(Note: I started at the end of 2020.)
Trump lost the election, but assuming the threat he posed is over would be a mistake. Assuming everything goes well and Biden is sworn on January 20, the threat of Trump—or more specifically, Trumpism—still remains. In my view, we have only played the first half of the game, coming close to losing it, I might add. The game, or the battle for the soul of America, as President-elect Biden describes, continues; we’ve got the second half to play, and that’s because the factors that lead to Trump’s rise to power still exist in my opinion. Before I opine on these factors, let me acknowledge that this is a highly complex problem, way too difficult for me to fully understand, let alone provide the solution. My assessment and recommended solutions may be off base and ineffective, respectively. Yet, I can’t help but feel the current approach isn’t very effective, and sometimes it may be making matters worse. In thinking about this problem, I have sought the heart of Trump’s power, and then finding a way to effectively target and neutralize it. The following post, drawing heavily from the insights of Andrés Miguel Rondón, a Venezuelan who worked to politically defeat Hugo Chavez, will explain the conclusions I’ve reached about both.
The Source of Trumpism’s Power
Rondon believes that polarization is the source of power for all populist leaders like Chavez and Trump. The key to their power is the narrative that incorporates and weaponizes their supporters’ anger and resentment and casting them as heroes and several groups as enemies (e.g., Democrats, non-Christians, Muslims, non-whites, etc.). Here’s the way Rondon’s describes it:
Find a wound common to many, someone to blame for it and a good story to tell. Mix it all together. Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen. Cartoon them. As vermin, evil masterminds, flavourless hipsters, you name it. Then paint yourself as the saviour. Capture their imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a good story. One that starts in anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can participate in.
That’s how it becomes a movement. There’s something soothing in all that anger. Though full of hatred, it promises redemption. Populism can’t cure your suffering, but it can do something almost as good — better in some ways: it can build a satisfying narrative around it. A fictionalized account of your misery. A promise to make sense of your hurt. It is them. It’s been them all along.
Doesn’t this sound like what’s happened in the U.S.? The wound of many Trump supporters—e.g., the grievances about the rising status of lower status groups, e.g., non-whites, non-Christians, non-males. Check. Trump rails against these groups, as well as attacks Americans who support their rise; they’re the enemies. Check. Check. His expressions of anger at them and the MAGA slogan (read: maintain the majority status of whites, Christians, males, and heterosexuals) signal he not only knows how they feels, but he feels the same way. Check. Trump paints himself as the savoir (“I alone can fix this.”) Check. No policies or plans. Check. Anger and vengence—See “owning the libs” and the press as the “enemies of the people.” Check.
The idea that the anger can soothe and be deeply satisfying to his followers when a narrative skillfully incorporates this anger, providing a meaningful context for it—so much so that their political support is almost soley based on this narrative—rings true to me. Indeed, I believe narratives that give us meaning can be more valuable and compelling than competent governance and effective policies, especially since the latter can be so abstract and difficult to understand. Like most effective narratives, the populist narrative simplifies all this into a meaningful and compelling story, casting Trump supporters as the good guys, with Trump as their champion leading them against Trump opponents and the Other as the bad guys. The dynamic here is very similar to a dynamic that exists in world religions. Without a compelling narrative, one that provides believers with meaning and simple and coherent answers to complex questions, I suspect much of religion’s power would evaporate. If this accurately describes the source of political power for Trumpism, then undermining Trump’s narrative will diminish, if not end his power.
Steps to Undermine the Trumpist Narrative
This is not an easy task. People will not willingly or easily give up such a narrative, as it will be painful to do so. My sense is that something has to occur that is so dramatic or pervasive that it becomes undeniable, making the acceptance of the narrative no longer tenable, even to many of Trump’s supporters.
Rondon offers three steps to defeating a populist that relate to his objective.
First, always remember that you—the Trump opponent—are seen as the enemy. This is a key point because as long as Trump opponents perceive a messenger as the enemy, the message won’t reach them. The facts, Trump’s incompetence, scandals, lies, authoritarian behavior likely won’t reach them as long as they view the messenger as the enemy. As Rondon says,
“Populism can survive only amid polarization. It works through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy. Never forget that you’re that enemy. Trump needs you to be the enemy, just like all religions need a demon. A scapegoat. “But facts!” you’ll say, missing the point entirely.”
