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How to Combat Trumpism (Even After Trump Is Gone)

This story—that a few extreme-libertarian billionaires like the Murdoch family use media like Fox News to enrich themselves at viewers’ expense—needs to be told over and over again, in every possible venue.

Supporters and protesters of US President Donald Trump stand outside the Trump International Golf in Sterling, Virginia on November 8, 2020. (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

Supporters and protesters of US President Donald Trump stand outside the Trump International Golf in Sterling, Virginia on November 8, 2020. (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

One would think that four years of unprecedented incompetence, lies, cruelty, corruption, and scandals would have disillusioned even the most passionate Trump supporters. But given the election results, approximately 45% of our country continues, proudly, to support him. Most of the other 55% of Americans have concluded that Trump’s 45% consists primarily of true believers, that they are immune to facts and reason, and therefore that we will have to contend with Trumpism for many years to come. 

"Ultimately, what makes MAGA 'tick' is rage and resentment."

History suggests that this prediction is too pessimistic. When Nixon resigned in disgrace, his approval rating was 19%. Apparently, then, around 20% of the American people will stick with a Republican president no matter what. This is the bad news. The good news is that this number is only 20%; the other 25% of Trump's supporters might be open to abandoning him.

Persuasion, however, will not be easy. As too many of us have learned over the last five years, merely fact-checking Trump’s many lies or debating policy will hardly make a dent. Instead, persuasion of the more “tractable” 25% will require an alternative approach: exposing the oligarchical agenda behind right-wing propaganda—or the “entertainment wing of the Republican Party,” as Steve Schmidt refers to it.

Jen Senko, one of the co-authors of this op-ed, implements this general strategy in her documentary, The Brainwashing of My Dad (2016). After showing how Fox News and Rush Limbaugh converted her father, Frank, from a kind, loving, good-natured, non-ideological Democrat into an angry, bitter partisan, Senko explains how she and her mother converted him back. They did not challenge, belittle, or shun him. Instead, they subtly reduced his consumption of Fox News and Limbaugh and subtly increased his consumption of both the mainstream media and more progressive viewpoints. Before long, Frank overcame his unhealthy “addiction” and returned to normal.

Elizabeth R. Burchard recommends a similar strategy in her book The Cult Next Door: A True Story of a Suburban Manhattan New Age Cult (2013). Burchard had been in a cult when she met Judith Carlone, a devout Catholic. Instead of trying to immediately rehabilitate Burchard, Carlone first developed a loving friendship with her. Once they had built a solid relationship of trust, Carlone very gently exposed Burchard to the inconsistencies in her cult leader’s doctrines and to the ways in which he was exploiting her and the other cult members. Eventually, these safe, instructive conversations enabled Burchard to see the light and break free.

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Likewise, Democrats need to do much more of what U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse did at the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett: follow the money and call out their game. Sen. Whitehouse was exposing the Republican party generally; Democratic politicians and organizations need to focus their exposés on Republican media in particular. Many, if not most, of Trump’s followers simply fail to realize that it is constantly lying to them.

Fox News, for example, uses race, religion, and gender to manipulate its viewers into voting for Republican candidates. But the reason why its owners, Rupert Murdoch and his sons, want Republican candidates to win has very little to do with race, religion, or gender. Instead, the Murdochs favor Republican candidates because they will promote policies that make the Murdochs themselves and their super-wealthy friends even wealthier: deregulation of the energy and financial sectors, confirmation of pro-corporate judges, lower taxes, and opposition to whatever will increase workers’ power—primarily labor unions, higher minimum wage, government-paid benefits, and campaign-finance reform. Of course, Fox News is never honest about this top-one-percent agenda. If they were, they would alienate far too many in their bottom-ninety-nine-percent audience.

This story—that a few extreme-libertarian billionaires like the Murdoch family use media like Fox News to enrich themselves at viewers’ expense—needs to be told over and over again, in every possible venue. We need to keep helping Trump’s followers to the realization that the Murdochs and their fellow plutocrats simply do not care about them; that whenever they consume Fox News and other right-wing propaganda, extremely rich people with very different interests and values are effectively reaching into their brains, grabbing on to their emotions, and pulling them away from reality. Over time, the relentless repetition of this dark truth should help to blunt the force of all the relentlessly repeated lies and provocations that reverberate around the right-wing echo chamber.

Still, mere ubiquitous repetition of the truth will not be enough. Ultimately, what makes MAGA "tick" is rage and resentment. They are convinced, and infuriated, that Democratic politicians, academics, and the mainstream media look down on them; that they supposedly dismiss them all as ignorant, racist “deplorables”. From this hot, bubbling rage at marginalization by the "establishment" arises all of their fanatical tribalism and susceptibility to the craziest conspiracy theories. Because their faith in Trump and Trumpism derives from such raw emotions, just arguing about facts, ideology, policy, and values will not change their minds. Instead, converting them (back) into rational Americans will require not only mass education but also mass counseling.

Ken Levy

Ken Levy

Ken Levy is a professor of criminal law at Louisiana State University Law School.

Jen Senko

Jen Senko

Jen Senko is an award-winning documentary filmmaker; media activist; and soon-to-be author of a new book, The Brainwashing of My Dad, which will be published by Sourcebooks, the largest publisher of women's books in the U.S.

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