Arguing with Trump voters

I’m not recommending it. I’m just thinking about how I would go about it.

The argument from self-interest is the best there is in electoral politics. And although we celebrate elected representatives who can sacrifice their own good for the good of the nation, we don’t count on it as the operative principle of the Congress.  The out of focus woman at the left is the reason this picture is here. [1]

Chelsea Clinton smiles as she looks at her father, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, during the final day of the Clinton Global Initiative 2012 in New York

We do count on it as the operative principle in elections. People in a democratic system are supposed to know what their “interest” is and to vote in a way that reflects it. That doesn’t sound so bad for my role in this essay. I just show the Trump voter that his (the Trump deficit with women voters is more than I want to take on) true concerns are going to be addressed by a Clinton presidency.

I don’t think I can do that. This Trump voter knows that it is harder and harder to make a living and things are looking even worse for his children than for himself. The share of the economy going to middle and working classes has almost nothing at all to do with who is president. It has to do, as I understand it, with two things.

The first is the increasing reliance of manufacturers on foreign middle classes to purchase their products. The old thing—think Henry Ford—about paying your workers enough that they can afford to buy your product really isn’t necessary if you can sell your product to someone else. Businesses that rely on sales don’t really care who they are selling to if they are selling enough and if they don’t have to pay domestic workers enough to support sales, then they can save on labor costs (see point two) as well. That will go on happening under a President Clinton and also under a President Trump.

The second is that jobs are being off-loaded at a rapid and increasing pace. The products made by robots are not made by domestic workers. The products made by foreign workers are not made by domestic workers. The new jobs created by this new pattern require new skills; not the skills we needed from the old work force and many of them don’t pay well. And the new jobs are being done by the labor force least likely to be protected by unions and, needless to say, the robots don’t require any unions at all. The production jobs are on the decline and the protection of worker’s interests in at the lowest level in decades. That will go on happening under a President Clinton and also under a President Trump.

So if the self-interest of the Trump voter has to do with reversing the long-term impoverishment that the economy has been offering him, then I have nothing to say.  I don’t like that, but if you are going to argue self-interest as an economic goal, that’s the way it is.

Then there is the argument from demonstrated failure. Clinton is a “status quo candidate;” Trump is not. The recent decades have shown that “the status quo” is unable to restore the jobs that once made American the envy of the world, so why should we keep on choosing it?

T Voter 3This argument represents an authentic feeling. As the guy assigned to argue the Trump voter out of his madness, the intensity of this feeling is my problem. I can argue that the objection in that form is the sheerest nonsense; that “status quo” doesn’t mean anything at all if we are talking about the effects of all policies at the same time. That doesn’t help me. The anger against “the status quo” will not be mollified by more abstract considerations. Revoking Medicare and Social Security, for instance, would be a dramatic rejection of “the status quo,” but it turns out that is not what they were thinking of.

So I come to these voters prepared to make rational arguments; prepared to show themT Voter 4 what is truly—that ordinarily means “economically”—in their interest, but I find that they are not interested in arguments and are prepared to deny the truth value of anything that has ever been studied. They don’t believe the reporting of journalists if it is inconvenient because of “the liberal media.” They don’t believe the overwhelming consensus of experts about the causes of global warming because it is not unanimous.

Besides, “experts,” i.e., people who have studied the question are “them,” they are not “us.” And we already know what we need to know because it is “common sense.”
So in making an argument based on studies and logic, I am asking them to violate the norms of their tribe (common sense) and to throw their lot in with the enemy (them) and the people who fund the studies conducted by “them.” And to believe the media, which all my friends know is deeply biased. My argument is not going to work.

Besides that, agreeing with my case will not feel good. A very common dilemma–and I have this just like everyone else– is that I follow the facts and they lead this way but I don’t like where they lead because my heart inclines me to go the other way. Please note that all you have to do to resolve this dilemma is to deny the validity or the applicability of the facts. Problem solved.

So I notice that there are lot of “Mexicans” in town and I already know that household income for working class families is going down decade by decade. Notice what wonderful efficiency there is in hating the Mexicans because they are ruining my standard of living. It may be, for instance, that you really didn’t want to do the stoop labor that agricultural work requires or to do construction work for the wages the Mexicans get or landscaping in all kinds of weather. But pairing the “taking our jobs” idea with the “reduced standard of living” idea gives you just one thing to be angry about. Just one.  It simplifies your cognitive life and purifies your emotional life. What’s not to like? [4]

T Voter 7The problem I am confronting in dealing with these Trump voters is that I need a solution to the grievances they have that will feel good for them to hold. I can’t think of one.

And when they do express their anger, they are shushed. That is not a pleasant experience for adults. They present their grievances and they are told that they are being insensitive. [5] You can’t tell the ethnic jokes you grew up with; or the jokes that turn on sexual stereotypes; and you can’t count on Christian rhetoric as a foundation for public policy anymore—not since “they threw God out of the schools” at any rate.

And along comes a man who is every bit as crude as we would like to be and the legion of shushers descend upon him and he refused to be shushed! He just refuses! And he ridicules the people who are saying that he should “watch his language” or “be more sensitive.”[5]

I think it is this refusal to be shushed that it as the heart of the celebration of Trump as a man who “tells it like it is.” Liberals are inclined to understand that as a truth claim. Trump knows the truth and will not be dissuaded from telling it. But I think it is a freedom of expression claim. He says crude and offensive things, the things we would say if it were not for the shushers, and he gets away with it. He’s our kind of guy!

So it turns out that I don’t have anything to say to the Trump voter. They hate Hillary and telling them that they should feel differently than they do is a hopeless task. They blame “the status quo” but that is a notion so ill-defined as to have virtually no content at all, so it is an emotional stance more than an actual critique. They can’t be shown that their assertions are incorrect because if it is in the media, it can be disregarded—the “liberal media,” don’t you know. And if it is the consensus of scholars, it can be disregarded because scholars don’t have common sense. If they did, they would get real jobs. I can’t argue that making the right political choice will turn the economy around because the economy is not going to get turned around no matter who is in the White House.

So I leave my meeting and go home and write a dauntingly large check to the Clinton campaign. It’s pathetic, I know, but I have not been able to think of anything to say to the Trump voters that will make a difference and I have stopped trying.

I’m open to suggestions.

[1] My favorite recent example is Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, who provided the 218th vote in the House for President Clinton’s budget, knowing it was going to cost her her seat at the next election. It did, but as she got Chelsea Clinton as a daughter-in-law, it was not all for naught It does seem humorous to me, however, that in this picture, she (at the far left, next to her son) is the only one who is out of focus.
[2] There is always that argument from comparative advantage. It is true, this argument goes, that there will be fewer jobs that pay well, but if you get a good education and work diligently, you can have one of those jobs and then this won’t be your problem at all. Needless to say, this is not a systemic argument. It presupposes that proportion of bad jobs will always be high, but argues that you can always get someone else to pay the price for that.
[3] Former Speaker of the House John Boehner once rejected a meticulously crafted report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) by saying, “Well…that is the CBO’s opinion.”
[4] Which is why is was used against the Irish and the Italians and the Germans and the Poles, etc.
[5] I still prize the story of the student living in a college dorm who, just as a joke, crossed out the COLORED PAPER sign and wrote PAPER OF COLOR instead. The recycling coordinator was devastated and apologized to everyone she could find. “Oh dear. How could I have been so insensitive?”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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