Understanding the Trump Voter

This post was originally published on Jan 1, but is reposted as it is relevant to all we do in understanding Trump and his voters.

trump-brainHappy New Year to all of you. It has been a crazy end to 2016 but I think all of us have a clarity of purpose that will inform 2017 and beyond, and together we will build a sustainable movement that never gives up the fight to Retake Our Democracy for the good of the people and our planet. Find us on Facebook here and throughout 2017, share our blog and our movement with others. It is one of those activists tasks that can be done daily.

At the end of this blog are dates and times of our Action Team meetings, the Santa Fe and Albuquerque Women’s March on Washington, Progress Now NM’s Progressive Action Summit, a series of Sierra Club-sponsored citizen lobbying trainings in Las Cruces, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe, and other events. But first let’s examine the Trump voter and how we might effectively communicate with at least a segment of that population.

Retake Our Democracy’s primary goal is to make it easier for supporters to use their voice effectively. Previous posts focusing on supporting Somos Un Pueblo Unido’s Sanctuary resolution and opposing the Verde Transmission Line are examples of Retake Our Democracy providing you a quick and easy opportunity to raise your voice. But some things simply can’t be that easy. Effectively engaging and educating people who have very different perspectives is something that requires deep thinking and relearning some basic communication strategies. Not easy, but learning those communication skills and coming to a better understanding of the perspectives of those who don’t share our views will only strengthen our movement for the long haul. And so today: the Trump voter.


At the end of Bernie’s comment to this Trump supporter, the Trump Town Hall erupted in applause.

There are many kinds of Trump voters and some clearly should be feared, exposed, and opposed. But many Trump voters supported his candidacy because they felt abandoned by both parties for the better part of 40 years and came to the view that government simply doesn’t work. Many of us share this view, while arriving at very different conclusions. As this short article with links to video of Sen. Sanders conducting a Town Hall meeting with Trump supporters demonstrates, many Trump supporters were drawn to the themes of Sen. Sanders campaign but viewed the Clinton campaign as more of the same old approach to government that had ignored their needs for decades.

These Trump supporters understand that they are being screwed by the system and that corporations are demanding more of them while providing less in return. They have suffered first-hand from bad trade agreements and the Corporatocracy’s stranglehold on the workforce. Some of these individuals harbor racist views, often informed by misinformation from the media, fundamentalist religious institutions, extremist organizations, family members, and from living in communities that tolerate and even foster the expression of racist, misogynist, and violent views. No matter how much reading we do and training we receive, we will never reach many segments of Trump supporters. But there is great potential for engaging and educating a significant number of them, and in doing so widen the progressive tent and erode the Trump base.

Strangers in Their Own Land. Below I provide excerpts from an illuminating Mother Jones article by Arlie Russell Hochschild who spent five years living in rural Louisiana to reach a better understanding of the views of the kind of people who ultimately voted for Donald Trump. I also provide a more hopeful perspective with a link to the story of four former white supremacists who for different reasons transformed their lives and formed a non-profit, Life After Hate. The group conducts research to develop strategies and solutions for preventing racism and creating pathways out of organizations dedicated to extremism. Click here to read their stories. It provides evidence that even those holding the most extreme political views can be reached and can change.

I encourage you to watch the video below from George Lakoff, a noted linguist, cognitive scientist, and political thinker who has studied how the human mind understands language and how the brain ‘frames’ information. His eye-opening book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, describes how the GOP, has over several decades, reframed political discussion in terms of moral values, which has resulted in millions of Americans voting against their own economic and social interests for decades. Further, the Lakoff video sheds light on how to use our own moral language to persuade others of the wisdom of progressivism generally or of any specific policy initiative. Retake Our Democracy will be providing communication training informed by Lakoff’s insights to help us use language more effectively, but the video provides a good introduction. See below.

Let’s go to southern Louisiana with this excerpt from Hochschild’s Mother Jones piece. It captures what she describes as ‘the deep story’ that informs the world view of many Trump supporters:

“You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

The deep story reflects pain; you’ve done everything right and you’re still slipping back. It focuses blame on an ill-intentioned government. And it points to rescue: The tea party for some, and Donald Trump for others.”

The full article describes the lives of many who share different forms of the back story described above. Given that for many of us, we have only the most distant view on the lives of people who share this back story, it is important we achieve some understanding of how this back story operates and the personal and political contexts in which it has been formed. Click here for the complete article which describes the lives of many Trump supporters in rural Louisiana.

Most of us understand that many of the people described in the deep story as ‘cutting in front of Trump supporters’ are even more exploited by the same capitalist system that is exploiting Trump supporters. Most of us also can see that the real reason there is no movement in this line is our corrupt political system, bad trade deals, media misinformation, and two political parties who have largely ignored us.

Most of us have also had the experience of trying to explain with facts and figures how it is not the immigrants, women, or blacks who are consigning you to an ever more challenging life, but a corrupt system. Even though I feel I have all the logic and all the facts on my side, I find my facts, logic, and research deflected time and again. Here is where the work of George Lakoff is so important, as it unravels the cognitive processes that ‘frame’ human understanding of information and organizes it into the kind of ‘deep story’ that Hochschild describes so vividly. If we are ever going to make inroads with people who share many of the same concerns we have about our country but who have reached very different conclusions, we must learn how to communicate more effectively with those people. The video interview with George Lakoff serves as an excellent introduction to how we must reshape our communication strategies.

