Using asymmetrical warfare against Trump

By Robert Wright, Feb 22 2020

This week, in my periodic role as obnoxious Twitter scold, I intemperately reprimanded famous Never-Trumper and #Resistance personage Tom Nichols (@RadioFreeTom), who had tweeted to his 328K followers something to the effect that Trump supporters don’t “care about anything but spite and resentment.” 

Why the reprimand? In part for the same reason I reprimanded Nancy Pelosi in this newsletter two weeks ago, after she conspicuously tore up her copy of Trump’s State of the Union speech. As I put it then, “Maybe you should ask yourself not only whether lots of people in your tribe will love that gesture, but how the people who aren’t in your tribe will perceive it.” Pelosi’s gesture plays into Trump’s persecution narrative—and Nichols’s tweet plays into Trump’s narrative that snobby cosmopolitan elites hold his supporters in contempt. 

In both cases, I think, what we see is our tribe taking Trump’s bait. He wants to enrage his detractors—us—so that we’ll do things that energize his supporters (by nourishing his narrative), thus making them more likely to get out and vote. 

Which leads to a question so good that I wish I’d thought of it myself. 

The question was posed by NZN reader Cary W., who, after reading what I said about Pelosi, wrote in an email: “So why is it that enraging detractors and energizing supporters is a politically beneficial tactic for Trump but a politically detrimental tactic for Democrats?” If it makes sense for Trump to do it, why doesn’t it make sense for Pelosi and Nichols to do it?

Well, one reason not to uncritically adopt Trump’s strategy is that, even for Trump, it has its downsides. Sure, when he energizes his supporters by enraging us, he makes them more likely to turn out in November. But he also energizes us, presumably making some of us more likely to turn out in November. If you’re angry enough at Trump to stand up and cheer when somebody tears up his speech, you’re probably angry enough to drive to a polling station.

Wouldn’t the best strategy for Trump—and the best strategy for anybody—be to energize your tribe without energizing the other tribe? The answer is so obviously yes as to lead to another question: Why doesn’t he pursue that strategy? 

I’m not sure. Maybe because he lacks a vision that could energize people via inspiration alone, so he has to foment fear and hatred. Or maybe he just sees that fomenting fear and hatred, and goading opponents into reactions that feed the fear and hatred, is his special gift. You gotta work with the tools God gave you. 

In any event, the theoretically ideal strategy is to energize your tribe without energizing the opposing tribe. Leaving aside the question of whether that’s a viable strategy for Trump, given his very special skill set, shouldn’t we at least consider the possibility that it’s a viable strategy for us? Shouldn’t we see if we can foster and sustain a widespread determination to vote Trump out of office without at the same time fostering and sustaining the rage that feeds his narrative and thus energizes his base?

I honestly don’t know if this is doable. It calls for cultivating a particular mindset that’s not easy to cultivate. (Mindfulness, regular NZN readers will not be surprised to hear, is something that I think can help.) And it calls for leaders—political leaders, social media leaders—who are skilled in deft inspiration, who can arouse deep concern and potent moral indignation over Trump’s policies and transgressions without igniting rampant rage toward Trump and his supporters. Above all, it calls for leaders who are willing to give this strategy a try.

Persuading them to do this will be a challenge. It’s hard to convince people to abandon things that get them (in the case of this particular Tom Nichols tweet) 1.9K retweets and 10.7K likes. But I’m not giving up. So I’ll be reprising, from time to time, my role as obnoxious scold. You gotta work with the tools God gave you.

Illustrations by Nikita Petrov.

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