Personal attacks on Donald Trump just don’t work; in fact, they may actually strengthen his support. This is an empirical, uncomfortable, simple fact. It’s Issues Management for Beginners. You can see the same rule applying in British politics, where Jeremy Corbyn’s critics are jostling for the opportunity to pour vitriol on their new hate figure – to very limited effect. Whether it’s political naivety or self-indulgent posturing that drives them, time and again the only result is a strengthening in the following of those they attack.
It’s quite simple really. Insult the beliefs and values of a popular leader, and you are insulting the beliefs and values of those who follow them. And abuse and disparagement is seldom the best way to win anyone round to your point of view.
In the US, Trump grows louder with every speech. Each news cycle starts and ends with him pouring scorn on a new target. For so many of his opponents, the kneejerk reaction seems to be to fight fire with fire. They attack his policies, insult his views, even mock his hair. And it certainly feels satisfying. Safe in their certainty that they’re right and he’s wrong, they insult and mock and howl their condemnations. This torrent of invective may feel legitimate, justified and necessary, but does it actually work?
If the purpose of your onslaught is public posturing simply designed to impress your own supporters, then yes, perhaps. Or if it’s an emotional response; outraged venting, purely intended to blow off steam and allow you to feel better in yourself, then, maybe this will do the trick. Feeling better now? But if the purpose of the attack is change, real substantive change of opinion among those you with whom you disagree, then this kind of personal vilification will almost never work. Put yourself in their shoes for one moment. If someone who disagrees with your views and ideals tells you that you are stupid, racist, ignorant and evil for holding them, how will you react? “Oh really? Gosh? I had better completely change my views then!”
At the time of writing, Trump is polling a 38% approval from registered Republicans. Corbyn achieved a near 60% victory in the Labour leadership election. These voters are not marginal, swivel-eyed extremists camped at the edge of the political universe. They are ordinary people, mainstream people, with normal worries, honest concerns and decent values. You may disagree passionately with the solutions offered by the leader they support, but you disparage their beliefs and values at your peril. When David Cameron sneeringly dismissed UKIP as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly”, he will have done nothing to win round a single UKIP supporter. When he called Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters “a bunch of terrorist sympathisers”, it’s hard to imagine a single one of them thinking: “The Prime Minister has opened my eyes. I find that I am a terrorist supporter. I must change my views forthwith!”
Donald Trump has tapped into the heart of middle America. If his message has been crude, sometimes offensive and often simplistic, it has resonated with the real fears and concerns of large numbers of decent, ordinary people. There is a danger that our political commentariat is incapable of understanding this. They treat Trump’s followers with condescending disdain, whilst his political opponents continue to hurl barbs and insults crafted in backrooms by their political advisers. And all the time, his support grows.
Essentially, this is a form of the Group Think response we often see in our crisis management work. Put a management team under pressure, inundate it with criticism and condemnation, and what happens is a hardening of position, a growing refusal to accept other views or even fresh evidence. Abuse a significant part of the population for its views and beliefs and you will only alienate them.
If you believe that Trump’s solutions are dangerous, naïve, inflammatory and impossible to apply, then you need to cut away the support he enjoys. You need to reach out to that following and find ways to reach their hearts and minds and win them away from him. But if you are going to do this with any chance of success, then you need to do so with respect and empathy. Never disdain.
Find a platform of shared values and concerns. This may be easier than you think. Remember, these are decent people, good people. They are not fools and they are not monsters. Their concerns are just as likely to be yours. Where you may differ from the leader they follow is in the allocation of blame and cause, and the solutions suggested. But if you are seen to share and understand those concerns, truly and with conviction, then you earn the right to propose alternative solutions. If you can’t accept those concerns, or understand and share those fears, how can you begin to offer solutions?
Generally, whatever the cause or movement, if it gains significant traction this will be because it has its roots in real and valid concerns. While the leadership of anti-fracking or animal rights groups are chaining themselves to fences and sabotaging laboratories, the majority of those who back them do so out of a genuine concern for the welfare of the earth and the animals that inhabit it, not out of a love for theatrics. The same can be said for the supporters of Donald Trump in America, or UKIP supporters or Corbyn followers in Britain. If you disparage their beliefs and values, you only entrench opposition. If you are to win them over, then find common ground, build a bridge of understanding and empathy. Now you will be heard.
If you disagree with Donald Trump, if you want his arguments to fail, then you must take ownership of the emotional and political base on which he stands. Make common cause with the people on whom he depends. respect their values, adopt their aspirations, take on board their fears, build that bridge to their hearts and minds, and now demonstrate that his “solutions” actually pervert and undermine the causes that he claims to represent. This can be the only way to fight a dangerous populist. Allow them to keep shouting, until they realise that there is no one left to listen.