Three steps for more civil political debate in the Trump era

President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Aug. 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Aug. 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Following Donald J. Trump’s surprise election as president, there seemed to be a nascent desire among many Americans to better understand people on the other side of the political divide. Reporters were deployed to Middle America to discover what motivated voters to vote the way they did. Even the liberal comedian Jon Stewart, known for his cynical sense of humor, preached empathy and mutual respect.

Last spring, as I began to travel the country for Trump’s America, a four-year reporting project that takes the pulse of voters in eight counties that were pivotal to Trump’s election, I felt a glimmer of hope that after the most turbulent presidential campaign in recent memory, Americans were ready to engage with one another to unite the country.

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I am no longer as hopeful. I am finding more and more people who say they have fallen out with friends and family members over politics and have simply stopped trying to understand those with whom they disagree. Many have retreated to their ideological bubbles, in terms of both the media they consume and the people with whom they associate.

Many have retreated to their ideological bubbles, in terms of both the media they consume and the people with whom they associate.

During a recent trip to a rural area in northeastern Iowa, I met a university professor who said he uses President Trump as a filter when deciding whether or not to befriend someone. “If I don’t know you and you come out with that Trump sh—, I really don’t want to get to know you,” he said.

I also spoke with a conservative couple and their progressive neighbor who separately told me they had fallen out over some politically charged Facebook posts.

Another woman became emotional while recalling how political conversations with a group of longtime female friends at her country club had become extremely tense. The tension sometimes erupted into outright hostility rooted in her exasperation over her friends’ unflinching support for Mr. Trump.

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These anecdotes seem to reveal a larger trend. As the headline of a recent USA Today poll put it, “On Trump, we can’t even agree on why we disagree, and we assume the worst.”

People are purging their friend groups of anyone outside their political tribe. Trump administration officials are being refused service or harassed at restaurants. And I have noticed more opinion pieces like a recent one in the Jewish magazine The Forward titled, “No, we don’t have to be friends with Trump supporters,” whose author argued, “When they go low, stomp them on the head.”

The media deserves much of the blame for our deep political divides. Just as politicians win votes by stirring up their base voters, many media outlets play to their core audiences’ sense of outrage. Then there is social media, which has a special power to bring out the worst in people.

Many media outlets play to their core audiences’ sense of outrage. Then there is social media, which has a special power to bring out the worst in people.

This leads me to three ways we can start to engage again and move forward to a more civil political discussion.

First, spend less time discussing politics on social media. It is much easier to have civil, respectful conversations when we are speaking in person, not through the anonymity of social media.

Second, make sure you are engaging for the right reasons. Are you offended by your liberal friend’s belief that Mr. Trump is a racist simply because you do not want to grapple with what that might say about you? Are you challenging your friend’s support for Mr. Trump’s immigration policies because you wish to understand that person’s view or because you want to prove that your friend is a “deplorable” person? If it is the former, your task is easy. It requires only that you ask fair questions and listen, and then listen some more.

Third, embrace the struggle between what may first seem to be competing truths. I am not talking about “alternative facts.” I mean allow for nuance in assessing the merits of a policy or a president. It means recognizing, for instance, that Mr. Trump is a narcissistic bully while also acknowledging that he has done some things right. Or it could mean believing that Barack Obama was a flawed president without also embracing the myth that he is a Muslim or was born in Kenya. I use that example because it is exactly the argument I heard from a former Obama voter turned Trump supporter. For her, rejecting Mr. Obama meant entertaining the worst slurs made against him.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

When it comes to our political discussions, what we have right now is a dysfunctional nation. Our political tribalism is making us stupid and ruining our relationships. The remedy is not only to engage our political opponents but to do so with humility, patience and a real desire to understand.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
3 weeks 4 days ago

Step 1 - Stop using polarizing photos. There is intolerance on both sides but of the intolerant one side is anti-Trump (about 85%) and the other about 15%. So called liberal tolerance is anything but tolerant. Many support Trump's policies but do it quietly because the Trump haters will come after them. On the pro Trump side I can point to tons of people who don't like Trump's behavior/ demeanor as a spokesman but are pretty much happy with what he has done. Everyone should read Zalena Zito. It would save the author a long trip.

J Cosgrove
3 weeks 4 days ago

It requires only that you ask fair questions and listen, and then listen some more

A rarity on the Catholic America site. Why?

Jeanne Linconnue
3 weeks 3 days ago

Obviously you live in a very different silo than I do. I would reverse your ratio on "tolerance".

The ugliest, most vile comments I see online on sites that are not well moderated are by Trump supporters, usually couched in foul and vulgar language. I wish I had a dollar for every time I see one of those ugly comments directed towards "libtards". I'd be a rich woman.

