Calming the Storm
A Prelude to a Way Forward
In the last analysis piece, we looked at the non-utility of trying to get rid of Trump by having him declared mentally incompetent because he’s mentally ill. There was still something that I needed to say but didn’t. I laid out the problems of using psychology to get rid of Trump but offered no solution. I also felt like I was trivializing the concerns about Trump’s mental health a little bit.
I hope that people in the mental health field did not feel that I was trying to sideline their expertise. Actually, their skills and empathy are going to be crucial in the coming months and years, and not just for those of us getting stressed out over the coming evil. (Yes, it will likely take years to get rid of him. Strap in, folks, we have a bumpy ride ahead.)
Now, before we go any further, I’m going to warn you that this piece is about calming our anger before we go ahead. Most of us are livid at the reckless stupidity of our compatriots who voted for Trump. We are also morally appalled at an electoral college system that failed to keep him out of office despite the credible, real, and growing concerns of Russian interference to install him in office. That anger is completely justified; it’s just that it won’t get us to our goals. Remember, it was fiery anger that compelled many to vote for him. We will need not just reason to counter that, but a cool emotional stability to bring their flames down.
Folks in the mental health field are incredibly compassionate and empathetic. We will need their ability to look into pain and ugliness. We need everyone, and especially these experts, to lead the way in showing sympathy to disaffected people who voted for Trump.
This is a lesson that was taught to me by an amazing professor in college, Dr. Oxhandler. We can shout and hit Trump’s supporters with his hypocrisy, incompetence, corruption, and irrationality all day long; it will only make them dig in deeper and fight harder. Think for a moment: when was the last time that you were attacked by a conservative with an actual argument? (Yeah, I know it's rare, but think about it.) I'm not talking about shallowly stupid Fox News talking points (it's freedom!!!), the ever-present conspiracy theory (Hillary has killed 47 people!), or Ayn Rand rants (taxes are slavery!), but an actual argument with reasons that were actually laid out in a coherent manner? (Think hard - our republic depends on it!) Now that you have that memory in mind, did their argument change your mind? Probably not.
In the face of a strong argument, our natural instinct is to double down in what psychologists now call the Backfire Effecti. This makes sense if we look at an analogy. If we are attacked physically, we don’t just throw our arms wide open to expose ourselves. We do the same thing when we perceive a mental attack on our logic. This may seem irrational at first. After all, if your opponent is providing a good argument, shouldn’t you let go of the side you're attached to an accept his argument?
It’s not quite that simple, however. That urge to circle the wagons and bring up our defenses actually plays an important role in continuing the debate. Remember, the goal of a debate is to examine our reasoning with rigorous scrutiny. By doing so, we separate good and bad reasons and come up with new and better ideas. So far, this method of debate is our surest route to truth. If you are a skilled debater, that feeling of defensiveness when your position is attacked causes you to scrutinize your opponent’s argument even further. This is a good thing. It is in this constant back and forth of examination that we are most likely to find truth, or at least we'll find a compromise that we can live with.
Have you noticed, though, that most debates are done as performance? Think about all those pundits spouting opinions on TV. The debaters will not change their positions. They become too emotionally attached to those positions to give them up. (This isn’t necessarily bad, by the way. There is research that shows we have trouble making decisions on even simple things, like what to wear, unless we can make some kind of emotional judgment about the choices. It seems to be a feature of the human condition.) The people who may change their position are watching the debate, not participating in it.
Now, please think of a time when you and a friend were debating something a little less serious. A topic where the stakes weren't so high that the loser would be branded morally inferior. Maybe pineapple on pizza, cats versus dogs, or some topic where you were ready to come back with a joke as much as you were with a counter argument? (If you haven't, then that shows how much our level of discourse has fallen.) How much easier was it to change your thinking? How much did you feel locked into your position at a gut level? This is what we have to do for Trump supporters, many of whom now regret their votes. We have to make the debate less serious for them, while we see the dire nature of it ourselves.
On a side note, Nancy Pelosi recently likened our current situation to a friend who’s dating a jerk.ii You can tell her all day long that he’s a jerk, but she can’t see it. According to Pelosi, we’ll just have to wait it out until our friend comes to her senses. This seems like a typical Democratic Party response. Even though they may be able to see the problem pretty well, their solution is rooted in weakness while our friend gets walked all over by this jerk. Except, in this case, we are stuck living in the same house with this hypothetical couple, and there’s a real chance that he may burn the house down. Our friend is actually many friends and many people that we have never met who will be abused by this jerk. The very nation that we all live in may be left in flames before he is through. Doing nothing is not an option, and neither is attacking the jerk. The only way out is through. The only way is to engage without attacking.
There is some good news, however. We don't need to sway very many. Trump won the electoral college by just 80,000 votes out of about 125,000,000. That's 0.06% of the voting public – a very insignificant number. Can we find it in our hearts to show a little sympathy for a few people, just 6 out of 10,000 people that we meet and have a calm, polite, (and hopefully in-depth) discussion?1,2 (Even with the large classes that I teach, I probably come into contact with fewer than 500 people per week, so this is a minuscule number of people.) Can you try to be understanding to just a few people so that they don’t feel attacked and close their minds?
Or, let’s pose this choice a different way: do you want your righteous indignation, or do you want to save the American republic?
Do you want to look down upon these poor folks who now may be beginning to regret their votes, or do you want to win?
We don’t get to have both.
If you are ready to make the choice to win, then continue reading to see a way forward. (Next piece coming soon.)
1 If we include the estimated 90 million who didn’t vote, that number drops to 0.04%. That’s 4/10,000 or 1 of every 2,500 people that you meet.
2Of course, that also depends on their willingness to reciprocate in having a calm and polite discussion. Many won’t, and I discuss that at the end of the next installment.