How to beat populists when the facts don't matter

Inside the noisy and chaotic modern information sphere, the message doesn’t matter nearly as much as the messenger. Many people no longer trust major media outlets to give them valuable information—and they may never do so again. They no longer trust politicians or groups they perceive to be outside their tribe either—and the days when a president got a respectful audience just for being the president may never return again. But voters do trust people they know, or people who resemble people they know. Understanding this to be true, Longwell and Kristol began experimenting. Instead of just creating professional campaign videos (though they have made one or two of those), they began soliciting and disseminating homemade clips. The Republican Voters Against Trump website features a quote from one of them—“I’d vote for a tuna fish sandwich before I’d vote for Donald Trump again”—as well as information on how to create your own video.

Hundreds of people have contributed clips, and many have already been posted. Among them are people who describe themselves as lifelong Republicans, as evangelical Christians, or as veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. The videos are unscripted: Each person gives their own reasons for feeling disillusioned or angered by an administration they believe has betrayed them and their conservative ideals, and each explains their views in their own words. “People know that they are being sold something in an ad,” Longwell said. By contrast, they look at the RVAT videos, they see someone in their community, and they think, I like that person.

When tested on focus groups, the ads do have an impact: People find them convincing. Perhaps this is because they reflect conservative anxieties about Trump without criticizing the conservative tribe. The people in the videos sympathize with Republican voters’ dilemma, as Longwell herself does. “Tribalism isn’t all negative,” she said. “It also involves elements of loyalty, trust, and community.” Indeed, Trump’s abuse of loyalty, trust, and community is what seems to anger both her and the people in the videos the most. Their feelings of betrayal come through.