Hard Truths About How to Beat Donald Trump

The odds of defeating the billionaire depend in part on whether Americans who oppose him do what’s effective—or what feels emotionally satisfying.

Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

Tens of millions of Americans want to deny Donald Trump the presidency. How best to do it? Many who oppose the billionaire will be tempted to echo Bret Stephens: “If by now you don’t find Donald Trump appalling,” the Wall Street Journal columnist told the Republican frontrunner’s supporters, “you’re appalling.”

Some will be tempted to respond like anti-Trump protesters in Costa Mesa, California. Violent elements in that crowd threw rocks at a passing pickup truck, smashed the window of a police cruiser, and bloodied at least one Trump supporter. Others in the crowd waved Mexican flags. “I knew this was going to happen,” a 19-year-old told the L.A. Times. “It was going to be a riot. He deserves what he gets.”

Still others will be tempted to sound off against Trump on Facebook or Twitter while feeling all but helpless to do anything else about the course of the 2016 election.

All three reactions make Trump’s election more likely. That’s why all three reactions should be rejected by anti-Trump voters as costly, unaffordable self-indulgences.

Here is how those who want to beat Trump should behave:

Show earnest respect to his supporters while empathetically persuading them to change their minds.

Telling someone they’re scum for supporting a cause or a candidate causes most people to stubbornly redouble their position. In contrast, persuasive scholarship shows that even short conversations with voters can change their minds about even the most polarizing issues if the persuader engages respectfully, listens attentively to their conversation partner’s viewpoint, and forges a human connection while explaining why they came to different conclusions based on their experiences. This technique has proved effective in a rigorous scientific study where actual canvassers spoke with actual voters prior to an actual election. It is effectively explained in greater detail in a This American Life episode. If you want to hear what it sounds like for a pro-choice canvasser to persuade a staunchly pro-life voter to change her mind very quickly, listen here. If you can’t bring yourself to treat someone as you’d want to be treated even in service of stopping a dangerous leader you lack the standing to stigmatize hate.

At anti-Trump protests, eschew violence and any other behavior that helps his cause.

The activist left is very antagonistic to “respectability politics,” which Wikipedia defines as “attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as compatible with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference.” Since nonviolence is a value held dear by large majorities on the activist left, not a mainstream value it rejects, efforts to keep anti-Trump protests as peaceful as possible are not at all inconsistent with rejecting respectability politics. They’re a no-brainer. Results-oriented activists should go a step farther. If organizers at anti-Trump rallies did their utmost to keep Mexican flags out of the hands of activists and to have as many American flags waving as possible that may or may not constitute respectability politics. Labels aside, that tactic would significantly increase the chance that a given rally will help the anti-Trump cause and significantly decrease the chance that a given rally will harm the anti-Trump cause. All who regard preventing the empowerment of a demagogue who pits his supporters against Mexicans and Muslims as a hugely important goal should prioritize its achievement over dramatically less urgent and important matters.

Give time or money to the process—it’s much more effective than snarking on social media.

Almost any American  can meaningfully contribute to a given candidate’s defeat. By investing their own time, a citizen can canvass for or against a candidate, help to register new voters, or help to ensure that registered voters of a given persuasion actually get out and vote on election day. With even a modest amount of money, a citizen can join with other donors of modest means to great effect, as Bernie Sanders has proven this election cycle, funding a national political operation with small contributions. A group of three or four friends who walk around anti-Trump protests registering voters could easily do more good than the protest itself. There are structural factors in American politics that make some changes all but unachievable, even by energized citizens, but defeating a candidate isn’t one of them, so neither helplessness nor cynicism nor defeatism is a defensible posture.

On a gut level, millions would rather vilify neighbors with political disagreements than persuade them. In spite of themselves, many activists relish an emotionally satisfying protest more than an effective one. Many non-activists would rather sit around complaining about the country is going to hell than to get off their couch and help save it.

Many Americans can see these pathologies in themselves.

What more fitting way to beat Trump than to use one’s brains to triumph over one’s gut?

Some will say that this is all unfair—that no one should have to engage Trump supporters respectfully, or police the behavior of protesters, or expend time or money in the civic process, to prevent a demagogue with hateful beliefs from taking power.

Personally, I think Trump’s critics are right. Trump should not be the Republican nominee. He should not have millions of supporters. No one should have to persuade as many of them as possible to defect or stay home. But he will be the nominee and he does have millions of supporters. Trump opponents can take up the burden of beating him or eschew that burden as unfair, increasing Trump’s chance at victory.

That is the stark reality of their historic choice.