Responding to your MAGA relatives this Thanksgiving

Responding to your MAGA relatives this Thanksgiving
Talk about media and how rightwing billionaires harm average Americans. It works!

6 min read

A visit with family and friends is in the cards for many of us this weekend. Sometimes, tough conversations come out during those visits. Political issues in America are taking on more and more import with each year that passes. And so discussions about society and democracy and the state of the country often come up. If you’re a person who cares about American democracy, we have a guide for you on how to respond when your MAGA relative makes an offhand comment — on the “woke mob”, or worse.

This is an article about “How to talk to your MAGA uncle on Thanksgiving”, but it’s a bit different than many articles of this kind.  The goal here is to give you the tools, the words, the poise, and the knowledge to articulate your values and do a little persuasion.

Here are three guiding principles for how to engage in persuasive communication with MAGA conservatives.

1. Pivot to billionaires

The most important piece of advice we can share is to pivot to talking about billionaires.

The Republican party’s goals today are all about helping a small number of rightwing billionaires. Billionaire American oligarchs are focused on destroying the government to cut taxes on the rich. Privatizing public schools to cut taxes on the rich. Shrinking healthcare to cut taxes on the rich. Slowing climate policy to help rich fossil fuel CEOs make more money. This is the agenda of the billionaire-controlled Republican party. And your MAGA relatives are not billionaires — no matter whether they are working class or more wealthy, they are being screwed by the truly wealthy: the billionaire class. So whenever they bring up some policy item, find a way to highlight how Republican billionaires are using that issue to enrich themselves at our expense. 

2. Talk about rightwing media

Talk about media and talk about the billionaires behind rightwing media.

There’s a reason why rightwing media is always talking about media bias: because if you can change the way people view information, you can change their minds. A study from early 2022 showed that getting Fox viewers to watch other media for just a few weeks had a dramatic effect on their views, shifting them away from MAGA Republican positions.

Female looks thoughtfully straight aheadSo anytime you hear something come up that would be on Fox — CRT! Crime! Biden is slow! Gas prices went up! — you can always go back to “Oh, my dear. Sounds like someone’s been watching Fox again. You know Rupert Murdoch, a rightwing billionaire, uses Fox to lie to you so you’ll vote for tax cuts for Murdoch, right?” Or, try “Murdoch was one of the first people in the world vaccinated. More than 90% of Fox staff got the vaccine, and they knew Fox was lying about it. They don’t care if you die — Republican elites laugh in private about their voters being ‘useful fools’… Oh wait, you didn’t know that? Oh, I’m so sorry for you. Well, pass the cranberry sauce, please!”  (There’s more below on this kind of “strength projection.”)

3. Talk about the world you are for

Using the two principles above, you can make some progress undermining the foundation of MAGA views. It’s important to talk about the billionaires that run their party and the media that deceive their voters.

But just as important is to talk about what we are for.

FDR’s “Four Freedoms” are a good start: beginning with freedom from fear, freedom from want. We want the freedom that comes from good health and good healthcare. We want everyone to have a fair shot at success. We want America to be a place where every person, no matter where they come from or who they love, is endowed with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We want everyone to be free from the fear of gun massacres, which come from MAGA judges and politicians that act to flood our streets with guns. We want a pluralistic, diverse democracy where people of different backgrounds and races and creeds live together peacefully — and work to build a better world together. We want rule of law: that the richest white-collar criminal faces charges and prosecutions. And we want a democracy where leaders change after elections — a society ruled by laws, not by particular people or a few American oligarchs.

Other things to read on talking about what we are for, talking about our American values: Anat Shenker-Osorio’s Twitter timeline (for example this thread), and Anand Giridharadas’s book.

Feel free to bring up the basic issues you believe in and link them back to fundamental American values.

Principles and research behind good persuasion

There’s been some research progress in the past few years figuring out what works to persuade. First, race/class narratives work. Second, MAGA Republicanism is all about asserting dominance and feeling strong. 

Race/class narrative

One approach called the ‘race-class narrative’, backed by research, shows that arguments about society and democracy can be persuasive if they emphasize billionaires and don’t shy from mentioning race.

