The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Stop insulting Trump voters and their concerns. Talk to them.

Former president Donald Trump walks onstage during a rally in Sarasota, Fla., on July 3. (Jason Behnken/AP)

When supporters of former president Donald Trump hear media pundits analyze them with the usual collection of belittling observations, they must be tempted to respond, “Hey, we’re right here! We can hear you!”

Yes, they are indeed here, and living among us. And they have every right to be insulted by being accused of believing a “big lie,” and by the implication that they are violent, or traitors, or mindless sheep — racist sheep, of course. They’re fed up not just with the overt insults, but also with more subtle digs, such as former defense secretary Leon Panetta saying last week that he worries that Trump “will continue to try to somehow sway his followers” to attempt another Jan. 6-style uprising. Followers? No one refers to President Biden’s “followers.” It’s a word generally reserved for adherents of cult figures.

I live in Trump Country. I was a Trump supporter, until he lost me with his actions after the 2020 election. But most Trump voters have stuck with him. With Trump’s encouragement, they sincerely believe the election was stolen. They’re not racists. They’re not traitors. Some of them think anyone who accepts Biden’s win is a traitor. Some of them think I’m traitorous — or at the very least I’ve succumbed to the evil influences of the mainstream media — for accepting Trump’s defeat.

Polls are occasionally produced to perpetuate the myth that Trump voters are ready for war. Even the conservative American Enterprise Institute reported in February that 39 percent of Republicans polled agreed with the statement “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions.” The survey’s director, Daniel Cox, acknowledged the speculative nature of the question by cautioning, “We shouldn’t run out and say, ‘Oh my goodness, 40 percent of Republicans are going to attack the Capitol.’ ” No, they aren’t. In fact, the Capitol riot wasn’t mentioned in the question, so it wasn’t necessarily what respondents were thinking of when they answered.

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It’s my unscientific conclusion that about half of Trump’s supporters will go to their graves believing the election was stolen. The other half can be persuaded otherwise, but only by time and reflection, like accepting a death. Shaming will never work.

Don’t forget how the left loudly claimed in 2016 that Russian hackers had influenced millions of Americans to vote for Trump — an accusation that put an unfair cloud on his victory and his ability to govern. In fact, the 2016 election was fair and honest, but foreign powers tried, as they will try again, to impact the result. The 2020 election was also fair and honest, but don’t pretend there weren’t problems, as always, even if they did not change the outcome.

Considering the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism recently found that the U.S. media ranks last in trust among 46 countries, some self-examination on this issue should be welcomed. In 2016, the New York Times decided to start applying the word “lie” to many of Trump’s claims. “We owed it to our readers,” executive editor Dean Baquet said at the time. Others followed suit. But using words such as “lie” and “falsely claimed” in news stories arrogantly supposes an absolute knowledge of truth and makes it appear the news outlet has chosen sides.

So stop calling people liars. The media should return to the non-accusatory style that worked for decades. Instead of writing that election fraud is a lie, or Republicans are “falsely claiming” fraud, go back to the style that worked for decades: “Republicans again claimed the 2020 election was rigged, but no evidence has emerged to support that allegation and courts have dismissed all suits challenging the results.”

Next, abandon the narrative that Trump supporters are insurrectionists, and stop elevating groups such as QAnon and the Proud Boys beyond the fringe elements they are. As shameful as the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was, only about 800 people were involved — hardly representative of millions of Trump supporters. Despite their suspicions, the vast majority of Trump voters are not interested in invading federal buildings or overthrowing the government. They’re interested in going to work and church and soccer games, taking care of their families and voting in the next election.

There’s no big mystery to effectively communicating with Trump supporters — or for Trump supporters to communicate with everyone else. Treat each other with politeness and courtesy. Respect other opinions even if you disagree. Acknowledge each other’s patriotism and love of country. Don’t assume you understand each other because you’ve read some think-tank analysis. Reach out, be curious and start a dialogue.

Trump supporters aren’t going away, and those who continue to paint them as the lowest forms of life reveal themselves to be more interested in perpetrating stereotypes and nurturing divisions than in achieving what’s needed for our nation to survive — reaching across our political chasm, respecting our differences and finding common ground where we can.