Rhetoric of Donald Trump

The political rhetoric of Donald Trump, the president of the United States from 2017 to 2021, has been examined in an extensive body of reporting and analysis by linguists, political scientists, and others.[1] Generally categorized as populist, emotional, and antagonistic, Trump's style of rhetoric has been identified as a central reason behind his persuasiveness.[2] Trump's rhetoric, mannerisms, statements and idiolect have been described as Trumpisms and Trumpspeak.

Trump speaking at one of his rallies in Arizona, October 2020

Overview

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Trump's rhetoric has its roots in a populist political method that suggests nationalistic answers to political, economic, and social problems.[3] It employs absolutist framings and threat narratives[4] characterized by a rejection of the political establishment.[5] His absolutist rhetoric emphasizes non-negotiable boundaries and moral outrage at their supposed violation,[6] and heavily favors crowd reaction over veracity, with a large number of falsehoods which Trump presents as facts,[7] which have been described as using the big lie,[8] and firehose of falsehood propaganda technique.[9]

Trump's scenic construction (introduction of characters and setting stage depicting an issue) uses black and white terms like "totally", "absolutely", "every", "complete", and "forever" to describe malevolent forces, or the coming victory. For example, Trump described John Kerry as a "total disaster", and said that Obamacare would "destroy American health care forever". Kenneth Burke referred to this type of "all or none" staging as characteristic of "burlesque" rhetoric.[10]

Analysis

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Trump uses rhetoric that political scientists have deemed to be both dehumanizing and connected to physical violence by his followers.[11] Sociologist Arlie Hochschild states that emotional themes in Trump's rhetoric are fundamental, writing that his "speeches—evoking dominance, bravado, clarity, national pride, and personal uplift—inspire an emotional transformation," deeply resonating with their "emotional self-interest".[12][13] One study suggests that the use of spectacular racist rhetoric aided in the significant environmental deregulation that occurred during the first year of the Trump administration. According to the authors, this served political objectives of dehumanizing its targets, eroding democratic norms, and consolidating power by emotionally connecting with and inflaming resentments among the base of followers, but most importantly served to distract media attention from deregulatory policymaking by igniting intense media coverage of the distractions, precisely due to their radically transgressive nature.[14]

According to civil rights lawyer Burt Neuborne and political theorist William E. Connolly, Trump's rhetoric employs tropes similar to those used by fascists in Germany[15] to persuade citizens (at first a minority) to give up democracy, by using a barrage of falsehoods, half-truths, personal invective, threats, xenophobia, national-security scares, religious bigotry, white racism, exploitation of economic insecurity, and a never-ending search for scapegoats.[16] Connolly presents a similar list in his book Aspirational Fascism (2017), adding comparisons of the integration of theatrics and crowd participation with rhetoric, involving grandiose bodily gestures, grimaces, hysterical charges, dramatic repetitions of alternate reality falsehoods, and totalistic assertions incorporated into signature phrases that audiences are strongly encouraged to join in chanting.[17] Despite the similarities, Connolly stresses that Trump is no Nazi but "is rather, an aspirational fascist who pursues crowd adulation, hyperaggressive nationalism, white triumphalism, and militarism, pursues a law-and-order regime giving unaccountable power to the police, and is a practitioner of a rhetorical style that regularly creates fake news and smears opponents to mobilize support for the Big Lies he advances."[15]

Trumpisms

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Trump's "Make America Great Again!" sign used during his 2016 presidential campaign before Trump selected Mike Pence as his vice presidential running mate

Trumpisms or Trump-speak are the mannerisms, rhetoric, and characteristic phrases or statements of former President Trump.[18][19] They have been described as colorful comments that "only Trump could get away with".[20][21] By 2016, Politico observed that what used to be called Trump's gaffes now had the official designation of "Trumpisms".[22][23] They have become well-known and are the subject of numerous comedic impersonations that imitate Trump's confident exaggerations and general lack of detail.[24][25] An MIT student built a Twitter bot that used artificial intelligence to parody the President with "remarkably Trump-like statements".[26] Artificial intelligence has also been used to analyze Trump-speak.[27] Trump's children have acknowledged his atypical speech patterns, with both Ivanka and Eric Trump stating that they share some of their father's Trumpisms.[28]

Journalist Emily Greenhouse noted in a 2015 Bloomberg article that Trump may be most quotable man in politics and highlighted the following example:[29]

I'm the most successful person ever to run for the presidency, by far. Nobody's ever been more successful than me. I'm the most successful person ever to run. Ross Perot isn't successful like me. Romney—I have a Gucci store that's worth more than Romney.[30]

Trumpisms frequently come in the form of insults directed at his critics, labeling them "dogs", "losers", and "enemies of the people".[31][32]

Violence and dehumanization

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Trump's rhetoric has been described as using "Argumentum ad baculum," or an appeal to force and intimidation to coerce behavior.[33] Trump has been noted to use either direct or veiled comments with plausible deniability suggesting the possibility of violence by his supporters.[34][35][36][37][38]

2016 presidential campaign and presidency

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Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign announcement has been criticized for its dehumanizing rhetoric about Mexican immigrants with his comments that "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best ... They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with [them]. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."[39][40]

As of 2016, stochastic terrorism was an "obscure" academic term according to professor David S. Cohen.[41] During an August 9, 2016 campaign rally, then-candidate Donald Trump remarked "If [Hillary Clinton] gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don't know." These comments were widely condemned as instigating violence, and described by Cohen as "stochastic terrorism", further popularizing the term.[42][41][43]

