We Can Not Let This Be an Election That “Cannot be Discussed” — Maybe This Focus Group Can Help Us Explore How to Do So

A friend sent me, for consideration, an editorial in a publication called “The Week” which gathers valuale and representative articles from around the world.  The Editor, William Falk, under the headline The election that cannot be discussed, essentially urges us not to discuss the election for fear of violence or losing friends.

If you suffer from a compulsion to talk politics with friends, family, and co-workers during the next six months, resist it. The primaries already have fractured the two political parties into feuding factions, and now the presidential race will be a death match between two of the most disliked, divisive figures in recent U.S. history. If you dare discuss Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton around the water cooler or at the family picnic, the ensuing argument will likely end in yelling and personal insults. You might even get punched.

.  .   .  Read about it, watch it on TV, but I warn you: Speak not of it to people who disagree — or you may never speak to them again.

I hope he is kidding, or perhaps using it as a way to point out the deterioration of out political dialog.

But whatever it is, the question has to be not WHETHER we talk, but HOW we talk about it.  If can not longer engage with others as a folks who share something in common, we are done. (That’s what happened before the Civil War, with legacies today.)

Some Republicans are surely anguishing about what to do.  Sneering and superiority are surely not the right response.  Nor lecturing.  Rather these folks need the kind of empathetic sympathy that will give at least some of them the freedom to think through a new direction.  That surely is the biggest hope of this time.

Now, there are some Trump supporters who are deeply entrneched.  Indeed, looking back, the time when the Republican elite should have seen what was happening was when Frank Luntz, the highly respected Republican pollster, last August, reported on a Trumpster focus group: “Pollster’s Legs Wobble After Fawning Donald Trump Focus Group.”

The Donald devotees sang a contrapuntal tune, simultaneously a dirge to national decline and an ode to Trump. They believed Washington politicians and the Republican party had repeatedly misled them, and that the country is going down the tubes. They looked for relief in Trump.

Classically, of course, focus groups find out people’s views and then seek to test ways to modify them.  So, then:

The focus group watched taped instances on a television of Trump’s apparent misogyny, political flip flops and awe-inspiring braggadocio. They watched the Donald say Rosie O’Donnell has a “fat, ugly face.” They saw that Trump once supported a single-payer health system, and they heard him say, “I will be the greatest jobs president God ever created.” But the group—which included 23 white people, 3 African-Americans and three Hispanics and consisted of a plurality of college-educated, financially comfortably Donald devotees—was undeterred.

At the end of the session, the vast majority said they liked Trump more than when they walked in. (Bold added)

“You guys understand how significant this is?” Luntz asked the press breathlessly when he came back into the room behind the glass. “This is real. I’m having trouble processing it. Like, my legs are shaking.”

“I want to put the Republican leadership behind this mirror and let them see. They need to wake up. They don’t realize how the grassroots have abandoned them,” Luntz continued. “Donald Trump is punishment to a Republican elite that wasn’t listening to their grassroots.”

This article appeared in Time on August 25, 2015, many lifetimes ago in politics.  The point of quoting it is not to show the inability of the Republican elites to respond to their crisis (an inability that speaks very badly to the chance that they can in fact rebuild.

Rather it is offered to start more of a debate on how one might try to engage those who are so hard to change.  One clue in the above article.

The Donald devotees sang a contrapuntal tune, simultaneously a dirge to national decline and an ode to Trump. They believed Washington politicians and the Republican party had repeatedly misled them, and that the country is going down the tubes. They looked for relief in Trump.

.  .  .  “I’m frustrated beyond belief. I feel like I’ve been lied to,” a woman said. “Nothing’s getting better.”

Many sounded like relations of an ill patient, furious that all the previous doctors have botched a test or fumbled the scalpel. To them, Trump actually is the real-deal fixer-upper, and he is going to make America great again.

“We know his goal is to make America great again,” a woman said. “It’s on his hat. And we see it every time it’s on TV. Everything that he’s doing, there’s no doubt why he’s doing it: it’s to make America great again.”

It is certainly not going to work to tell them that the Republican party was trying to help them — no evidence.  Its not going to help to show his personality flaws — they probably feel that they share them.  It is not going to work to use quotes from those who have attacked him — remember these are not the still to decide.

Rather maybe the process has to start which acknowledging the abandonment by the system that these folks feel — obviously a feeling shared across the traditional ideological spectrum, just not with the same level of panic, or the same search for a hero.  Then it seems to me time to ask the person what concrete things Trump would do to make things better, point out the possible negative effects on them, not to mention the lack of clarity of the proposals, and other approaches that might better reflect their interests.

In the end, some are locked into a savior, but hopefully others will start to think a bit.

Above all, try to start with common ground.  “I agree, but I am worried that if he does that, other countries will stop buying what we make here.  Then we lose our jobs too.

Then the pivot to the generalization.  “You know, I am not sure that he has as well as he says at protecting job, what do you think?

Worth a try.