15 Tips for Defeating the Trumps in Your Own Life
Our current administration will focus many of us on one of the biggest vulnerabilities we face in public and private life: an inability to reason with the unreasonable, to beat the seemingly invincible; in short, how to trump a trump.
Trumps are not conservatives. What makes them trumps is not what they believe, but how they believe it. They hold on to their beliefs like know-it-alls, with a lock-tight grip shrouded in multiple layers of seemingly impenetrable, defensive, Teflon-coated armor that allows them to act like they're right about everything, and everyone else is wrong about everything.
So if you’re a conservative, frustrated by arguments with know-it-all liberals, the question of how to trump a trump matters as much to you as to us liberals frustrated with talking to know-it-all conservatives.
And if you’re not frustrated by talking to know-it-alls, maybe you are one, in which case you’ll have no reason to read on since you already know it all.
There are chinks in that armor. You just have to know how to find them. Here are some factors to consider.
1. It takes two to tango, so ask yourself if you can you walk away: George Bernard Shaw said, "Never fight with a pig. You'll just get dirty and the pig likes it." Not fighting is a good idea when possible. Still, sometimes it isn’t, so you can never say never. When you have to fight, getting dirty isn’t the only possible outcome. You may be able to subdue them, which is why sometimes it's worth trying.
2. Pay attention to audience: You’ll rarely get a trump to admit he doesn't know it all, since, by definition and design, trumps aim to prove you wrong about everything. Still, you can often get an audience to side with you against him, thereby diminishing the trump’s power. In such cases, play to your audience and not the trump. Say things like, "See what he did there?” instead of “See what you did there?” But also, pay attention to the costs of having an audience. Audiences sometimes make trumps escalate toward greater aggression since they don’t want to lose face. And if the audience already supports the trump, you’re better off confronting him in private.
3. Don't reason with know-it-alls: The Shaw quote would be a bit more accurate if it read, “never reason with a pig, since their defining characteristic is their unreasonableness." Trump typically mistake fake reasons for real reasons. Here’s a list of fake reasons to listen for. If you hear many of these, chances are, you’re dealing with a trump and reasoning is futile or worse, enabling, since nothing makes the unreasonable look more reasonable than someone treating them as though they can be reasoned with.
4. Reasonable trumps: Some trumps are just going through the motions. They don’t know any better. They’re aping what they see their know-it-all heroes do. So “never reason with a trump” is still an overstatement. Give reason a chance or two and if you’re getting nowhere, switch gears to fighting, not reasoning.
5. Don’t be down on yourself for taking the bait from a trump: When you reason with trumps you give them ammunition for making you look like an idiot. That’s what Shaw meant by you’ll just get dirty and the pig likes it. But not reasoning and instead, jumping to the conclusion that they’re trumps, can leave you feeling dirty too. That’s the bind we’re in. It can be stated in the form of a variation on the serenity prayer: Grant me the patience to reason with the receptive, the impatience to give up on the unreceptive, and the wisdom to know the difference. You need the wisdom, because reasoning with the unreceptive and not reasoning with the receptive will both leave you feeling dirty. But here’s the thing: You’ll never have perfect wisdom. The unreasonable go to great lengths to pretend that they’re reasonable. They would prefer you believe they are reasonable, but short of that, they're happy enough to keep you in doubt. Don’t blame yourself for guessing wrong sometimes. Just do your best to guess carefully.
6. Fight fire with fire: If you decide someone is a trump, shift attention to a higher moral goal: Making her leave the engagement disappointed. Drop your concerns about being kind, receptive, generous or giving her the benefit of the doubt. In the service of that higher goal, be ready to fight fire with fire, to go after her cunningly with whatever it takes to shake her. Don't try to shame her morally. She's proud of her naughty-girl immorality. To her, it's a badge of honor. And don't hold yourself to the same moral standard you set for dealing with the reasonable. This is different.
7. Be tenacious: Trumps win debates by controlling them. Indeed, the Donald controlled the debate seamlessly throughout the campaign season. Never once did he let someone else decide what he would talk about or set the ground rules for the debate. If you try to stay honorable by responding to a trump's questions and challenges, he'll whip you around like bull whips a bull rider. Pick a point and stick with it. Never let him off the hook. If he asks questions (which are more like attacks dressed up as questions) ignore it and ask a question back. Pretend he never asked you and keep on him about how he refuses to answer your question.
