Getting Heard Beyond the Choir
by Susan C. Strong
Foreword: Although events are moving faster every minute in our country right now, it is still true that we need to get heard well beyond the choir, even as the “choir” swells with each new outrage. For example, impeachment will require very broad public pressure to move the GOP beyond protecting Trump. Below are my suggestions for reaching a larger audience now. But if things get much, much worse very fast, we will need some other tactics. See note #1 below for a true story about how some very clever organizers used language to bring down a dictator and more. Get ready now, friends. Just reacting after the latest distracting outrage may be too slow.
Recently a new slogan began making the rounds: “Make America American Again.” You might expect me to love it. But I noticed something about it: the assumption that we on the left know what “American” is these days. We just had a big object lesson on the fact that for too many Americans, “American” seems to mean something different from what we on the left usually mean by the word. This really matters because we cannot rescue our country from the GOP/Trump takeover all by ourselves. Sure, we can resist and we should. We must stand up for everybody and everything endangered by the Trump/GOP cabal. But to save our democracy we Americans will all have to come together to halt the GOP blitzkrieg. We know many Trump voters are going to be unhappy sooner or later, especially those who switched from Bernie to Trump. We know they have been badly conned. Saving our republic requires us to frame our messages to reach them now. Our own Democratic legislators need to hear that kind of language as well. So let’s rethink what “framing it American” means now.
First of all, it’s vital for us to understand what many Trump voters actually feel and believe, looking deeper than the offensive sexism, racism and general bigotry they either resonated with or ignored in Trump’s campaign. (Two recent books that help in this effort are J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Arlie Russell Hochshild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. (See four others here.) We know that the Right’s media empire of talk shows, Fox News, and siloed social media, plus our tweeting president, will continue to lie and mislead them. But what do many Trump voters actually believe from their own experience now? We already know that it was their personal experience of a rigged economy, job loss, and wage stagnation that caused them to go for Trump’s outsider promises. It’s also going to be their own experience of new threats to their own wellbeing that will cause them to question Fox News, Trump’s lies, and the right wing talk shows. Already many of them are up in arms about talk of destroying Obamacare. But we don’t have to wait for that to happen about everything before framing our messages better to reach them, as well as our customary audiences.
Now let’s talk about some topics: we can all agree that the economy is rigged against working Americans. And we know that Trump’s Swamp Cabinet and his first 100 days plan, designed by the Heritage Foundation, will make it worse. (New research has added details of Bannon’s blueprint as well.) Although I usually suggest starting with something positive, the situation we are in now is an exception. To get everyone’s attention we have to use the hot button word “rigged” ourselves as a hook. (Don’t forget, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie used it first.) So, as the GOP/Trump axis unrolls its program, we can say versions of the following: “Y” (our economy, for example) is still rigged! Unrig it with X! (fill in the blank with a positive proposal),” or “More or “New rigging about Y going on now! Only X will unrig it.” Or “This Z (bad thing) is just more rigging. We need to do X instead.“ Fixing things is an American value we all share. But we must be careful to be very specific about both the thing rigged and our better idea. An important bit of research that Hochschild quotes is the fact that Trump voters don’t distinguish between Wall Street corporate business and Main Street business; they still believe in capitalism and big business acumen. It’s why they bought Trump. So explicitly attacking capitalism or the corporate coup going on now is a losing strategy.
Of course a lot of Trump voters don’t trust “government,” because they have been taught that it is the problem.” So we need to avoid framing our positive solutions as “government” supported by higher taxes. Being very specific about what an initiative would do to help them is the way to go: “Building bridges all across America will help us all move forward: more local jobs, more businesses able to move products safely etc.” Of course, re that “government thing,” there is a huge bit of common ground staring us right in the face now. The “government” is now the GOP and the Trump cabinet, to say nothing of Trump himself, and Bannon, his puppeteer. The GOP has spent years pushing harmful ideas like killing Social Security and Medicare. They can’t wait to slash every kind of federal spending that could help our economy and all our people get into the 21st century and stay there. But now the “shoe,” so to speak, is on their foot. If they actually try to do all they have promoted for so many years, the backlash will just continue to grow. We need to be part of that backlash, but carefully in sync with how it hurts everyone. Focusing on the specifics of how each destructive piece of GOP legislation, executive order or rule-dumping hurts us all is the way to go. Using simple words that are visceral in their impact is vital; no multisyllabic, latinate, fifty cent words! For example, try “Americans expect fair treatment about X, so we need to play by the rules about Y.” “Fairness” is still a widely shared American value. So is “playing by the rules,” which is another quintessentially American way of talking about fairness. Challenging the GOP/Trump axis to actually create real, lasting jobs is a good goal for us. Though Trump may make promises and now threats, true new job creation is probably still just plain outside the GOP’s DNA.
