Vilifying Donald Trump makes him stronger

By Ralph J Benko. Reprinted from The Huffington Post.


John Trumbull‘s painting, Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence, including Jefferson and Adams

Last August, Washington Post Bigfoot Columnist David Ignatius published a deeply insightful column on how people either develop, or hold onto, their beliefs:

“Basically, the studies show that attempts to refute false information often backfire and lead people to hold on to their misperceptions even more strongly.

“This literature about misperception was lucidly summarized by Christopher Graves, the global chairman of Ogilvy Public Relations, in a February 2015 article in the Harvard Business Review, months before Trump surfaced as a candidate. Graves is now writing a book about his research at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy.

Graves’s article examined the puzzle of why nearly one-third of U.S. parents believe that childhood vaccines cause autism, despite overwhelming medical evidence that there’s no such link. In such cases, he noted, “arguing the facts doesn’t help — in fact, it makes the situation worse.” The reason is that people tend to accept arguments that confirm their views and discount facts that challenge what they believe.

‘Trying to correct misperceptions can actually reinforce them, according to a 2006 paper by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, also cited by Graves. They documented what they called a “backfire effect” by showing the persistence of the belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in 2005 and 2006, after the United States had publicly admitted that they didn’t exist. “The results show that direct factual contradictions can actually strengthen ideologically grounded factual belief,” they wrote.

“‘Bottom line: Vilifying Trump voters … won’t convince them they’re wrong. Probably it will have the opposite effect.”

This insight applies equally to the vilification of Hillary Clinton and her voters. An abundance of research shows that vilification is not just bad manners. It is also bad politics.

Back in its heyday was the gold standard of Righteous Indignation, taking a courageous stand to “censure Clinton and move on.” Then, after Clinton survived impeachment, MoveOn moved on to oppose the war on Iraq.

MoveOn stuck to the issues, always keeping it classy. Righteous Indignation is very different from, and far more powerful than, vilification. Eventually MoveOn prevailed.

There is abundant vitriol on both sides. Clinton recently called half of Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables” – for which she later expressed half-hearted regret. Team Trump chronically calls Clinton “crooked.”

This is simply bad politics.  Ignatius: “People are more likely to accept information if it’s presented unemotionally, in graphs….” The research Ignatius reports is consistent with the experience at the website, devoted to providing “just the facts, ma’am” and all sides of every issue.

This insight goes to the core of which is founded on respectful mutual listening. If you could wish to change someone’s mind one must start by listening to those with whom you disagree. (Trigger Warning: doing so might also change yours.)

Underneath all the name calling and so forth the 2016 presidential election is being fought out on real issues, vividly (and relatively clearly) presented on one primary and one secondary issue.  As I wrote in recently,

“voters care about prosperity, peace, and who seems better able to protect their interests and their values.

“Above all, now, the voters care about the American Dream, composed of two elements: Prosperity and Economic Justice.”

“Both are legitimate and essential.”

The candidates’ respective positions are, outside the melodrama, well reported in the news and the voters are choosing accordingly.  Nevertheless, the melodrama makes the headlines and according to FiveThirtyEight: “Clinton and Trump are both more strongly disliked than any nominee at this point in the past 10 presidential cycles.”

I am the only person I know who publicly proclaims that both Clinton and Trump are, despite their flaws, admirable. This, of course, annoys all my friends both left and right. With due apologies for annoying my friends … I stand by my position.

The overwrought emotion that condemns both Clinton and Trump to Hell (by their various opposing factions) is nothing new.  It has been part of the American Political Carnival going back to very early days.  Partisans of two of our (now) most revered statesmen, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson did just this.

Mental Floss reminds us:

“Jefferson’s camp accused President Adams of having a ‘hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.’ In return, Adams’ men called Vice President Jefferson ‘a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.’ As the slurs piled on, Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward.”

Badmouthing a political adversary is the rule, not the exception, in politics. It has never caused the system to break down. It won’t cause a breakdown now.  It’s just politics.

But bottom line: badmouthing’s just bad politics.  Not because it is rude (which it is, but that’s social not political). It is bad because “Vilifying (your adversary’s) voters … won’t convince them they’re wrong. Probably it will have the opposite effect.”

Memo to those who yearn to defeat Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

(Yes, you.)

Badmouthing your opponent only makes him, or her, more likely to win.  Keeping it classy is good policy and good politics.

Leave a Reply