8. Mark your place: Trumps are slippery. Interviewers often ask them a question two or three times and give up when they don’t answer. Don’t ever give up without marking the question as unanswered. Say something like, “I’ve asked you three times and you haven’t answered once. Obviously, you’re unwilling to answer the question.”
9. Out-trump them: Trumps are masters of relentless character assassination. Don’t play the game at their level. Instead, play it up a level, character assassination for character assassination. Accuse them of never admitting they’re wrong, never apologizing, always changing the subject, and always make the problem someone else's. The trump will likely reinforce your argument by responding in a way that confirms your accusation. Always point that out to the audience: “See? He did it again.”
10. Don’t play into their stereotypes: You have your natural reactions to trumps and you’ll be tempted to express them. Recognize that the trump is familiar with them all and is fully loaded with his know-it-all reactions. If you do what comes naturally, he’ll be there waiting to knock you down. So you have to out-maneuver him, hitting him with surprising responses. To make any communication effective, you need discipline. You have to say it the way that he can hear it, even if it’s not the way that rolls most easily off your tongue. Nowhere is that more important than with a trump. Already deaf to what he expects from you, he'll only hear what’s surprising, different and unexpected.
11. Murmur truth to power: The know-it-all sets you up to get agitated and unstable. That way she disqualifies you for getting emotional. Don’t take the bait. Stay calm, confident, laconic, laid back, even glib. Keep breathing. Let her talk and talk little. The less you say, the less of a surface you present for her to pick apart with her know-it-all formula. Master communicators know not to lean into a conflict. Leaning back forces the other person to lean in off her grounded center.
12. Make confident assumptions: Don’t say, “I could be wrong but I insist, it seems to me you’re acting like a know-it-all.” Simply assume that he is, and go from there. For example, “When did you first discover that you can feel like a winner just by acting like a know-it-all? Were you very young, or was it only as an adult? Did you have a role model who made a big impression on you?” He will likely try to defend himself, arguing that he isn't a know-it-all, which puts him on the defensive. Act surprised and unconvinced since it’s obvious that he is a know-it-all and that he likes it.
13. Give them a taste of their medicine: Follow their logic and pretend you embrace their assumptions. Follow their assumptions to their logical conclusions and act surprised if they don’t come to the same conclusions. Here’s an example to be used with a Trump voter: "I get it. You're one of those no-compromise, look-out-for-number-one guys. It's a dog-eat-dog world and you'll be damned if you're going to tie your hands by compromising to accommodate others. That's why you support Trump. He's your kind of guy. Nothing matters but winning the game. But this is what confuses me: If you've been so uncompromising, why aren't you more successful? It can’t be because you're fighting those compromisers. They're fighting two battles, to win and stay politically correct. You're just fighting to win. You should beat them hands down, but you haven’t. Why are you still a loser even though you’re not one of those losers who cares about anything but winning?”
14. Beat them at their own rhetorical game: If they’re giving you a familiar spiel, surprise the heck out of them by making their case better than they did: Say something like, “Here let me help you." And then, without a drop of snarkiness or veiled criticism, outclass them rhetorically by making a great case in favor of whatever belief they’re espousing. Follow it by saying, "Obviously, you were impressed by your ability to mouth that old argument. I wasn’t. Anyone could make it. It’s easy especially when you only have to fool the gullible. What’s hard is making a realistic argument. I dare you to make my argument cleanly." Then mark the fact that they didn’t or wouldn’t make your case as convincingly as you made theirs.
15. Argue like it's 2020: We learned something very important in this election: Many Americans can't distinguish between opinions and reality. Though Trump lied about reality more than any other presidential candidate in history, these people thought he was honest because he "speaks his mind." By this ridiculous standard, someone who says, "I'm absolutely sure that guns should be outlawed because every gun in America is used to kill a kitten," would be deemed honest. For these gullible Americans, the real test of honesty is insistence. To them, the more insistent you are in your opinions, the more honest you are about reality. Which is total BS of course. So don't play into it. Don't let someone think he can win a debate through insistence and don't try to out-insist him. Calmly note that only time will tell. Reality wins all debates in the end. You and he are placing different bets about how reality will play out. You can drop out of a debate anytime by saying, "I'll be happy to revisit this in two years. If your bet proved right, I'll be happy to concede the point, and if you were honestly interested in reality, you'll do the same."
None of these approaches guarantee success. They are all just attempts to address the number-one challenge in our public and private lives. Other suggestions for how to trump a trump are welcomed.