Carving Out a Space among Fractious Factions

Over a year since Donald Trump’s election to the White House, I made a startling sociological discovery.

I discovered the “neo-Trumpkins”. The neo-Trumpkins are to Trump supporters are what neoconservatives are to the conservatism.

With curiosity, I focused on observing the elusive neo-Trumpkin in the state of nature.

To backtrack a little, prior to the election, conservatives were largely divided into Trump supporters, #NeverTrumpers, and everybody else. (In case you are curious, I belonged to the “everybody else” group. I did not vote for Trump — or for Hillary — but was willing to support positive action items by him and criticize the negative in the event of his election).

Indeed, during the course of the campaign, some of the hardcore Trump supporters struck me as mean, aggressive, and over-the-top. They called it “bloodlust for victory”. I called it “dangerous delusion”.  I am still not convinced Trump’s election wouldn’t have been possible without the crudeness, or that this “winning” attitude was what actually led to his victory. Regardless, after the election, I decided to leave the personality battles behind, and focus on the issues. I saw many of the former skeptics and #NeverTrumpers commit to the same, for the sake of helping the country succeed. Also, the schadenfreude of the leftist hysterical overreaction seemed to united all factions, at least for a little while.

Eventually, however, the reality set in. Trump’s governance style seemed unpredictable and uneven, and much more was talked about than actually happened. But rather than seeing some of the “original” supporters come to their senses and respond to the presidency in less messianic terms as a result of very normal tensions between campaign rhetoric and the reality of governance, I saw the former Trump skeptics turn into almost unrecognizable people. The change had already started to set in after the Republican National Convention, when Trump became the official nominee. As some of the previous skeptics came to terms with the inevitability of Trump having to face off Hillary, they had started changing their minds to :”technical” support against Hillary, and as the event grew closer, even started to volunteer for the campaign. Interestingly, after the election, the very fact of victory was the breaking point.

Whether their previous opposition to Trump was on grounds of political disagreement, ethical considerations, or skepticism in his ability to pull off a victory, the very fact of victory seemed not to cancel out the preexisting reservations. Soon, I saw that the neo-Trumpkins because the most ardent zealots of the President, and retroactively started insulting their preexisting primary choices. Indeed, where in the past, they would have been willing to criticize either Trump or other candidates with respect to certain issues, now any criticism of Trump appeared to them the betrayal not only of the party, or the president, but of the country, and conservatism itself. As cognitive dissonance of having to justify complete disavowal of previously held positions mixed with the most basic form of tribalism, the entire discussion became about “us” vs. “them”, and the political differences facing the country became nothing short of an existential crisis, where no one was allowed to justify the deeply flawed Republican messaging for fear that any form of dissent would play into the critiques from the left.

By contrast, at least some of the paleo-Trumpkins over time showed a surprising ability to call Trump out on certain failures to keep to election promises or otherwise less-than-ideal leadership. More often than not, of course, the most die-hard loyalists still tended to overlook significant failings and take negatively to criticism, but increasingly, I found them at least willing to have a rational discussion concerning what they saw as victories or defeats. The neo-Trumpkins became increasingly overtaken by revolutionary zealotry of the newly converted. They looked to anyone not sufficiently deferential even to Trump’s appointees as a traitor and an enemy. Soon enough, threads of ideas, previously diverse and entertaining, became apotheoses of cultish devotion, where any deviation from the line of praise for everything done by the administration as superlative brings out mockery and personal attacks. The numbers of such threads are legion.

This phenomenon poses a number of interesting questions:

First, will such tactics actually convert more people into “loyalists”?

(The answer is no: the Republican party actually decreased by 3-5% according to different sets of data, since last year).

Second, will such tactics be effective in more successful and unified messaging?

Only to the extent the messaging is targeted at a narrow group of the base.  Most people who are neither paleo-Trumpkins nor neo-Trumpkins but are moderate supporters or skeptics, will simply shrug off such rhetoric and go elsewhere for more nuanced conversation.

Third, is this really effective against the leftists?

The answer is no. Quite simply, increased and deliberate polarization by the social media tends to make dialogue and reasonable discussion less likely, and even politically neutral people end up getting antagonized. Also, who is going to be convinced by endless spewing of hatred? And what exactly are we trying to achieve here? Semblance of unity? Unified message of disgust at the leftist activism? Real victories are measured by significant change and take place either in the laws signed and implemented resulting in significant improvements in people’s lives or through education and minds changed, and once again, lives improved. It’s certainly not measured by the number of effective memes, online flame wars, or the numbers of people who are less devoted than you “shut down”. Shutting down should be reserved for trolls. Everyone else s hould be engaged in conversation to the extent possible. Now, not everyone will come in arguing in good faith. Some people are political hacks. But there is still value in engaging politely and exposing their hackery for what it is. The art of persuasion is not the same as the art of shutting down, but in reality, we forget that elections and battles lost will be lost as much as by our inability to broaden the base as by our inability to galvanize the existing voters or activists.

Fourth, our lives are constantly improving. Why is everyone so bitter and angry?

If we listen to the online “influencers”, the world is coming to an end and we are all going to DIE if we don’t win this or that election or other political battle. First of all, no one is dead on that account yet. Second – sure, there are issues of principle worth fighting over and being passionate about, but fighting hard and alienating anyone who is not exactly on the same identical line, and paragraph, and page as you are is not going to bring you victory. Third –  not every battle is a battle of principle. And if you don’t learn how to pick your battles, you’ll quickly run out of ammunition and the battles will be chosen for you. I don’t believe in “final battles”. And I prefer to fight on my own terms for the issues I believe in, not because some apparatchik tells me what I’m supposed to think, believe in, or find important.

I don’t actually care what the left things about my political views as a whole, because I already know that in GENERAL, the most hard-core ;leftist activists will mostly disagree with everything I believe in. Why expend the effort worrying how what I’ll say will reflect on my ideological commitment, when it’s obvious that to that type, it’s all the same? On the contrary, however, if particular people are not the straight party-line types, it may be worth engaging with them on individual issues, and in that case, foaming at the mouth will not help. The revolutionary types forget that revolutions tend to eat their own, and without tailoring your messaging to individuals, and taking into account that what works for some people will not work for others, we are bound to meet the same end.  Some people will break under pressure and just start spouting whatever you want them to, but those who are independent thinkers will only grow to resent you for your attempt to force them into a box.

What would I do if I were faced with the dilemma of contrarians and non-conformists?

I would welcome them into the fold, listen to what they have to say, and then make them my best messengers. These are the people who are more likely to reach the people hardcore activists, ideologues, or devotees are not likely to reach. Alienating them is the stupidest political move you can possibly do. Instead, given them their own space, find them a role, and make them useful, rather than annoying.

But hey, what do I know? I don’t have too much of a mind for politics.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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