This specific description by Rondon also sounds like what’s happening in the U.S.:
“The Venezuelan opposition struggled for years to get this. We wouldn’t stop pontificating about how stupid Chavismo was, not only to international friends but also to Chávez’s electoral base. “Really, this guy? Are you nuts? You must be nuts,” we’d say.
The subtext was clear: Look, idiots — he will destroy the country. He’s blatantly siding with the bad guys: Fidel Castro, Vladimir Putin, the white supremacists or the guerrillas. He’s not that smart. He’s threatening to destroy the economy. He has no respect for democracy or for the experts who work hard and know how to do business.”
Again, this sounds eerily familiar to me. I’ve heard journalists and pundits make very similar arguments in a similar way, and there is no shortage of evidence to back up these claims—just the opposite. Yet, with 74 million voting for Trump, this approach has proved inadequate. One aspect of it may be counter-productive as well—namely, employing a condescending and insulting tone like the one above. That leads to Rondon’s second recommendation.
Second, do not show contempt towards Trump supporters. Doing so only reinforces the populist narrative that Trump opponents are the enemy. The goal has to be undermining the narrative, and Rondon offers a more active way to achieve that in the next point.
Third, interact with Trump supporters, ideally in face-to-face situations, in a way that will reveal your common humanity. In Venezuela, Rondon mentions leaders who opposed Chavez going down to villages, showing they knew how to dance like them and could make them laugh with jokes. These interactions revealed the similarities between these leaders and Chavez’s supporters. In effect, Chavez supporters begin to view them as fellow Venezualans, not enemies. I do think something like this in the U.S. would be effective, too—not just with the Americans leaders who oppose Trump, but greater interactions between lower-status groups that Trump demonizes and Trump supporters who have negative feelings towards them. Once Trump supporters realize that these people are similar in many ways and even likable, I believe the narrative that casts Trump opponents as enemies will lose its force.
In addition to these three recommendations, I’d like to a fourth and a fifth– that might be critical to defeating Trump/Trumpism.
Fourth, send the message that Trump supporters who are struggling with social and cultural changes brought upon by rising presence and influence of lower status groups are not all bad. Some of them are racist, misogynistic, bigoted—but do not treat them all that way, and direct this message to the ones that are not. This is essentially in line with the second recommendation, but it advocates for positive action more than avoiding a negative one. The message is not one an enemy would send, and it also demonstrate that Trump isn’t the only one that understands his supporters in a sympathetic way. It also opens the door to alternative leaders Trump supporters could turn to. Again, all of this would weaken Trump’s narrative.
Fifth, denounce ridicule and belittling of Trump supporters for their race, religion, education, rural or working class background. No one should be denigrated because of their ethnicity/race, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, social class, intelligence, and communities they live in. Most people would be outraged if minorities from impoverished urban communities were mocked for their intelligence or religious beliefs. A similar reaction should occur when it’s directed at whites and Christians from rural communities as well. This does not mean one needs to agree with their political beliefs or social positions. Indeed, one can strongly disagree—but mocking people for their intelligence, religious beliefs, or the communities they live in should be off limits. Trump opponents should let this be known, and they should defend the whites, Christians, and/or those in rural communities when these attacks occur. Again, these are the actions of allies, not enemies, and it would show that Trump opponents respect and value Trump supporters in a concrete and even dramatic way. I feel like this action, done by a prominent Trump opponent, in a public way, has the great potential to undercut Trump’s narrative and his power.
While I suspect these steps may not decisively undercut Trump’s narrative, I would expect them to significantly weaken it. Additionally, the steps open the door for conversations that can lead to significantly reducing polarization and uniting the country—particularly with regard to race relations. That’s something I want to talk about in the second part of this post.
One last thing. I must address a reaction I expect from some progressive Trump opponents. I suspect many reading my suggestions above would view them as inaccurate, misguided, and even preposterous, reacting with bemusement, at best, and suspicion and outrage at worst. This reaction must also be addressed, particularly if it means that large number of progressives and Trump opponents actually do view Trump supporters as enemies, delusional, and irredeemable. I don’t have space to respond to this reaction, here, but I will do so in another post.