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Thursday, Oct 18, 2018
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Column: To beat President Trump, you have to learn to think like his supporters

Almost a year later, Donald Trump is still president. Powerful men in entertainment, media and even politics have seen their public lives implode under scandal almost instantly for months now, but Trump holds on.

If you’re among the majority of Americans who oppose Trump, you can’t understand why. And it’s making you furious. I saw the same thing happen in my native Venezuela with the late Hugo Chávez, who ruled as precisely the sort of faux-populist strongman that Trump now loves to praise. Chávez’s political career (which only ended with his untimely death) seemed not only immune to scandal, but indeed to profit directly from it. Why? Because scandal is no threat to populism. Scandal sustains populism.

Trump’s overall approval rating has dwindled to below 40 percent, but his base — the only people Trump appears to think he needs to answer to — still loves him. In one November poll, only 7 percent of his supporters from last year said they’d vote differently if they could. Which is to say, in the face of all this scandal, Trump is not even close to collapse. He and his supporters are simply grinning back at you.

It is clear that 2017 Trump is not very different from 2016 Trump on his way to power. The basic premise remains: that the restoration of the country lies in the destruction of its enemies. The only difference is that Trump, now in power, paints himself as a fighter under siege. What you call scandal is only a sign that he is fighting back. Indeed: that he is fighting you. To his supporters, this is no scandal at all — he’s doing exactly what he promised he would do.

His supporters are convinced that you are to blame. Until you can convince them otherwise, they will cheer him on. The name of the game is polarization, and the rookie mistake is to forget you are the enemy.

Normal politicians collapse in the face of scandal because the scandals show them dozing on the job or falling back on their promises. To get elected, they offer a bargain: "Vote for me: I will make you richer/fight for your rights/assure your progress." Scandals reveal they can’t do that, and thus, they tumble.

However, like all populists, Trump offers a much different deal — "Vote for me: I will destroy your enemies. They are the reason you are not rich/have less rights/America is not great anymore." Scandal is the populist’s natural element for the same reason that demolishing buildings makes more noise than constructing them. His supporters didn’t vote for silence. They voted for a bang.

So where you see Robert Mueller making progress at getting to the truth of Russian interference last year, Trump supporters see an altogether different scandal. When Trump’s aides are indicted, but Hillary Clinton isn’t, the probe serves as proof that the system is corrupt.

The scorn of his adversaries, in the eyes of his supporters, proves that he’s doing exactly what they voted for him to do: dismantling a rigged system that they believe destroyed their hopes.

I know how you feel. You are outraged. Each day that goes by, it makes less sense to you. As Venezuelans used to tell one another: Chávez te tiene loco. Trump is making you crazy. But don’t start by trying to convince Trump supporters that he is a hypocrite who must be impeached, that the news is not actually fake, that your statistical charts and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are in dire need of their attention.

Before you try to persuade them that they are being racist, or worse, ignorant by believing in Trump, you should ask yourself: Will this help convince them that I am not their enemy? Because what can really win them over is not to prove that you are right. It is to show them you care. Only then will they believe what you say.

Sheer outrage at the president’s scandals is pointless. Worse still is directing your anger at his supporters. Then you’re doing the same thing Trump is: believing your side is all right and the opposite side is all wrong. Rejecting your common humanity and sense of country, you’re playing into the polarization game instead of defeating it.

This is not a call for appeasement, only for efficiency. Trump’s solutions to nation’s problems may be imaginary, but the problems are very real indeed. Populism is and has always been the daughter of political despair. Showing concern is the only way to break the rhetorical polarization.

Finally, there is indeed a place for your legitimate moral outrage: not the dining table, but the voting booth. Just ask Alabama Democrats.

So as the second year of Trump’s administration approaches, stop. Take a deep breath. Let all the hatred circle from afar. Don’t let it into your echo chamber. Try to hush it, pause it. Don’t let it close your eyes and tear your own society, your own family, apart.

Andrés Miguel Rondón is an economist living in Madrid. He is a Venezuelan citizen who was born and raised there.
© 2017 Washington Post

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