our conversations with Trump voters.
If telling people they were a racist for voting for Trump changed people’s minds than they would have changed already.
Because that was communicated that loud and clear.
And turnabout is fair play – we can’t paint all voters with the same brush, we can’t make assumptions about what made them cast their vote the way they did.
The truth of the matter, however strongly you feel about your choice, is that pretty much ALL voters ignore certain aspects of their candidate and focus on others (for example: Obama’s drone strikes and an uptick in deportations).
You might think that Trump’s faults are inexcusable, but for the purpose of these bridge-building conversations, leave space for the possibility that this person wasn’t enthusiastic about the negative comments. (More on this below!)
Secondly, if you turn on any talk radio station you will quickly realize that these phrases have been given very different definitions in conservative circles.
We learned this the hard way. We would use phrases the way our progressive friends use them, only to find that conservative talk radio had a very different definition. So I, Nate, have started to listen to conservative talk radio and NPR each morning. It’s a bit jarring sometimes but it helps give context for the ways in which conversations are happening on both sides.
So when someone says a racist or xenophobic joke, don’t call them out as a racist or a xenophobe.
Tell them a story from your life – and not just something you pulled off your newsfeed.
Now a clarifying point here for people who tend to use the word “I feel” when telling a story. Several conservative men we talked to have said that saying the word “feel” doesn’t land well on them. They suggested using the term “I believe” coupled with a story about why you believe this.
“When you joke about Muslims being terrorists I think of my Somali Muslim friend Deeqa who I worked with at the local High School . One day she came to my school work really upset after a car of white men drove past her and shouted ‘Terrorist’ at her. That’s why I believe the negative messages about Somali Muslims are really harmful.”
“When I hear you say the N-word… I was on a biking trip with a few black teenagers and someone shouted the N-word at them in a small town. We had to have a long conversation about whether or not we could finish the bike trip because the kids felt so scared. I believe experiences like this one is part of the background of the fear many Black people are experiencing about rural America right now.”
And we know that this seems like Conversation 101, but let’s be honest—a lot of us threw out the textbook for Conversation 101 somewhere in 2016.
Don’t Bother to Critique Trump
Most conservatives (even those who voted for Trump) won’t defend his comments. I heard a Republican friend say, “there were a lot of lean votes this year.”
“What’s a lean vote?” I asked.
He leans close to me and whispers, “Nathan, I’m voting for Trump.”
They know talking about grabbing pussy and calling Mexican’s rapists is sexual harassment and racist.
But they may have grown up in a family or a school that permitted this type of language.
This is a generational difference. A lot of Millennials went to a school where we would get in trouble for openly making fun of a disabled person, joking about grabbing a female, or labeling a race of people as “murders and rapists.” Millennials were taught to tell a teacher if we saw bullying.
And in some ways that was what we tried to do when we saw Donald Trump. We tried to tell the media and Hillary Clinton – who was acting a lot like a teacher trying to control Donald.
But this is not the case for some Millennials, and most Gen-X and Baby Boomers.
They grew up in schools or families where racist and bullying language was not necessarily encouraged but probably was seen as “not that big of a deal,” or explained away as “locker room talk, a joke, or “not what he really thinks.”
So don’t bother arguing about what Trump really thinks. Instead focus on how you and people you love are reacting to Trump’s campaign.
“My brother said the Latino kids in his class are really upset. When Trump said he was going to deport 2 million illegal immigrants they started asking him if Trump was going to send their parents away.”
Keep the focus on the personal level. Because right or wrong, that is your experience.
Listen to Their Stories
If you can avoid labeling them and getting into a game of who can diagnose Trump, you may just get to hear what pushed them to vote for Trump.
Now, don’t use this conversation to try and “win” the discussion.
Make a real effort to listen and learn something. Concede their fair points and validate their stories – you can do this without agreeing with them.
Pema Chödrön, the great Buddhist teacher, wrote, “If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.” We need to be doing the work of opening our hearts and inviting in new teachers. Listen to learn, not agree or condone.
“I hear your point” is a very different statement than “I agree with your point.”
So much of politics, and this election in particular, fed off of fear and hurt, and this election is nothing if not a demand to be heard. Listen for the real pain, the real insecurity WITHOUT JUDGMENT.
Ask them how they think Trump will affect their lives? What they hope for the country for the next 4 years? What do they think about the people he is choosing for his leadership team?
And then just listen.
Don’t dismiss their comments by pointing out their privileged perspective.
Don’t jump in and dispute the statistics they pulled off a meme or conservative think piece. If/when your conversation partner returns to a rote agenda or pre-fab words, try to get underneath them.
Rather than dispute facts, ask about their connection to that number. Is their health care cost rising? Has there been gun violence in their neighborhood? Have they had trouble getting a job? Listen to the concerns behind the factoids, rather than trying to debate what is ‘true.’
If Bill O’Reilly can’t correct Trump or his followers— and let’s be clear, this image was shared like a million times— …it’s probably not a winning strategy.
So avoid getting into the numbers.
Because listening is going to open the way to discussion.
Avoid Sound Bites and Talking Points
And if your conversation feels productive enough to risk a venture into policy and politics – try to avoid news sound bites and political talking points. Sometimes it helps to say this explicitly. Make it a sort of rule for the discussions. “I like talking about policy but I would prefer to avoid talking points and sound bites. I prefer when we talk about concrete ideas and ask open ended questions instead of trying to trap each other.”
Progressives – this means we need to try and avoid phrases like “the have’s and have not’s”, “in bed with Wall Street”, “watch Whiteness work”, “live-able wage”, “I hate when people say All Lives Matter”… These are important concepts but try to explain them without the catch phrase and whenever possible, tell them a story from your life (not your newsfeed) that exemplifies your point.
Because these phrases have been weaponized across the spectrum of political dialogue.
And we have to turn our weapons into plowshares if we are going to grow these relationships and move forward.
Try to Find Points of Connection, Maintain the Relationship
There must be something you agree on!
It doesn’t concede your progressive agenda to agree that the email situation was bungled, that you too are worried about healthcare costs, that you don’t want police to be victims of violence any more than you want black people to be victims of violence.
There IS common ground, and we have to be the people who start to build bridges from one side to the other. Being open to critics is what keeps us a movement and a democracy. It’s when we completely ignore differing viewpoints that we flirt with fascism.
So even if/when the political discussion hits a stalemate and you can’t be peaceful and open any longer, talk about anything else. The weather, your favorite football team, their kids, their holiday plans, your favorite new song, a book they just read… You would hardly know this from the news, but there are in fact plenty of other things to talk about besides politics. If you really want to bond, find something you BOTH disagree on. (The “Common Enemy Theory” is a classic strategy for relationship building.) Trash a crappy movie together, complain about grandma’s dry stuffing. I mean, don’t hurt anyone’s feelings, but don’t feel like your differences have to mean distance.
It is on us to keep our hearts and ears open, to keep learning, and to build bridges. It is the only way forward. We need to be better about including, listening, and understanding if we are ever going to be stronger together.