Lately I’ve been trying to engage with Trump supporters and correct some of the misconceptions and outright falsehoods that spread so widely this election season. With that in mind, I spent almost all day yesterday trying to have a civil, substantive conversation with Trump proponents on Reddit. And I failed spectacularly.
My efforts to engage Trump supporters in a productive, fact-based dialogue about our president-elect and his politics frequently devolved into semantic debates about whether Trump’s campaign rhetoric amounted to racism, misogyny or xenophobia.
Other times, the back-and-forth ventured on the epistemological. We seemed to be arguing, What is truth? Is your truth more true than mine? And how can you prove your truth is true? (Say what you will about Trump supporters, but they can be some deeply philosophical dudes, albeit largely unintentionally.)
That said, I did leave the experience with a few lessons, which I present to you here.
They literally don’t take Trump seriously
I frequently found myself revisiting Trump’s infamous comments from last summer about Mexico sending “rapists” and “drug dealers” across our southern border. Here’s the full quote:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
This quote has long been used as evidence of Trump’s racism and xenophobia, accusations that drive Trump supporters bonkers (more on that later). But anyone who interprets it that way is obtuse, according to Trump supporters. Trump was clearly only talking about illegal immigrants, even though he refers to Mexicans generally in that quote. (The only time he used “illegal” in that speech was in reference to an executive order Obama made.)
Trump supporters say they know when Trump is being earnest and hyperbolic and when he is being hyperbolic. When Trump says he’s building a wall, he’s merely talking about the idea of a proverbial wall — even if he insists it will be a “real” wall and even specifies its height. And when he talks about grabbing pussy and moving on women “like a bitch” (still not sure what that means, to be honest), Trump supporters know he’s engaging in the kind of harmless, boys-will-be-boys banter that occurs in locker rooms everywhere, even if those comments surface amid multiple accusations of sexual assault.
Trump is not a racist and how dare you insinuate otherwise
Another thing I learned from my foray into Trumpdom: His supporters hate being called racists. Trump isn’t a racist. In fact, the only racism that’s occurred this election is against white people branded as racist because they voted for Trump (who’s not a racist).
There’s obviously a fundamental disagreement about what constitutes racism (or xenophobia, or misogyny, or bigotry more generally). Trump, I posited, seems to be participating in what the left would call “dog-whistle racism” — using coded language that, while not always explicitly racist, is intended to pander to people’s racist and xenophobic tendencies. I offered recent praise from the KKK and the American Nazi Party as evidence.
This drove Trump supporters up the wall. It’s not their fault racist groups latched on to their movement, they said. That doesn’t make them racist. “I am so ANGRY at [the media] for reporting things in such a way that my friends and family, some i’ve known since grade school, are so terrified of Trump that they think … I am a Nazi and a racist now,” wrote one commenter.
I’m not sure what is about being called “racist,” or merely discussing racism broadly, that infuriates white men (and, to be fair, surely also white women) so much. MEL saw a lot of that earlier this week in the responses we got to a guide for white Americans interested in combating racism. But any insinuation Trump that invoked racism to win the election, and his supporters might thus be racist by association, is sure to drive a Trump supporter berserk.
Your facts aren’t facts; they’re liberal lies
One Trump supporter accused my efforts to fact-check statements as “nitpicky,” which is kind of like accusing grass of being green. Another trolled me relentlessly, trying to bombard me with untruths so outlandish I eventually had to ignore him. Among his accusations: I am a Communist on the federal government’s payroll; Hillary Clinton is a Satanist pedophile who intentionally funneled guns to ISIS.
But more or less all the Trump supporters I interacted with told me that the widely reported “facts” I cited were themselves lies. I lied when I said Trump didn’t specifically reference illegal immigrants when called Mexicans rapists. I lied when I said there’s no evidence that mass voting fraud occurred in the election, a commonly held belief among Trump supporters. (There is none. And when I asked for some, I was met with silence.) I lied when I said Trump emboldened white nationalists by appointing Steve Bannon as chief White House strategist. (Nazis and the KKK both praised that choice.)
And when Trump supporters gave me misinformation, the onus was on me to prove it untrue, not on them to provide any proof. (To be fair, that probably applies pretty broadly in life.)
The media didn’t report on events that were widely reported
One commenter wrote he hates the media for not reporting on the real stories, such as Greek citizens protesting Obama’s recent diplomatic visit to their country, a story that was covered by CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC and Yahoo (among others). He also claimed the media didn’t cover the Clinton Foundation’s receiving funding from Saudi Arabia and other foreign governments. “The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Politico and CBS all had stories on it,” I replied. “[Clinton] even disclosed that fact on the foundation’s own website.”
There seemed to be confusion on his part regarding what’s reported and what dominates the national conversation. Journalists can’t make their audience care more about certain stories than others, I said. To this, there was no reply.
It’s not entirely hopeless
Just as I was reaching the end of my patience, I had a minor breakthrough with one commenter, Sed44.
The thing I most disliked most about this election season is that all the outrage about Trump’s statements made it impossible to have any genuine discussions about policy. And after I got through numerous accusations of being a liar, Sed44 and I had a talk about the impact of repealing Obamacare and Roe v. Wade. Perhaps it was worth it to have wealthier, healthier Americans pay higher health insurance premiums if it ensures coverage for the worse-off among us, I posited. And wouldn’t a religiously based ban on abortion violate our separation of church and state? We disagreed, but we did so civilly.
John McDermott is a staff writer at MEL.