Why Engaging in a “Civil Discussion” with the Far Right is a Trap

These days, it’s easy to make any issue debatable. Simple, slam-dunk moral and ethical questions about why openly carrying assault rifles in public is a form of intimidation, or about how our citizens should not be getting shot or abducted by police in unmarked vehicles, or about why collaborating with Russia to win an election is treason, or about why it’s not safe to reopen schools during a pandemic, or about why wearing a mask is necessary to prevent the spread of a disease that seems to be most efficiently spread in our aeresolized saliva get twisted into endless debates. And then they become subject to “you need to respect other people’s perspectives,” and “there are two sides to the issue.”

“Peanuts” comic with Lucy moving the football when Charlie Brown tries to kick it.
“Peanuts” comic with Lucy moving the football when Charlie Brown tries to kick it.
Image from Peanuts Wiki Fandom. All rights revert to Charles Schulz

No we don’t, and no there aren’t. There are facts, and there is deliberate misinformation and propaganda. The difference isn’t as nebulous or slippery as most people think.

“There are two sides to every issue” is a propaganda tool the far-right uses to add an air of legitimacy to their lies. “Respect my perspective” is far-right code for “you need to accept the legitimacy of my views, but I don’t need to do the same for you.”

Source: NokenMonk on Imgur

Everyone who is familiar with Trump and his supporters should be familiar with their gaslighting process by now:

  1. Say or do something inappropriate, outrageous, or harmful.
  2. Deny it happened.
  3. Minimize what happened by saying maybe it happened, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. Or claim it was “just a joke.”
  4. Rationalize and make excuses. Explain that there were reasons why it happened and why it was really OK that it happened.
  5. Try to reframe it or walk it back by saying it wasn’t intentional or wasn’t really what you’d meant.
  6. Frame the whole thing as a “misunderstanding.” Then make that the other person’s fault for not trying hard enough to understand you.
  7. Say you’d apologized even when you never did — a rationalization is the opposite of an apology. Then ask the other person why they keep harping on the issue after you’d already apologized.
  8. If the other party explains that this issue is part of a larger pattern of behavior by citing multiple past events, ask them why they are always dwelling on the past.
  9. If the other party holds you accountable for your behavior, frame yourself as the victim and act like you’re being attacked.
  10. Say you’ll change your behavior but then go back to doing what you were doing.
  11. Make a bunch of empty promises that you have no intention of following through on.
  12. If they call you out on this, start the whole gaslighting cycle again.

Those of us have been on the receiving end with narcissists in our lives — or who have been following how the Republicans have been doing politics for the past 30–40 years — know how this “discussion” plays out. We find that we’ve just burned a lot of time and energy trying to have a “civil discussion” that went nowhere. Nothing changes because the narcissist (or Republican) has no intention of really listening to us, much less changing their behavior. For them, sucking up our time and energy with fruitless “discussions” counts as a “win.” While they’d kept us occupied in a “discussion” that was really stonewalling, they were moving forward with their plans. The entire “discussion” was just a means to distract us and keep us occupied while they proceeded with doing what they’d wanted to do all along.

They’re also good at perpetuating the cycle. If we call them out on their behavior, or say we’re not falling for it again and that we’re going to oppose them, or if we do anything to hold them accountable or anything where they’ll have to face consequences, they’ll ask to have another “discussion” about the issue. And that’s the thing — non-narcissists and people on the more progressive end of the political spectrum believe in civil discussions. We believe in engaging in a democratic process. We believe in making compromises. These are our core values. And so we take a deep breath and try it again. Then they lather, rinse, repeat, and run us through the gaslighting spin cycle all over again. Meanwhile, they’ve taken more steps “forward” with their own plans that serve their own interests, leaving us in the dust and even more exhausted than before.

This is how the Overton Window — “the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time” — keeps moving to the right. It’s an intentional ploy. Make an outrageous demand like banning abortion or building a pointless multi-trillion dollar wall across our border with Mexico. Get the news cycles to pick it up. Make it an “issue” and frame it as a “debate.” Get your far-right pundits on Breitbart or talk radio to voice the most extreme talking points. Then get the more “moderate” right programs like Fox News to repeat those points. Blow it up enough that the other media stations have to cover it. Soon they’ll be presenting the issue in terms “opposing viewpoints” — thinking they’re providing salient counterpoints while they’re actually giving credence to the far-right‘s cause. Soon, the outrageous idea doesn’t sound so outrageous anymore. Hearing it over and over again on 24–7 news cycles gets people used to it. The “both sides” of our two-party system and news debate system allows the outrageous idea to be framed as a viable “side.” And soon it starts sounding more reasonable, even mainstream. People who never would have entertained the idea before start arguing about why it is probably the best option that makes the most sense. Keep the “liberals” debating with you about it until after the wall is already being built and you’ve already won.

At this point, Republicans and Trump supporters are experts at playing this game. They have done this with: the border wall and immigration issues, the need for police reform, the dismantling of the U.S. Postal Service right before an election, voter suppression and gerrymandering, Trump’s treasonous collaboration with Russia to “win” an election on a minority vote, the selling out or our public lands to private corporations, simultaneously cutting funding to schools while demanding they reopen during a pandemic, and the dismantling of laws to protect our water, soil, and air.

The more they move themselves to the right, the more extreme their views become, and the more they paint themselves into a corner. Each step into extremism takes them farther down the rabbit hole. They are now at the point where they think that “Christianity” means carrying a gun and waving the flag around, even though Christ said — multiple times — “love thy neighbor” and that “no man can serve two masters.” “Christians” are now raising funds to support a seventeen year-old who brought a gun he wasn’t legally allowed to own across state lines (a felony) so he could shoot people at a protest. Republicans in any previous administration would have distanced themselves as quickly as possible from an underaged, armed, “militia” member who killed people. Now they are defending him as “a patriot.” No, you’re not going crazy. They have retreated so far into their delusional echo chambers that they believe this behavior is not just legal and defensible, but commendable.

It is time cut the crap. It is time to go back to the core morals, ethics, and values we hold as American citizens and to speak our truth when we confront statements and practices we know to be wrong. Destruction, violence, inequity, and steps toward fascism are not matters to be debated. Not every issue calls for us to be “civil,” “friendly,” or to become a discussion — particularly not when the real plan is to suck us into endless distractions and debates while they steal democracy out from under us.

What do we do? Part 2 of this post is here.

Written by

Suzie Null is a former middle and high school teacher and current professor of Teacher Education. Follow her on Twitter at WritingontheWall @NullSet16

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