But, Trump supporters like you really don't understand, do they? They don't understand why so many object to a man who ran on a platform of hate, who promoted bigotry and fear of the "other" throughout his campaign, and continues to do so. Why would people object to a president who spreads white nationalist propaganda and lies (the latest being the lies about S. Africa). Why would anyone think a president of this country should denounce hatred and bigotry in no uncertain terms, instead of giving white supremacists and neo-nazis a pass, and implying that most were "very fine people". "Why would people object to a president who repeatedly dehumanizes people with brown skin?

There is a reason Trump is so strongly supported by Richard Spencer and David Duke. Some people (maybe you?) think it's just fine. They want a white America, don't care if refugees drown in the Med, are perfectly fine with keeping out the poor, and those who flee war and violence, think keeping little kids in prison is a good thing if it discourages some of those poor, brown people from Latin America from trying to get asylum in the US. Why do Trump supporters so hate people who risk everything to come here simply they are trying to get their children away from extreme danger and to a place where they might be able to build a decent life for their families.?

I read this site regularly, but don't comment often., But I read enough to know what you are about, J. Cosgrove, so please don't come back with your canned "poverty in the world is disappearing" rant and the only people the US should accept as immigrants are well-educated, upper middle class people. Yes, world poverty is a lot better than it was 30 years ago. But there are still millions of people living on less than $2.00/day.

Trump supporters seem only to want rich, educated white people in this country. Norwegians for example. Except that Norwegians for the most part have no interest in living in the US.

I don't remember Jesus saying anything about caring for the rich and educated and already privileged people. I do remember Jesus talking about caring for the poor, the sick, and the stranger.

Trump supporters don't understand why some people 'hate" so much of what is happening in this country, why we feel that too many in this country have made a Faustian bargain. selling their souls for a tax cut.

This really has little to do with tax policy, or regulations, or tariffs. It has to do with something far more important - what kind of people are we in America? Are we the kind, generous open-hearted people we once were? Or have we degenerated into a cold, self-centered, isolationist, ME-FIRST people. Are we now a people whose self-centeredness leads us to say "the heck with all of those people who had the bad luck to be born in a poor country, or a country at war, or a country run by criminals. That's their problem, and we don't want to have anything to do with them or helping them."

Everyone in this country except Native Americans is descended from immigrants. Most of those immigrants came here because they were poor, or oppressed, or trying to escape war and violence. Just like people are doing now. But the oh-so comfortable descendants of those earlier poor, uneducated immigrants want to slam the door in the faces of those who seek the same thing today..

So Christ-like.

Rather than reading Zalino Zito, I would suggest reading the gospels. Starting with Matthew 25:31-46

J Cosgrove
3 weeks 3 days ago

Thank you for making my point.

Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger James 1:19

Do you agree that the whole Trump collusion story is a bogus manufactured story by people sympathetic to the Democratic Party and was concocted to prevent Trump from being president?

Stanley Kopacz
3 weeks 4 days ago

Unfortunately, the Democrats are not the cure for the fake president and the Republicans. They are Repub-lite with a lot of identity politics thrown in as window dressing. When Obama came in, there should have been a big steaming pile of testicles in the middle of Wall Street, but nothing happened. We need new political ideas but the two party sock puppet show blocks them. Instant runoff voting could break the logjam but how do we obviate the entrenched corrupted parties' stranglehold? My fear is that, having elected a reality show celebrity, the American people are in a state of unreality and self delusion and don't have the capability to escape it. The problems will get worse and will be followed by new feats of self delusion.

rose-ellen caminer
3 weeks 3 days ago

Are you saying that being a Muslim and or being born in Kenya are slurs? Are you saying they are perceived slurs, or actual slurs? Are you slurring Muslims and Kenyans[ "anti colonial leftist foreigners"[lol]?] in your example of a woman "rejecting Obama by entertaining the worst slurs made against him"? Why would you refer to the claim that Obama is a Muslim or was born in Kenya as "slurs," and as you emphasized "the worst slurs" rather then lies? Your "deliberate choice" to use that example and to attribute the word "slurs", then add "extreme slurs" rather then the correct word ,lie, or untruth , can only be explained as propagandizing against Muslims , and throwing in Kenyans just to not make it obvious.

Rosemari Zagarri Prof
1 week 3 days ago

Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Jeanne Linconnue. Unfortunately, many Trump supporters do not understand that after listening to the other, the listener may provide a rational, step-by-step justification for his/her opinion disagreeing with Trump's policies.. They can't respond rationally to the arguments so they simply dismiss them. There are plenty of reasons to find Trump's character and personality repulsive, divisive, abhorrent, and unpresidential. But "Trump-haters" hate his policies more than his person.

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