Discover more from Defusing American Anger: A depolarization endeavor
Why those concerned about worst-case Trump scenarios should see depolarization as important
Depolarization-aimed work addresses the root cause of divisive and destructive behavior: our us-vs-them animosity and contempt.
When it comes to the work I and many others are doing to attempt to lower the toxicity of our us-vs-them divides, there are a lot of misunderstandings and a lot of misconceptions.
And this isn’t surprising: many of us are on edge, and fearful, and when we’re fearful we’re more suspicious of the people around us. We’ll see more monsters under the bed; we’ll become more paranoid. To paraphrase Arthur Brooks: when we’re scared of “them,” more and more people will start to seem like “them” in one way or another.
For example, many liberals assume that, in order for me to work on depolarization efforts, I must be some sort of Trump apologist: that I must not really mind Trump that much, or that I maybe see the badness of Trump as similar to the badness of, say, Joe Biden, or to the badness of the left in general. This line of thinking goes something like, “If you really saw the threat Trump represents, you’d spend your time talking about the badness of Trump; you wouldn’t spend your time talking about how polarization is a both-sides problem.”
I see the threat Trump poses
But these are wrong assumptions in my case, and I think they’re also wrong for most of the people I know who work on depolarization.
I believe I clearly see the threat Trump poses. I’m very worried about worst-case Trump-related scenarios, as I have been since the day he was elected in 2016. Nothing I’ve seen from Trump at any point since he took office in 2016 has surprised me, because I feel I’ve understood from the beginning how truly narcissistic he was. (As an aside, a great book for understanding his personality is Trumped!, which was written by a high-level casino executive who said he wrote it out of a moral duty to let other people know what Trump was like.)
I was not surprised when Trump continually claimed the 2020 election was rigged, or when he denied to concede that he lost: I was on the Trump team’s email list and I’d watched he/them amplify election-distrust for months leading up to November. I was not surprised by what happened on January 6th (as someone keeping tabs on that in the weeks leading up to it, I was actually expecting something much more violent and chaotic).
As I write this now, I’m concerned about what will happen now that Trump has been charged, and now that there are influential Republicans making incendiary, dangerous claims, like that the charges are politically motivated shams, and that we live in a “banana Republic.” I’m concerned about Trump’s recurring slogan “I am your retribution,” and his talk about imprisoning his “enemies” if he gets elected. I’m very concerned about the amount of anger I see amongst Trump supporters, and what that bodes for the future.
I’m concerned about street violence occurring related to these things, and how that will escalate our divides, and how such things might also dramatically reduce the little will there already is to take depolarizing, de-escalating approaches.
For these and many more reasons, I’m quite scared of what lays ahead, because I think America is more unstable than many of us know, because one bad event can kick off a cascade of other bad events (while I also am cognizant that it’s good to avoid overly pessimistic, overly certain predictions about such things, because the truth is we simply never know how things will play out).
(If you’re a Trump voter, I have a note for you at the bottom of this post.)
I work on depolarization to combat extremism
The truth is that my fears about worst-case Trump-related scenarios are one of the main reasons I work on depolarization. The nature of extreme division is that, as people grow more angry and hateful, they’re more willing to support and put up with very polarized, polarizing leaders.
I see extreme us-vs-them polarization as the root cause of Trump being elected: polarization did not start with him: it has been growing for decades, and grew also from contributions from Democrats. When viewed through that lens, Trump was not an anomaly but just the latest manifestation of that growing polarization (a point examined in Nolan McCarty’s book on U.S. polarization).
I also work on depolarization to reduce what I see as unreasonable and divisive beliefs and approaches on the left (for example, see this talk of mine with a militant antifa member, or this talk criticizing some common framings of racism). Reducing bad and divisive beliefs is a worthwhile thing on its own, but it has other indirect effects. for example, liberal-side unreasonable and divisive beliefs are a big part of what drive the unreasonable and divisive behaviors on the right. To some extent, the far left and the far right have radicalized each other (to quote Anne Applebaum), and some of that radicalization and anger then spreads out to our broader culture and politics, with many of us pulled along for the ride in various ways.
The way we reduce the support for divisive narratives and divisive people (like Trump) is by working on depolarization: by attempting to show people, on the right and left, that their perceptions of the “other side” are often based on untrue, overly pessimistic views about the other side’s beliefs and motivations; and by attempting to show that our methods of engagement (contempt, insults, condescension, threats) can be faulty and unhelpful even as we may believe we’re the right ones in the conflict.
Now you may be thinking, “But wait, the other side is doing horrible things; they support Trump after all he’s done and said; they are anti-Democratic; we must judge them harshly for these things.”
There are many things to say about that (that’s why I wrote a book on it) but the short answer is that we should attempt to separate our feelings about Trump from our feelings about his supporters. Some points in that area:
It’s standard in a polarized conflict for people in both groups to have divergent realities. This is true for all very divided populations that exist now and that have existed throughout history. If you can start to see some of the ways liberals can be in various bubbles—for example, liberals having extremely excessive fear of covid; and liberals having very exaggerated beliefs about police violence; and liberals having their own election distrust (which I discuss in the first part of this podcast episode)—then perhaps you’ll start to have more understanding of how we can so easily wind up in some divergent bubbles.