But what about the Trump/GOP assault on environmental protection and climate change action just now picking up speed? Americans want clean water, air, and food, even if they don’t all believe in climate change.(To see what I’ve already recommended about framing climate protection now given that fact, see my most recent blog on this subject.) So our focus needs to be on ‘the rules that protect us all from dirty water, air, and food that make us too sick to work.” That last point is vital. Everyone understands the price of not being able to work. Again, let’s specify what we need to do instead to “Keep American workers healthy so they can keep working! Clean up our water, air and food by doing X.”
It all sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? But we must stretch to reach it. Of course a lot of Trump voters think “rigging” also includes government favoring freeloaders poorer than they are, with handouts paid for with their hard earned tax dollars. This is hard for us to hear, but sometimes this is based on firsthand experience: In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance writes about seeing people on public assistance come to the grocery to buy things he couldn’t afford. The problem here is that working folks can’t afford what they want, and flat wages or no wages are the basic cause. We need to show we care about that and avoid labelling it as just racism or selfishness. It’s also very important for us to figure out how to support communities of color or difference in a style that avoids playing into the hands of GOP operatives. They know very well how to use Trump supporters’gut resentment against us about that. Talking about creating more jobs, more opportunity, and more fairness for everyone is the best strategy. And here are some more suggestions along that line: Trump voters define the “elite” not as the !% we mean by the word, but as the Democrats and liberals who use what they call “political correctness” to make them feel unseen, uncared about, ashamed, stupid, bad, and worthless. They believe we think they are less worthy than those folks who receive government welfare or aid through affirmative action. Trump voters feel we scorn them for their religion, their kind of patriotism, their lack of education, and their reliance on family, church, and community for support. We need to find ways to counter that impression, even if we don’t agree with everything their churches believe. Let’s try some versions of “All Americans deserve the same fairness, respect, and protection of the law” instead.
Some Trump voters will believe our ideas for better job creation, health and safety if we have already established a reputation for feeling their pain and supporting their needs. It’s also the first step of an American Political Framing process: listen to your audience. Pay attention to the images, metaphors, and catch phrases they use when talking about their problems. .Find a way to use that language for your own messages. (See our site for more on how to do this.) And if you are really serious, try being like Dr. Arlie R. Hochshild—get to know some local Trump voters. Find out what makes those particular people unhappy or scared. What are their hopes? Find out what their stories are. Some very good guidelines for exploring these kinds of conversations can be found at
Maybe it will take some time for all of the oncoming GOP mistakes to surface, even if Trump is impeached and replaced with Pence. Make no mistake—we will still be in big trouble if that happens. But the GOP also always goes too far, once they get their hands on the throttle. They are seriously out of touch with their own people, and they still believe they can get away with this forever. I don’t believe it. Electoral and cultural history show that they do get a comeuppance in the end. In the meantime, we need to frame our messages about what the American people want and expect of our government in the broadest possible positive terms, and in ways that will include everyone, even Trump voters. After all, we Americans all want to protect our freedom, things to be fair, people in government and out to play by the rules, economic prosperity that benefits everyone, our communities to be clean, safe, secure. We all want practical solutions to our problems that work for everyone, and we all want to be able to keep up with other countries in the global economy. That’s what being American means to the majority of Americans. Word frequency research shows that the most used words in Trump’s inaugural speech were “Dream, American, and Jobs.” Let’s make sure we progressives sound even more American than that!
Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the Founder and Executive Director of The Metaphor Project, http://www.metaphorproject.org, and author of our book, Move Our Message: How to Get America’s Ear. The Metaphor Project has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997. Follow Susan on Twitter @SusanCStrong and check out her TEDx talk too.
!. Bringing Down a Dictator, (film) and Blueprint for Revolution (book). See also veteran organizer George Lakey’s http://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/stop-trump-10-point-strategy/.
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