That means you can say things like “Billionaires like Rupert Murdoch [pay Tucker Carlson] to divide us by race, so they can steal our tax dollars with tax cuts for billionaires.”

A second line of research, based on recent large-scale randomized trials, has shown that all voters (even MAGA voters, and older voters, and Fox-watching voters) can be persuaded. That same work showed that corruption/character and betrayal were more persuasive than many other topics. One kind of betrayal is just what is mentioned above: “Republican billionaires [or Fox, or Tucker Carlson, or rightwing talk radio] lie to you to get you to vote for tax cuts for billionaires.”

And overall, narrative is key. Persuasion is usually most effective if you tell a story, and for that story to have a villain, with a name, who’s harming others. Charles Koch, Rupert Murdoch, Dick Uihlein, and other right-wing billionaires really are bad people — and talking about how they don’t care if we die penniless, or get massacred in mass shootings, can persuade.

MAGA Republicanism is all about dominance and strength projection

It may seem obvious that MAGA Republicans don’t care as much about policy as they do about strength. But it’s worth highlighting that. You won’t make progress discussing issues without conveying that MAGA certainty is misplaced. Unstated body language and how you carry yourself is just as important as the facts you present.

Trump is a good example of the kind of dominance rightwingers like: showing dominance over others was a key aspect of his politics. Another example can be seen on YouTube, where rightwingers like Ben Shapiro promote videos about “SCHOOLING” liberals.

Showing strength is really key to any conversation you have with a MAGA Republican. It’s not just about facts. And so the best way to persuade them, to get them to drift away from the Republican party is to, well, dominate them a little verbally. (John Dean of Watergate fame, an ex-Republican, and psychology professor Bob Altemeyer wrote a book about this.)

Projecting strength means different things for different people – you’ll have to see what works for you. Sometimes, perhaps you know the person well. Say it’s your old uncle who is a crusty old straight-talker, and you can just say “Don’t be an idiot. You are spouting a pack of lies because you watch Fox — and they don’t tell you Trump and his billionaire pals are hurting the country and harming you” (that is, a form of betrayal.)

On the other hand, sometimes it’s more subtle: you say “Oh, you’re just going on again” and wave your hand in a dismissive way.

Whatever the situation brings, just remember to stay calm and collected and show you’re the one who is confident and strong — while they’re believing a pack of lies about their party, spoon-fed to them by billionaires and rightwing media.

Here’s to building a better America and better world. Happy Thanksgiving.




Quotes and SCRIPTS

Some of this material might be useful in discussions.

Lies vs Dems being basically honest: “MAGA Republicans are liars, their movement is built on lies. The Democratic party has its problems too, but they are at least honest about what they stand for. Remember healthcare? Obama spent years trying to expand healthcare coverage, and the very first thing Republicans did in 2017 was try to cut healthcare for many of us. And lied about it – they said they weren’t trying to remove protections for preexisting conditions, while they were voting to remove them.”

Right-wing media changing messaging around elections: “Have you noticed that when there’s an election coming there is more talk of crime and immigration? MS13, caravans, what happened to them? Have you noticed that after the election, on Fox and rightwing radio there’s far less talk about crime?”

Most billionaires are Republicans: “Yes, the Democrats have some billionaires on their side, that care about the country and want to help people. But the vast majority of billionaires are Republicans. Look at Elon Musk— he endorsed DeSantis […because DeSantis will destroy the government to cut taxes on Musk]. Or Jeff Bezos. He put a Republican in as CEO, the top guy at the Washington Post. Almost all billionaires back Republicans. Mark Zuckerberg held a fundraiser for Republican Chris Christie.”

Democrats have some problems but the Republicans are far worse, captured by billionaires and corporations: “I realized all the Republicans were on the side of the banks, and half the Democrats were too. But everyone who was on the side of working people was a Democrat. So I picked a side and started to fight.” [- Elizabeth Warren]

No one built their business alone: they relied on government schools, roads, etc. [The full “you didn’t build that” quote]
“I hear all this, you know, ‘Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever.’ No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”