Not all Trump voters are gung-ho and enthusiastic about Trump. Many Trump voters don’t pay much attention to the news (as is true for voters in general), and therefore don’t know about all the things that make you mad about Trump. Many of them consume the most positive portrayals of Trump, based on the news they consume and their friends group. Many of them don’t trust the liberal-leaning mainstream media—and as I discuss in my book, some of that distrust is justified and understandable. Many Trump voters, I believe, are good and rational people, just on the other side of the chasm of our divides.
We tend to focus so much of our energy and attention on the most extreme, most angry, most unreasonable people on the “other side.” Due to the out-group homogeneity effect, we tend to perceive the other side is all-the-same (as they also tend to perceive us). What if instead, we focused more on, and aimed our speech more at, the more moderate, more reasonable people? What if instead of signaling our disgust, we tried to reach people who don’t agree with us? What if we tried to actually persuade people instead of mocking them and insulting them (or, if we’re feeling generous, ignoring them)? An added bonus is that by focusing less on the most extreme people, you deprive them of power: the most us-vs-them people thrive off of engagement.
I think our path forward is in trying to avoid dehumanizing, insulting, divisive rhetoric and behaviors, and in trying to engage with the ideas and beliefs of people on the “other side,” as much as we’re able to. The nature of polarization means that so many people have an instinct to see engaging with the other side’s beliefs as weak, and see that engagement as helping the “other side,” but I think our instincts in these areas lead us wrong, and lead us down the path of increasing polarization.
I think the path forward lies in more of us a) criticizing unnecessarily divisive rhetoric from people on “our side,” and in b) more of us engaging with the more rational, understandable beliefs of the “other side” (and not avoiding or mocking those beliefs). At some point, some critical mass of people doing these things will make a different, and the culture will shift.
Put another way: if one of the things you dislike about Trump is that he constantly strives to divide us, do you want to add to that division? Or do you want to do what you can to fight against that division?
To people who may still object, “But if you think Trump is so dangerous, why don’t you spend your time criticizing him?” To that I’d say: I don’t think those criticisms would do any good. Our team-based lines are well drawn, and there are clearly plenty of people who spend a lot of their time criticizing Trump. When two groups are in a conflict, one group’s righteous judgement of the other group doesn’t do much: if anything, it creates more animosity and makes things worse. To solve intractable problems, we must avoid our social group-versus-group instincts to simply pile on and righteously judge the other side—we must try to see the problem from a higher level, and look for deeper, longer-term solutions that aim at the root cause. And that’s how I view the work of depolarization.
If this piece piqued your interest, or raised questions for you, and you want to know more, here are some resources you might appreciate:
Why liberals should see polarization as a major problem: This gets into the complexity of our divides, examines liberal-side contributions to our divides, and explains why you can think “they’re worse” while still seeing depolarization as an important goal.
Thoughts on optimal approaches to depolarization work: My thoughts on what we want people to do to work on these problems. If you’d like to know what you can do to help, you might like this one.
My book Defusing American Anger: this book will answer many frequently asked questions and objections from a liberal audience (e.g., “But how can you defend these people?”).
A note to Trump voters
If you’re a Trump supporter/voter who’s read this, there’s a chance you’re thinking, “How can you say you want to reduce our divides but be so hateful towards Trump? What about liberals who attempt to divide us? Why should I listen to you when you seem so biased?”
There’s a lot to say here, but if you read my book Defusing American Anger, or listen to my podcast, I think I’d overcome a lot of your objections. For one thing: I talk a good amount about liberal-side animosity and contributions to our divides, and I also attempt to get liberals to better understand Trump-voter perspectives (as opposed to filtering for the worst-case interpretations). And me doing that work has angered a lot of liberal people—just as you may be angry at me right now.
For another thing: my main objection to Trump is that he is so divisive, and doesn’t seem to desire bringing Americans together, and I see that as fundamentally a dangerous approach to leadership, and dangerous for America. For what it’s worth, I’ve had quite a few Trump voters tell me they agreed with me on this: one Trump voter even told me he thought Trump’s behavior was like “throwing gasoline” on the fire of our divides.
If you know that some Trump voters can think such things, maybe you can see how my point of view on Trump isn’t even political. For one thing, it’s possible for me to imagine a version of Trump who had all the same political policies as Trump, but who wasn’t divisive and insulting, and who actually tried to persuade people who thought different than him. I think that version of Trump would actually be more effective at accomplishing his goals, because he wouldn’t be creating the angry pushback to his ideas that we’ve seen Trump create (and that’s something I examine in my book, too).
Simply put: I’m someone who cares deeply about helping Americans get along better, and that doesn’t mean us all liking each other: it means us disagreeing better; disagreeing in healthier, less toxic, less hateful ways.
Thanks for listening.