Stop Worrying About "Galvanizing" Trump's Supporters

by Neil H. Buchanan

The early part of this week saw the political chatter turn to another meaningless sideshow over "civility" and whether it is absolutely horrible that a few Trump Administration figures have been made to feel bad about themselves by members of the public.  It seems that some Americans are becoming unwilling to apply the usual rules to so-called public servants who are willing to enable a would-be king, and even though the restaurant owner who started the latest controversy was apparently polite in the extreme, that has not stopped the right-wing outrage machine (and, of course, Donald Trump himself) from going into overdrive.

As usual, Sarah Huckabee Sanders managed to tell the biggest whopper by responding to this social slight with the claim that "I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so."  The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin had the perfect, deliberately understated response: "Anyone who has seen her sneer, insult and condescend to the press knows that’s not the case."

This is all an unnecessary distraction from Trump's actual policy outrages, but I am nonetheless glad that some commentators have said what needs to be said about the civility issue before it again fades away (until the next manufactured controversy).  In addition to Rubin (who had an even better followup piece), New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg did a masterful job of showing why the tut-tutting by people who purport to oppose Trump is utter nonsense.

In particular, Goldberg called out The Post's editorial board for its false equivalence in saying that liberals should let Trump people eat in peace lest, say, anti-abortion protesters decide to harass their opponents.  She notes incredulously: "Of course, this is not hard to imagine at all, since abortion opponents have assassinated abortion providers in their homes and churches, firebombed their clinics and protested at their children’s schools."  Seriously, how detached from reality does one have to be not to remember such things and to claim that anything that liberals are now doing or saying is even close to what right-wing extremists have been doing since long before Trump came along?

Although I have nothing to add to the discussion about what counts as acceptable civility, I do want to weigh in on the latest round of hand-wringing in anti-Trump world about how this will all play out politically.  Bottom line: Stop worrying about whether this will make Trump's supporters (even more) angry!

The political meta-take on this latest controversy was as predictable as it was irritating, and sure enough, one of the political columnists in The Post went straight to the point with an article that ran under this headline: "Liberal Hostility Toward Trump Aides Could Galvanize the GOP Base."  I will clean up my language a bit, but my immediate response upon reading that headline was: "Oh my freaking God, what did you think the GOP base was before this?  Ungalvanized?!"

This is all familiar ground, but one of the lessons of the Trump era is that the same stupid arguments continue to show up again and again, making it necessary to knock them down again and again.  The claims that Trump voters are Trump voters because of Democrats' "disrespect" or "condescension" -- or most dangerously off-base of all, because of "identity politics" -- all now qualify as zombie arguments that have to be re-killed.

The "galvanizing the Trump voters" trope is also solidly within this category of ideas that simply will not go away.  Supposedly savvy journalists love it, because it sounds sagacious and (much more importantly, from the perspective of a political writer) above the fray.  It also is another way that liberals and other Trump opposers unilaterally disarm.  "Oh dear," we are supposed to say, "Michelle Obama told us to go high when they go low, so we need to shut down people who arguably dip below the mid-point, or people will not like us."

What do I mean when I mockingly describe the alternative to galvanization as ungalvanization?  The former NFL coach and player Mike Ditka used to say that he never took "bulletin-board material" seriously.  He was responding to the idea that he could get his players to play harder and better by highlighting some insult (manufactured or distorted, if necessary) by an opposing player or coach, which is a standard motivational device in sports.

Ditka rejected that idea based on his belief that his players should already be motivated enough to play to the best of their abilities, so they should not need additional motivation.  If his players did not have an all-consuming desire to win at the very core of their being, then he had the wrong players.  Trying to tweak them with bulletin-board material was frankly admitting that something was wrong.

Ditka might have been wrong about football players, and there might in fact be a bit extra that one can squeeze out of people's efforts by finding the ideal psychological approach to motivating even the most motivated people.  On the other hand, it is also possible that enraging people can cause them to lose focus and make stupid errors, which is another trick that athletes have used on their opponents forever.

Which brings us back to Trump's voters.  In the op-ed from which I quoted above, Goldberg professes to being agnostic about whether public shaming of Trump's collaborators is politically wise.  "It may alienate some persuadable voters, though this is just a guess."

