Is Attacking “MAGA Republicans” a Wise Communications Strategy?

Aiming Criticism at Your Opposition’s Rank and File Has Proven to be Counter-Productive for Politicians and Corporate Communicators 

9/14/22 – – The mixed response to President Biden’s pugnacious primetime speech on September 1, delivered in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, reinforces a cardinal rule of conflict communication: Attack your opponent’s leadership, never its rank and file.

If you missed the address and its dramatic staging — Independence Hall’s facade was drenched in blood-red light — an angry President Biden doubled down on his harsh criticism of people he’s labeled “MAGA Republicans” and their ideology, which he’s denounced as “semi-fascism.” While he stipulated that not all Republicans are MAGA (Make American Great Again) Republicans, he went on to say: “But there’s no question that the Republican party today is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans. And that is a threat to this country.”

Just how despicable are these MAGA Republicans? Here’s a sampling of President Biden’s accusations:

MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people . . . . MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards . . . They embrace anger. They thrive on chaos. They live, not in the light of truth but in the shadow of lies.

My goodness! I’ll bet you these people also kick their dogs, steal packets of Sweet’n Low at Olive Garden, and ignore the “Do Not Remove” warnings on mattress tags.

How have American’s responded to the speech?

A Trafalgar Group opinion poll of 1,084 “likely general election voters” conducted between September 2 and September 5 found that 56.8 percent of respondents agreed that President Biden’s message represented “a dangerous escalation in rhetoric, designed to incite conflict amongst Americans.” Only 35.5 percent saw it as “acceptable messaging that is to be expected in an election year.” (7.7 percent weren’t sure how they felt.)

The poll numbers reveal significant polarization: 89.1 percent of Republicans were turned-off, while 70.8 percent of Democrats were okay with the speech. Perhaps most important from a political point of view, 62.4 percent of Independents, the voters most pundits believe will determine the outcome of this year’s midterm elections and the 2024 presidential race, responded negatively to the speech.

I was not surprised by the public’s response.  

Having been involved over the course of my career in many disputes between management and union labor, I believe in the wisdom shared with me years ago by a seasoned labor-negotiation communicator: “Tennyson, short of besmirching the character of their mothers, have at the union’s leaders, but lay off the rank and file. Management needs their support after the new contract is signed.”

As we discuss in The Crisis Preparedness Quotient, this caution holds true in politics as well.

While both candidates said some cringe-worthy things during the 2016 Presidential election, political scientists have zeroed in on Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” remark as a major turning point in her unsuccessful race against Donald Trump. At a September 2016 fundraiser in New York, Secretary Clinton said this:

You know, just to be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.

Mrs. Clinton apologized the next day, but a sleeping giant had been awakened. “Deplorables for Trump” tee shirts appeared overnight. By showing disdain for people who might have been leaning toward Trump, she moved millions of voters from undecideds to motivated Hillary haters.

Mitt Romney made a similar mistake in 2012. A hidden-camera video leaked to Mother Jones magazine captured the Republican presidential candidate telling a small group of financial supporters, “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the President (Obama) no matter what.” He explained that “47 percent of Americans pay no income tax,” and went on to characterize them as “dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.” Romney drove home his point with these ill-chosen words:

And so my job is not to worry about these people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Romney, having insulted half the U.S. population, never recovered, falling to incumbent President Obama by a wide Electoral College and popular vote margin.

On September 1, President Biden ignored the lessons of Clinton, Romney and my union-negotiator colleague. Feeding the anger of his base, he took a calculated political risk by attacking Donald Trump’s supporters, potentially insulting a significant portion of the American public. Given that 74 million Americans voted for Donald Trump just two years ago in the 2020 presidential election, it’s safe to say there are a whole lot of MAGA Republicans and MAGA Independents out there. They now have more reason to show up and vote in November.

President Biden, like Clinton and Romney, has tried to walk back his broad-based criticism. But from the results of the Trafalgar and other recent polling, the damage has been done.

I’m not sure if President Biden reads my blog, but he might want to get a copy of “Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard,” a new book by Bo Seo, a two-time world debating champion. Here’s an excerpt from this weekend’s book review by Pamela Paul in The New York Times:

Bo Seo says the problem of polarization isn’t so much that we disagree but rather that “we disagree badly: Our arguments are painful and useless.” We spend more time vilifying, undermining and nullifying those we disagree with than opening or changing their minds. If more people took their cues from the world of competitive debate, he argues in a recent book, it would be easier to get people to reconsider their views or at least consider those of others.

Ad hominem attacks on groups of people you want to persuade rarely achieve the desired objectives in union negotiations, corporate communication, politics or life. And always leave your opponent’s mother out of the debate.

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