It can be hard to talk to a Republican in the age of Trump. To top it off, having an angry, partisan argument runs the risk of making the other person (and you) double down on your positions and become less willing to listen in the future.
Here’s how you talk about a divisive presidency in a way that is productive and honest.
Ask Explanatory Questions
First and foremost, you’re not talking to Sean Spicer, this person isn’t responsible for everything Trump has done, even if it seems like that’s what they support. You have to approach the conversation without the assumption that this person is the sum of, or in support of, every Republican talking point you can remember.
Let’s talk about what explanatory questions are. You’re not just trying to know the label they give themselves on an issue (Pro-Life, Pro-Immigration, etc), you should ask questions to understand their thinking process on an important issue.
The questions need to be specific. They should focus on a clear area of policy, and also the meaning or details behind the policy. Asking, “what do you think of the border wall?” is going to get you a vague answer. “Do you think $20 billion dollars is a good amount for Americans to pay for the border wall?” is better because it’s more targeted.
Other bad questions involve rhetoric or play the hypocrisy game (which we’ll cover in a bit).
Bad Question – “What does Make America Great Again mean? When was it great?”
Good Question – “Given all the allegations, some are probably false, some maybe true. I think that Congress should investigate Russia just to be safe, what do you think?”
What might happen when you ask these narrow questions is that the other person will bring up adjacent points that are related but don’t really answer the question. For example, you might expect a question about Trump’s ties to Russia to be answered with a complaint about the news coverage instead of them giving their beliefs.
When this happens, remember that conversations naturally move in these tangential paths, so don’t assume they’re dodging the question right away. Just continuously try to bring it back to getting into their views and thought processes. “But what do you think?”
Avoid the Hypocrisy Game
Politics is at its core comparative. We compare one side of the aisle to the other, this presidency to the last, and any other equivalency we can think of. This is can lead to a dangerously problematic type of argument I call the hypocrisy game.
Here’s the basic format.
“Imagine if Hillary/Obama/Bush had done or said X, what would you think then hmm?”
There’s something about making these arguments that feels really good, but they’re almost always somewhere between illogical and idiotic.
To explain all the reasons why will take up an entire other article, but I’ll list a few right now.
- The two actions you’re comparing are almost never the same. Again you may think you’re making some strong moral case, but you’re likely just comparing 2017 apples to 1976 oranges.
- The time periods/environment are never the same. The world changes in small ways everyday. In many ways, the world of today would have been unimaginable to many of us even 5 years ago. Therefore, the exact same policy implemented by a past administration will have a completely different meaning if implemented today.
- Just because something happened in the past doesn’t mean it’s a good or bad idea now. If next week Trump says we should go re-invade Vietnam, that wouldn’t be an okay idea just because we’ve done it before. Also, Democrats of 2017 should not be barred from criticizing this hypothetical new Vietnam war just because it was a Democratic President decided to invade over 50 years ago.
To recap, you’re making an argument with this perfectly designed hypothetical as if it were a real point (which it isn’t). Or you’re pointing to a real situation in history that isn’t nearly as comparable as you think. Don’t do this.
Draw a Hard Line between the Important and the Annoying/Weird
You have to differentiate between national problems and gaffs.
There are things Trump does that make a great Daily Show segment, and then there are his authoritarian tendencies.
Does Trump know whether Fredrick Douglas is dead? Maybe, maybe not. You can laugh about it amongst your friends, but don’t come near that stuff when talking to conservatives, it’s just not relevant.
Drawing this hard line means setting some medium-bad issues aside too. The fact that Kellyanne Conway forgot that she shouldn’t publicly endorse Ivanka Trump’s clothes is problematic and obviously shouldn’t happen again. But the smart thing to do is skip over that so you can talk about how she and other Trump folks can blatantly lie on record and then get praised by the President for their service.
I understand it can be kind of frustrating to not bring up issues that you’re truly passionate about, but here’s the thing, if you bring up a “Douglas” issue and a “Russia” issue in the same conversation, you’re implicitly equating the two. This allows a Trump sympathizer to also equate the two issues and say that they’re both not a big deal.
When we don’t like someone, the tendency is to find even the smallest point of criticism and amplify it into “proof” of their horribleness. There are plenty of real life or death matters to talk about, so stick to those and don’t stray, even if it gets uncomfortable.
Have a Plethora of Republican Things you Agree With
For example, say how you’re impressed that when VP Mike Pence was governor of Indiana, he agreed to the Medicaid Expansion money under the Affordable Care Act and gave coverage to 400,000 thousand Hoosiers (which is true).
Or you can find something that John McCain has said about Trump’s foreign policy that you think is sound.
Or how after 9/11, George W. Bush said that “the faith of terror is not the true faith of Islam.” And spoke out against Islamophobia in all forms.
Now there is a wrong way to agree with a Republican opinion, and that’s when you attach huge sweeping qualifications to the end of your sentences.
“I agree with you on X, BUUUUT”
You also shouldn’t make arguments out of these Republicans agreements. Making the claim “George W. Bush said so and so about Islam…therefore Trump sucks” is playing the hypocrisy game.
Simply find things the other side does that you genuinely agree with or don’t hate and say them.
The best way to keep this friend you’re talking to from becoming a partisan hack is for you yourself to not be one. And this means being well-informed and getting rid of the need to “win” anything.
The real benefit of a conversation with someone you disagree with is not that you’re going to drastically change their worldview; it’s that having respectful and engaging conversations is the first mandatory step towards a political atmosphere that isn’t as hostilely partisan as the one we live in today.