Targeting the persuadables

Posted on April 17, 2024

People commonly say: “Nothing can persuade MAGA voters; they believe what they want to believe.” That is mostly true but, also, mostly irrelevant. We can save this country by winning over persuadable Americans.

Yes, the MAGA (Make America Great Again) movement has gained control of the Republican Party by persuading a majority of Republican primary election voters to believe outrageous lies and support extremist candidates. Donald Trump accelerated the MAGA takeover by encouraging his supporters to become the worst people they could be.

Social Identity

MAGA is based on the psychological phenomenon of “social identity.” Science tells us that a great deal of average people’s self-image comes from their social identity, that is, the group or groups that they see themselves as a part of.

Social identity divides the world into us and them, the in-group and the out-group. The us can be something as unimportant as which football team a person supports. It can be about an individual’s social class or family, college or country. Being part of the group makes people feel good inside. It enhances pride and self-esteem, and usually there’s nothing wrong with that. But people also enhance their self-image by denigrating them, the out-group. Individuals can get an emotional thrill by blaming, discriminating against, or cheering the misfortunes of their out-group. Obviously, this kind of politics can turn ugly, and it has.

MAGA employs a myth of white victimhood, a supposed decline from a past greatness, caused by racial, ethnic, religious or gender minorities, and the “liberals” who support them. In this way, opponents become enemies, demonized so that MAGA supporters can feel justified in hating and repressing them. This goes beyond racism from America’s past. It requires more than discrimination, it requires debasement. The MAGA system insists that the out-groups “deserve” punishment and the in-group should feel the pleasure of inflicting humiliation. (“Ha, ha! Owning the libs!”) MAGA leaders, in turn, praise followers for that crudity, cruelty, and even violence, releasing them from all constraints of law, reason and decency. (E.g., threatening perceived opponents and hurling inane insults.)

Persuadable Americans

But, while capturing most Republicans, MAGA has (hopefully) planted the seeds of its own destruction. MAGA is pushing away a slice of traditional conservative supporters, both registered Republicans and Independents.

Polls consistently show that about 20 percent of Republicans are uncomfortable or very uncomfortable with MAGA and Trump. Most of them will probably hold their noses and vote for MAGA candidates anyway. But there is a serious chance that five-to-ten percent of them, especially those who are college educated, understand empathy, or care about abortion rights, will break away because they love freedom, democracy, and the rule of law more than they love the Republican party.

Republican-leaning Independents are probably more likely to break away from that party than registered Republicans. (It is well-established that most people who are registered as Independents actually vote like partisan Republicans or Democrats.) And there is, still, a small slice of swing voters who are usually disengaged from politics but, when forced to choose, are persuadable one way or the other.

Finally, there are plenty of registered Democrats who are upset with their party. Left-wingers, Muslims, and many others are dismayed about Israel. Progressives and young people are disappointed that Democrats haven’t made bigger changes. Some Latinos and perhaps even Black Americans are attracted by MAGA’s authoritarianism. All the while, social media confuses everything. We need to empathize with and court our friends, of course. But ultimately, they will tend to understand and agree with anti-MAGA messages quicker than anyone else. That’s because they’re the ones accused of being “vermin,” and “poisoning the blood of our country.” They would be the first ones harassed, persecuted and, in some cases, imprisoned by MAGA. Let us kindly and patiently explain that.

In sum, there is certainly an anti-MAGA majority. To capture it, we must craft our messages in a way that persuadable Americans will hear and understand.