How to Make Real Progress Against Trump’s Incivility

I haven’t written much about Trump, who has taken “incivility” to new heights this election season, in part because there is no trumpevidence that telling large groups of people to be more civil has any value.  There is both anecdotal evidence and research that suggests forcefully telling people to be more civil will backfire.  Incivility and conflict involving large groups of people tends to be a function of a situational dynamic - two groups competing for a goal or a scarce resource like victory in a game or an election – that trumps any direct commandment to be more civil.  The rise of Trump as a political force is an opportunity for us to practice what we preach at Civil Politics and try to understand the dynamics that give rise to the conflict we see, in the hopes of cutting it off at its source.  As has been written in other places, Trump is a symptom, not a cause, and we are likely to see others follow in his footsteps whether he is elected or not.  If we really want a better political dialogue, we need to understand the root causes of Trump’s appeal.

It helps to start with the empirical fact that there are very few truly evil people in the world.  Human beings are uniquely social creatures who survived and thrived by being able to cooperate with hundreds of thousands of others, such that only ~1% of us are “psychopaths” who actually don’t care about others.  A human being who doesn’t care about others is akin to a bee that doesn’t care about his hive.  It’s rare.  The rest of us really do care about others beyond ourselves and try to do what we think is right, even if we sometimes do what others would think of as “evil” as a result.  That definition of “right” may include violence, theft, and incivility in the name of a moral cause (see research on idealistic evilthe dark side of moral conviction or terrorism and sacred values), but there is a moral cause behind most people’s actions, even when we disagree with those actions.

Trump supporters have many moral motivations that many who disagree with him would recognize and value.

- They worry about the lack of jobs for hard-working, but under educated Americans.
- They fear that the system of lobbyists and special interests is stacked against them.
- They think that politicians cannot be trusted to fight for everyday Americans, due to their reliance on donors who line their pockets.
- They feel that their identity and their ability to express their opinions is under attack.

Indeed, many of these positions are emphasized by Bernie Sanders, which is why you sometimes see people who support Trump and Sanders both.  Calling Trump supporters racist, stupid or naive is not only a misleading caricature, but also a recipe for only exacerbating the coarsening conflict that we are trying to avoid, as it drives each side into its corner.  If we want things to get better, research suggests that we have to start from a place of common goals and develop a positive relationship with Trump fans rather than having convincing them why they are wrong as our ultimate goal.  Staging violent protests at Trump’s rallys is the opposite of this.  How can we instead reduce the divisions, rather than inflame them?

Let us acknowledge that we need to do something to help people who want to work hard but are being left behind by an increasingly global and technological economy.  Let us acknowledge that lobbyists and donors have undue influence and work to curb that influence, whether it be through campaign finance or a simpler government with fewer rules to be gamed.  Let us all accept that we want a society where no identity, American or immigrant, religious or atheist, urban or rural, feels threatened and unable to express their opinions freely, and work to make relationships across these divides.  And let us accept that whatever we think of Donald Trump as a person, his supporters are generally ordinary Americans who care deeply about their kids and their communities.  Let’s help them with their concerns as it makes no sense to be someone who cares deeply about poor Americans who simultaneously denigrates many in that group, who happen to support a candidate they disagree with.

To be clear, I do not support Trump or his rhetoric which is deeply uncivil and divisive.  But those who are demonizing Trump’s supporters and disrupting his events are only exacerbating the problem.  As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that” and there is ample research that suggests that forging positive empathic relationships across divisions is indeed the only way to truly heal a great moral divide.

- Ravi Iyer

Ravi Iyer has a Ph.D in psychology from the University of Southern California and has published dozens of articles on political and moral attitudes.  He works as a data scientist at Ranker and is also the Executive Director of Civil Politics, a non-profit that promotes evidence based methods for healing inter-group divisions.