Click here to go to Lakoff’s blog site with a series of blogs on framing and how it influences communication in relation to a range of political discussions.

Roxanne and I wish you a very happy new year. Even in tough times, it is vital to find ways to celebrate the beauty of life and the caring relationships we have. So take some time to give thanks for that….  Happy New Year….Paul & Roxanne.  The video and coming events are below.

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9 replies

  1. I also have lived and continue to work in rural areas and have tried for years to communicate with more urban “liberals” about these issues and need to build bridges – but I do think because from their perspective was not believable and in many ways was not demographically correct and not living in accordance with my outward stereotype and profile I have easily been discarded, ignored and ridiculed and marginalized – so it has been – I know well what it is like to be slapped around by such folks and I have the deep wounds and health issues with me as a consequence – it is about time to really being to look at this – and those that did vote for Trump are not all of the same genre at all either thought there may or are some commonalities and with others who are more “progressive” and there may indeed be things that can be learned from their experiences and even friendships that can emerge….

  2. Paul,

    This is an excellent post and one that I have echoed in my rants on complex systems and human behavior. My views on human behavior were formed mainly from decades of experience in performing assessments of technical systems largely associated with the nuclear and other technologically based industry. These systems are usually led by people with scientific education and almost to a person their arguments against my observations were always labeled as “rational”. Systems analysis along with self introspection led me to realize that rational thought is not primary to our motivations, which lead to our observable behaviors. I thought of rationality as a thin veneer surrounding our more primary emotions. However, I am starting to see greater complexity in a meaningful cognitive model that may allow better insight into all of us and keys to reaching some of the Trump voters. To do that we have to stop thinking that are views are based on rational thought and theirs are not.

    Lakoff, as a cognitive scientist and linguist, offers a much deeper insight into human behavior than my observations and my discussions with psychologists and sociologists have led me. I do believe that there are many cognitive psychologists and sociologists who are progressive that we should identify and enlist for any effort to communicate with those who see Trump as the answer to whatever negative emotions or beliefs they hold about our current political system. I am trying to become better educated on cognitive processes to improve my largely intuitive understanding. I will put Lakoff’s latest book on my reading list.



    • Thanks, John. If you want to take a lead role in identifying potential trainers, we want to convene a half day training in late Jan early Feb focused on this, perhaps beginning with a panel discussion and then followed by breakouts. Let me know if you can take the first steps where. We have two trainers identified, but need more and especially trainers from different cultural backgrounds. best, Paul

      • Paul,

        I have signed up to take communication training from Debra Oliver of Common Ground in Santa Fe on Reframing the Election. This training is scheduled for 6 Saturdays starting Jan 21 from 1 to 2:30. Adding in commuting time from Albuquerque means a midday chunk of those Saturdays will be consumed. If the sessions you mentioned don’t entirely conflict with this training I will gladly participate with you efforts. As you are aware progressive groups are manifold each with a somewhat different focus and all worthy of our support. Your blog has consistently captured my attention and I would like to explore providing greater support.



  3. I was happy to find this website and blog that are so rich with information, inspiration, and resources for those of us looking for meaningful ways to connect. Great job! However, I was distressed to see the phrase “engage and educate” used a couple of times re “Trump supporters” as if they are an alien species. Engage, yes, but “educate”? Implies “We have the knowledge and you don’t.” I think this is where the Left often falls down. Would you want to be “educated” by some know-it-all person who knows nothing about your life experience? No! Educating ourselves, yes. Conversing. Getting to know people. Finding common ground. Sharing information. LISTENING…

  4. I was happy to find this website and blog that are so rich with information, inspiration, and resources for those of us looking for meaningful ways to connect. Great job! However, I was distressed to see the phrase “engage and educate” used a couple of times re “Trump supporters” as if they are an alien species – “them.” Engage, yes, but “educate”? Implies “We have the knowledge and you don’t.” I think this is where the Left often falls down. Would you want to be “educated” by some know-it-all person who knows nothing about your life experience? No! Educating ourselves, yes. Conversing. Getting to know people. Finding common ground. Sharing information. Offering and receiving ideas. LISTENING…

    • I agree with your comments. It is such a delicate balance to incorporate consistently. In a prior blog, not too long ago, there was a good deal of emphasis upon the use of moral language and starting with listening. One of our Outreach initiatives is called Community Conversations, essentially canvassing that begins with precisely what you stated: listening. What keeps you up at night? How do you feel government fails to meet your needs? etc. No agenda to ‘guide’ those contacted to ‘the truth.’ At some point, we need to find language for the effort to help some Trump supporters connect some of the dots differently and that must avoid the tone and approach of “we know better.” To help me better understand the perspective of many Trump supporters, I am reading Strangers in a Their Own Land by Hochshild. She spent five years in Southern Louisiana, largely listening and learning. I highly recommend it. I have found it so instructive I include excerpts from her Mother Jones article in last week’s blog. I am also reading The Third Reconstruction by Rev Barber of Moral Mondays fame and he talks about seeking common ground through the use of ‘moral language’ that can unify. Much to learn. Thanks for your comment.

      • Hi Paul,

        Thanks for your terrific response. Am reading the Hochshild book and am looking forward to the Barber… Sorry my comment got posted twice, by the way — am a bit technically challenged… And again, thanks for this really good work you’re doing…


  1. Why 40+% of Americans Will Vote for Trump & Why Increasing Numbers are Committed to Violence to Defend MAGA – Retake Our Democracy

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