Conservative commentators have spent a lot of time these last months debating how to reach out to alienated Donald Trump supporters. It still feels like I can hardly go 48 hours without reading another reflection on this problem.
Here’s what I don’t get. Supposedly we’re in the middle of an all-hands-on-deck, do-or-die, future-of-America-is-at-stake moment. But we’re still talking about how to appease… the folks whose preferred candidate tops the ticket.
Meanwhile, the Never Trump camp should probably stay away from debate-watch parties. Their name is mud. Withering epitaphs rain down from every corner for the traitorous Never Trumps. They’re self-righteous, cosseted elitists who don’t care a fig about the future of the country.
So here’s the situation as I understand it. We have a lot of deeply alienated conservative voters who, strangely enough, actually supported conservative principles that now seem to have been carelessly jettisoned. Some are sufficiently upset that they’ve left the party or at least declared they won’t vote for Trump. Those people could make the difference in the election.
What are we doing to win them back? Heaping on the blistering scorn! It’s a pretty great strategy. Hurled insults rarely fail to appease disgruntled voters.
I lied when I said I didn’t understand. I do. What we’re seeing is a lot of poison-pen personal therapy. Everyone is angry, and ranting in public is a great stress reliever in times of political turmoil.
Nevertheless, if you want to win this presidential election, I recommend investing in a stress ball, and dialing back the printed scorn. Maybe Trump supporters aren’t the only voters in America who like feeling respected? Here are some suggestions from a Never Trump conservative for talking more constructively with conservative voters who truly loathe our nominee.
1. Don’t Make This About Hillary Clinton
Having read scores of rants against Never Trump, I pretty much know what to expect. There will be some derisive comments on our maturity, elitism etc. There will be a lot of apocalyptic predictions about the dark reign of Hillary Clinton.
Here’s the thing: Anyone who would find this convincing is convinced. I don’t know many Never Trumpers who seem blasé about the evils of a Clinton presidency. (There might be a few. But very few.) Most just feel that supporting Trump in any way would involve an unacceptable compromise of personal integrity. If we must have a corrupt, dictatorial leader, we at least prefer not to have voted for that person. Tyranny is always involuntary. Let’s call a spade a spade.
I appreciate that it’s hard to deal patiently with a person who says, “My conscience will not permit me to do a thing you plan to do.” But sometimes life requires hard things. Morally serious people can legitimately come down different ways on this question, depending on subtle differences in their personal beliefs, commitments, and spheres of influence. That being the case, I haven’t tried to shame anyone out of voting Trump in the general election. I have scolded people who scoff at the careful moral deliberations of friends and allies. That’s shameful.
Never Trumpers have already been told ad nauseum that no one gives a damn about their consciences. Underscoring that point only increases the injury.
2. Don’t Try to Nice Up Donald Trump
Aggressive efforts to rehabilitate Trump may have helped him make headway with less-engaged voters. It’s not going to work on Never Trumps. They tend to feel the rehabilitation effort has already deeply compromised the conservative movement.
Consider how this might look to a person who truly loathes Trump. He watches as friends or favorite writers dip their toes gingerly into the Trump tank (because he’s better than Hillary!). A week later the same person decides Trump isn’t really so bad at all. Six weeks later he might be crowing about Trump’s Ciceronian statesmanship and heartfelt love of the common man.
We’ve seen many sad and desperate attempts to project wildly unrealistic visions onto the mogul. Everyone’s clutching at the thinnest straws to prove Trump is what they want him to be. Never Trumps aren’t buying it. This is a man who has spent most of his life selling people out and taking people in (not in a hospitable way). To say he is untrustworthy and of established bad character is something of a comical understatement.
Have our conservative allies forgotten that, or do they just not care? It’s excruciating to see people you respect become so deeply deluded. (Whenever I say something even mildly sympathetic to Trump, I get messages from alarmed readers effectively begging me not to go to the Dark Side. I understand how they feel.)
Even if you don’t agree with Never Trumpers’ evaluation of Trump (and Trumpism), you should at least be able to appreciate there are many non-ridiculous reason for distrusting both. Such an acknowledgement will earn you some credibility; downplaying the awful will not.
3. Don’t Tell People to Vote the Platform
Many people have suggested I should resolve the Trump quandary by “voting the platform.” That might be persuasive if platforms represented any kind of commitment on anybody’s part. They don’t. This electoral season has made that painfully clear. Asking conservatives to vote the platform in 2016 is like recommending they invest with Bear Sterns.
4. Avoid Gratuitous Insults
Avoid gratuitous insults, especially those that imply that people who disagree with you are somehow less American. This should be obvious, but strangely seems not to be. Not wanting to agree that Never Trumpers might have real concerns about the candidate, we get treated to a barrage of pieces explaining they are elitist bubble-dwellers who don’t really understand or care about the country. It feels like I shouldn’t need to say this, but that won’t help your case.
Of course it is always frustrating when others don’t see the world as you do. But winning coalitions need to incorporate diverse perspectives. Some of the most alienating conversations I’ve had this season have been with Trump supporters, trying to explain why groups of ordinary Americans that I know well (Minnesotans, Mormons, Catholics) largely don’t support Trump. Too often, they respond by coming up with reasons why those groups can safely be marginalized. They don’t represent True America in the way that Trumpism does.
I am not suggesting all Trump supporters would respond in this way. But many do. I just have to observe that it’s hard to take a principled stand for “consent of the governed” while blithely flipping everyone who doesn’t agree with you off the boat. If you want to keep people on board the Republican train, “My people are more American than yours” is an awful, awful argument to employ.
5. Listen, and Respect What Matters to People
This is really the key to successful fence-mending, for everybody and not just Trumpites. Never Trumpers, in my experience, run the gamut. They absolutely are not all moneyed Manhattan elites, and the desperate attempts to present them all as out-of-touch are really kind of sad.
Some Never Trumps are pro-lifers appalled by Trump’s character, and confident he will betray us. Some are Tea Partiers who actually cared about small government, and can hardly believe that their former allies are now cheering for single-payer health-care and federal child-care programs.
Some Never Trumps come from military families who are disgusted by Trump’s treatment of veterans, and terrified of his foreign policy ignorance. These are just a few of the many varieties of Never Trumps I have encountered. It turns out there are really quite a lot of possible reasons for rejecting Donald Trump.
People who hope to persuade them must show interest in those reasons. After that, it might be possible to press further moral questions. Why would a heavily qualified, “hold your nose” vote not sufficiently protect their conscience? Taking as a given that they won’t trust anything Trump himself says, are there other conservatives whose assurances would induce them to reconsider? Who would those be, and what words would help?
You might find that it isn’t just Trump’s many sins and follies scaring away once-reliable conservative voters. Many people are alarmed by the number of other conservatives who double and triple down on his foolish statements. They can’t believe the number of people who are shrugging off his misbehavior.
I keep hearing intelligent people assure me that the entire Buckley coalition is already entirely irrelevant. If that’s so, why would the Never Trumps vote for a candidate they loathe? Either stop saying such ridiculous things, or accept that the party is irrevocably fractured and that many of the constitutional conservatives are just gone.
Many Never Trump conservatives seem intractable. Many are intractable. But if you want to win the election, can it hurt to try the sympathetic tack? At best you might tip the balance. At worst, you’ll have started rebuilding political capital that’s in dangerously short supply at the moment.
Of course, people aren’t actually going to stop tearing into Never Trump. Most likely it will all get worse, especially if Trump loses by narrow margins. That’s why I’m taking the trouble to observe now that Never Trump’s blistering detractors are hypocrites. They may want to win the election, but they don’t want it enough to risk their pride.