Finding “common ground” with Trump supporters requires a common reality


Since the election of Donald Trump in November and especially since he’s taken office, I’ve seen a number of stories encouraging progressives to lay off the anger and disappointment and to sit down and find common ground with the Trump voter. The arguments I’ve seen repeated in various places go something like this: There are fundamental things on which we can agree and so we need to find those places of common ground and build from there. It’s a lovely concept, but at this point I don’t think that it’s possible in most cases. Here’s why.

I teach a course at my college on conflict management. While numerous lessons from this course can be applied to this situation, one stands out as most important: In order to effectively manage conflict one of the things the people in conflict have to generally agree on is the perception of that conflict–they have to agree, for the most part, about what happened. For example, if two people are married and one partner unexpectedly comes home three hours late, a conflict can emerge. In this case, perhaps one person doesn’t think staying out longer than planned is a big deal while the other person may feel quite differently about that decision. Management of that conflict can be handled effectively once the two partners sit down and talk about what happened, why it happened, and what they might change in the future to ensure that the conflict doesn’t emerge again (such as agreeing that in the future a simple phone call will do the trick).

Now, let’s think about this conflict in another way. Let’s say that the person came home three hours late, but that her partner insists she was two days late. In addition, the offending partner can prove that she was only three hours late because she has a time and date-stamped picture of her and her partner from five hours before her late arrival that confirms she left the very evening she came home. And yet, even faced with this evidence, her partner still contends that she was two days late.

Are you starting to see what I’m getting at here? One thing that must be happen when trying to manage a conflict is that the people trying to manage that conflict must share some common reality. And this is why it seems nearly impossible to me to “find common ground” with Trump supporters at this time. I’m not saying that perceptions don’t sometimes legitimately differ. Of course they do. We all perceive the world differently based on our experiences, identities, biases, and the like. So, for example, as someone from Texas who is used to driving a long time to get to most places simply because the state is so big, I can perceive a two hour drive to a concert as practically nothing while someone who grew up in the northeast, where you can drive though entire states in two hours or less, can perceive driving two hours just to see a concert as almost unimaginable. Those differences in perception are fine. They’re normal. But what we cannot disagree on is how long it takes to drive about 100 miles down a highway at the speed limit without much traffic. That’s not up for debate. And yet these kinds of arguments are, in fact, up for debate with Trump supporters.

And so here we are. On one side, we have a group of people who did not vote for Trump and who know that climate change is real, that voter fraud isn’t happening on any large scale and that we’re statistically in more danger of being gunned down by a White male Christian than we are of being attacked in any way by an Islamic radical. We know that you’re more likely to have your personal firearm kill you or someone in your family than be used to defend your home and that based on Trump’s own admissions and crime statistics related to bathrooms, women are in more danger if they find Donald Trump in their dressing room than if they meet a transgender person in the same space. We also know that Secretary Clinton did nothing illegal or unethical before or after the Benghazi attack. And the list of things we understand to be true because we believe in data/evidence/science goes on and on.

On the other side we have many Trump supporters who believe that climate change is a hoax perpetrated on us by China, which has somehow managed to convince 97% of the world’s scientists to play along. They believe that voter fraud is a serious problem in this country and that we’re in constant extremely high danger of dying at the hands of an Islamic radical. They believe that having their guns in the their homes, on the streets, and in classrooms makes them safer, that transgendered people should be banned from the restroom of their choice because they pose a safety threat, and that Donald Trump’s recorded admissions were simply “locker room talk” rather than him confessing that he’s sexually assaulted women. And when faced with the facts that Republicans cut embassy security funding before Benghazi and that numerous reports released by Republicans show no evidence of Clinton wrong-doing, they still yelled “BENGAHZI!!!” at the top of their lungs until and even after election day. And the list of claims, arguments, and beliefs made without evidence and, in fact, often in spite of evidence to the contrary goes on and on.

So, given these differences, on what “common ground” are we to start these conversations with Trump supporters? In other words, when I’m three hours late meeting the Trump supporter and the Trump supporter claims that I’m two days late, where can conflict management, much less negotiation, even begin?

There is no finding “common ground” when your actual realities are not the same. Indeed, “alternative facts” are really just another way of saying “alternative reality”. But here’s the thing about “alternative facts” and “alternative realities”–they’re called “alternative” for a reason–because they are alternatives to actual facts and actual reality. And it’s not up to the people living in the land of actual facts and actual reality to move toward the land of “alternative” anything. We cannot cede ground on actual reality. It’s an utterly ridiculous suggestion and a seriously significant slippery slope. People living in these “alternative” everythings are, by definition, delusional. How is that a starting place for any kind of reasonable attempt at conflict management?

So to those of you who are a part of the constant refrain of “finding common ground” with Trump supporters, I ask for more than such a simple suggestion. I ask you for a suggestion that is actually possible. Conflict management cannot occur when the people conflicting aren’t basing the discussion of the conflict on the same sets of data, facts, or reality. It just can’t.

So, what now?