Note that this splits the analysis into two separate issues.  The first is whether the latest incivilities will amp up Trump's supporters, and the second is whether persuadables will be lost due to the Sanders incident and its fallout.  I will return to the first issue below, but it is worth thinking again about the mythical persuadable voters that Goldberg mentions.

Like Goldberg, I understand that this is all a guess, but it is becoming nearly impossible to imagine that there are any persuadable voters remaining to be persuaded.  What would a person who is leaning toward voting for a Democrat in the mid-terms but who would be scared off by anti-Trump incivility say?  "Well, I was going to register my protest against Trump's constant lies, his attacks on women's rights, his inhumanity to people fleeing violence, and his obvious comfort with white supremacists.  BUT someone asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to eat elsewhere, so I'm back in the Republicans' camp!"

"Saturday Night Live" ran a hilarious sketch during the Bush-Gore campaign in 2000 showing a town-hall style debate in which undecided voters were allowed to ask the candidates questions.  (I cannot find a link to the sketch online, so I am going from memory here.)  The Q-and-A became increasingly absurd, with clueless voters asking questions about issues on which there were stark differences between the candidates, yet even when they were given responses by both candidates that clearly highlighted the differences, they would say, "Well, I'm still not sure." By the end of the sketch, when an undecided voter said that he deeply cared about the environment, the comedian playing Bush rolled his eyes and pointed to his opponent, saying, "Then you should vote for him!"  The questioner responded: "Well, maybe.  I'll have to think about it."

It truly was infuriating to wonder back then why anyone was still undecided about the 2000 election.  The level of apathy and disengagement necessary to view Bush and Gore as roughly equivalent was astonishing.  Now, however, we are hearing pseudo-savvy political analysts essentially saying that people who are already Trump-sympathetic voters are just as wishy-washy as undecided voters were in a less polarized political environment.

So let us think again about those committed Trump voters.  The Times recently reported that, "As Critics Assail Trump, His Supporters Dig In Deeper," which I find completely believable.  Their angry alienation is not merely being fed by Trump, after all, but by his state-run media enablers, with people like Tucker Carlson telling viewers that this is a "war" between Trump's people and everyone else.  As Charles Blow recently described it, Trump's voters are exhibiting "white extinction anxiety," and that is not something that happens casually.

As far as Trump's supporters go, it has long been clear that Ditka's insight applies.  They are already at maximum motivation levels.  Indeed, we should at least consider the possibility that further angering them will lead them to make stupid errors -- like, maybe, calling victims of school shootings and border policies mere "actors," which makes them look worse to persuadable voters.  Just a thought.

On the other hand, Goldberg is correct to say that we do not know whether supposedly uncivil anti-Trumpers will turn off some persuadable voters.  That certainly seems hard to believe, however, especially given that Trump has made it clear that he is going to do everything possible to galvanize his voters with his hatred-based greatest hits, trying to convince everyone that liberals are to blame for everything.  If persuadables are going to be turned off by incivility, they will repeatedly be presented with reasons to land in the anti-Trump camp -- reasons far more unsettling than what happened to Sanders.

Is it even possible that there are still some voters who could be put off by liberals being meanies to conservatives?  I suppose so.  Is it possible that such voters are numerous enough to change the course of American democracy?  Again, I suppose so, in the sense that anything is possible. 

The 2016 election was ultimately a story about turnout.  The people who were motivated by Trump showed up and voted, and the people who were horrified by Trump stayed home in surprising numbers (in what I recently described as a "Genovese effect," where everyone thinks that someone else will prevent a horrible thing from happening), so Clinton lost.

If anything, the time since 2016 has seen Trump and his people pile up an impressive inventory of reasons for people to see him for what he really is, with his core 40 percent of voters unmovable and everyone else recoiling in horror.  The forces of evil are not going to win because anti-Trumpers are impolite but only if Trumpers out-number anti-Trumpers at the polls.  The Trumpers will be there; will everyone else?

Yes, there are obviously good reasons for people not to be gratuitously unpleasant, but we are nowhere near that point.   I can see why Democratic strategists would rather have the TV airwaves filled with images of anguished victims of Trump's border policies than with pictures of pissed-off liberals shouting at the Secretary of Homeland Security, but those stories were not going to lead the news for the next four months in any event.  The news cycle moves on.

At the very least, worries about "galvanizing" Trump's supporters are simply the fantasies of people who have not bothered to notice the all-out rage motivating Trump and his followers.