Like so many others, I have been frustrated by my inability to find the language and style of discourse for engaging Trump supporters in reasoned discussion about their choice and their reactions to his pronouncements, executive orders and consequential tweets. Attempting to engage in such conversations invariably led to confrontation or silence. If a person-to-person approach did not work, I wondered if a more structured public setting might be more effective especially as I am accustomed to speaking to groups and to the give-and-take of group discussions. I was looking for opportunities to communicate about current newsworthy developments — perhaps about the recently-concluded Singapore summit where Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un — with people ranging from active Trump supporters to people with independent views or who were at least not openly hostile to him.
Two opportunities quickly materialized. One was an invitation to speak to an informal gathering of mostly suburban professionals who meet monthly at a country club in the most affluent part of the relatively affluent suburb of Portland, Oregon, where I live. The other followed from an exchange with a retired economist and banker with whom I had shared a platform several years ago, on Russia’s annexation of Crimea and security threats to Eastern European countries following the takeover. He was invited to address a “study group” of a neighborhood association in a middle-class suburb south-east of Portland, an area considered to be relatively conservative.[i] My acquaintance was going to talk about the administration’s international economic policies and the “Trump doctrine,” and thought that I might provide a differing perspective.
The events took place on consecutive evenings, about ten miles apart in neighborhoods with more than $1 million apart in media house values. My point of departure at both was what might justify thinking that our security and that of the world was increased by the Kim-Trump summit. I talked about differences between atmospherics and substantive changes; Trump’s focus on his “great personal relationship” with Kim; the vagueness of nuclear arms-related commitments in the concluding joint statement; and North Korea’s history of reneging on such commitments. I alluded to the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Iceland and Reagan’s willingness to “trust” but insistence on “verify.” Then I talked about the so-called “Trump Doctrine.” In the first venue I characterized it as a form of vandalism, disrupting or destroying imperfect but functioning, long-established institutions and regimes such as the Paris Climate Accord and, NATO without offering cogent alternatives. In the second, I followed a speaker who lauded Trump’s move away from multilateral institutions and toward bilateral transactional relationships in trade and security. By contrast, I presented a more systematic critique of his transactional approach, emphasizing the importance of time in building trust and relationships as well as the costs of uncertainty in economic relationships and the potentially destabilizing consequences for security policies.
My 25-minute talk to the first group ended with a two-part question: had the Trump-Kim summit materially enhanced our security and that of the Korean peninsula or Northeast Asia more broadly speaking? The moderator allowed a free-flowing exchange of views among the roughly 35, mostly middle-aged or older, middle- to upper-middle class audience members. The conversation clustered around three pairs of questions:
- Has Trump brought a constructive negotiating style to international relations, or was he a naive amateur, simply putting on a show?
- Have the cordial exchanges improved security relations on the Korean peninsula or should they be seen as a first step toward a process of real threat reduction?
- Was the Singapore summit mostly an exercise in public relations to distract from Trump’s difficulties at home and to enhance his standing, with and beyond his base?
There was a polite, fairly articulate and well-informed debate, with participants falling into one of three camps. First there were those who thought the security problems posed by North Korea might diminish over time. Second were those who argued that the meeting was harmful because it provided status to a “terrible tyrant” and undermined the sense of security of our allies in Northeast Asia, and third, were the few who suggested that the summit somehow redounded to China’s advantage. I was asked few direct questions, except to clarify matters of fact and verification procedures in nuclear disarmament.
The speaker preceding me at the second event celebrated what he termed the effectiveness of Trump’s strategy and style of pushing aside the liberal establishment’s way of doing things. He argued that Trump’s behavior at and after the G7 summit, which immediately preceded the Singapore summit, was intended to show that he was not bound by the niceties of old institutions; there was little to lose by trying to work out better economic deals and launching “leader-to-leader” negotiations on security. The points I tried to make in my fifteen minutes emphasized the value of established rules and multilateral institutions for stability in both economic and security matters, and for orderly ways of resolving differences and managing change.
These points, as well as my argument that giving status to Kim’s regime carried costs, were brushed aside with “[Kim] will do what he will do, it’s our security that matters most.” I again emphasized differences between form and substance but was interrupted — not particularly politely — with calls to give Trump a chance and to recognize that he does things differently, with the implication that that is good in itself. Several people volunteered words along the lines of Trump’s statement that we should now sleep better and feel more secure; in a few hours he had removed a threat we had been living under for decades. Thirty minutes were left for questions and discussion after the presentations. Only half of the allotted time was used; people left early.
I took two sets of observations away from this experience. One is rather banal and reinforces much of the evidence and argument in recent books and articles about the current crises of democracy and the rise of populism: class — without defining it more precisely than some combination of education and wealth — seems to affect people’s degree of interest and their ability to delve into the issues. The president’s behavior and motives seem to correlate not only with people’s opinions but, evidently, also their styles of discourse. Perhaps as important, work- and life-related experience appears to influence their forms of reasoning and how they express their views.
The “country club group” avoided ad hominem comments or mouthing of clichés and showed some effort to engage the comments of others on the level of substance. There were few attempts to score political points. Much of the discussion in the second meeting was circular: either Trump’s effort and style would succeed because they are breaking with the old, ineffective ways of doing things, or he has already succeeded, simply because he has broken away from the old ways of doing things. There was little engagement with points on the value or risk of disrupting established institutions, no comments on the transactional rather than institutional approach to trade and security issues, and only mild skepticism regarding Trump’s personal, relationship-based approach to Kim. I would guess, but of course have no evidence and cannot get any, that few of the members of this gathering spend much of their time dealing with differing points of view in extended conversations.
My second take-away is that, while I am no closer to being able to engage committed or potential Trump supporters individually, I am encouraged by the possibility of communicating with them in a formal, group setting. The meeting in the library did not generate many spontaneous exchanges among those present, and it certainly did not yield deep discussion, but it was civil. The meeting at the country club was heartening: there was attentive and engaged listening, and, more important a concerted effort by people to communicate with each other, without lapsing into cant. I have not yet followed up on my sense that some of the conversations started last week might be continued. Nevertheless emails from those in the country-club group — none came from the library group — asking either about a reference I made or my views on Kori Schake’s op-ed about the “Trump doctrine” in the New York Times,[ii] suggest that bringing people together to talk about issues to which Trump and Trumpism are central without talking about Trump per se can be fruitful. I may try to do more of these group discussions on subjects about which I am not wholly unqualified.
Martin Heisler is a political sociologist working on comparative and international politics, migration, ethnicity and applied ethics.
[i] While most of the city of Lake Oswego is in Clackamas County, outlying suburbs and small towns in the county are notably more conservative. Trump received a bit over 43 percent of the vote in the county, somewhat more than in Oregon but did considerably less well in the city.
[ii] I had to disclose that she had been a student in my seminars long ago and that I served on her dissertation committee at the University of Maryland but emphasized that we had not colluded.