2020 presidential campaign and aftermath

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During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Trump routinely used the phrases "China virus" and "Kung flu" which were scrutinized due to their perceived insensitivity to the rising hate crimes against Asian Americans.[44][45] Trump also criticized Antifa and BLM protestors in language that some found concerning.[46][47] Trump also repeatedly criticized election methods (especially mail-in voting) in certain states which led to election workers being harassed.[48] Assaults and threats against election workers by supporters of Trump continued after the election inspired by his false claims that the election was stolen, which Reuters called "a campaign of intimidation that is stressing the foundation of American democracy."[49] The Justice Department has reviewed over 2000 threats made to election workers, various jurisdictions have brought charges against some of those threatening election workers and 12 states have strengthened laws protecting election workers.[50][51]

2024 presidential campaign

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Trump's 2024 campaign has been noted for using increasingly dehumanizing and violent rhetoric against his political enemies.[52][53][54][55] Examples include Trump calling for shoplifters to be shot and for Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff appointed by him, to be executed for treason. He also made fun of the hammer attack that critically injured the husband of the then House speaker Nancy Pelosi.[53] Throughout his 2024 campaign, Trump has repeatedly attacked the witnesses, judges, and families of individuals involved in his criminal trials.[56][57] Trump has repeatedly attacked law enforcement in relation to their criminal investigations into his attempts to overturn the 2020 election and his handling of classified documents,[58] calling them "political monsters," telling people to "go after" New York attorney general Letitia James, and warning that an indictment against him by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg would bring "potential death and destruction," among other comments,[59] which have all raised concerns over officers' physical safety.[60] Trump has played down but not ruled out violence after the 2024 election if he does not win, stating, "it depends."[61]

While discussing the auto industry in a rally on March 16, 2024, Trump promised to place tariffs on cars manufactured abroad if he won the election, adding "Now, if I don't get elected, it's going to be a ... blood bath for the country."[62][63] On March 30, 2024, Trump was criticized for posting a video on his social media showing a hog-tied Joe Biden.[64]

Trump has used Nazi racial hygiene rhetoric and has stated multiple times since fall 2023[65] that undocumented immigrants are "poisoning the blood of our country", language echoing white supremacists and Adolf Hitler.[54][66][67][68] Trump's anti-immigration tone is noted to have grown harsher from his previous time as president, where, as reported in The New York Times, he "privately mused about developing a militarized border like Israel’s, asked whether migrants crossing the border could be shot in the legs and wanted a proposed border wall topped with flesh-piercing spikes and painted black to burn migrants’ skin." Other rhetoric from his 2024 campaign includes statements that foreign leaders are deliberately emptying insane asylums to send "prisoners, murders, drug dealers, mental patients, terrorists"[69] across America's southern border as migrants, and comparing migrants to the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter.[70] Trump has repeatedly claimed that undocumented immigrants are "not people,"[71] "not humans,"[72] and "animals."[63] Trump has described immigrants as deadly snakes during his rallies, repurposing lyrics from the 1968 song "The Snake."[68]

In a campaign speech and social media post, Trump called some of his political opponents "vermin", promising to "root out" the "communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections".[55][73][74] The term “vermin” was used by dictators Hitler and Benito Mussolini and in Nazi propaganda to dehumanize people, and Trump said they were a greater threat to the United States than countries such as Russia, China, and North Korea.[55][73] Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung responded to criticism by saying:

Those who try to make that ridiculous assertion are clearly snowflakes grasping for anything because they are suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome, and their sad, miserable existence will be crushed when President Trump returns to the White House.[73]

According to The New York Times, scholars are undecided about whether Trump's "rhetorical turn into more fascist-sounding territory is just his latest public provocation of the left, an evolution in his beliefs, or the dropping of a veil." Experts say that Trump "exhibits traits similar to current strongmen like Viktor Orban of Hungary or Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey."[75]

Falsehoods

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Fact-checkers from The Washington Post[76] (top, monthly), the Toronto Star[77] and CNN[78][79] (bottom, weekly) compiled data on "false or misleading claims" (orange), and "false claims" (blue), respectively. The peaks corresponded in late 2018 to the midterm elections, in late 2019 to his impeachment inquiry, and in late 2020 to the presidential election. The Post reported 30,573 false or misleading claims in four years,[76] an average of more than 20.9 per day.
Trump escalated use of "rigged election" and "election interference" statements in advance of the 2024 election compared to the previous two elections—the statements described as part of a "heads I win; tails you cheated" rhetorical strategy.[80]

During and after his term as President of the United States, Trump made tens of thousands of false or misleading claims. The Washington Post's fact-checkers documented 30,573 false or misleading claims during his presidential term, an average of about 21 per day.[76][81][82][83] The Toronto Star tallied 5,276 false claims from January 2017 to June 2019, an average of 6.1 per day.[77] Commentators and fact-checkers have described the scale of Trump's mendacity as "unprecedented" in American politics,[89] and the consistency of falsehoods a distinctive part of his business and political identities.[90] Scholarly analysis of Trump's tweets found "significant evidence" of an intent to deceive.

By June 2019, after initially resisting, many news organizations began to describe some of his falsehoods as "lies".[91] The Washington Post said his frequent repetition of claims he knew to be false amounted to a campaign based on disinformation.[92] Trump campaign CEO and presidency chief strategist Steve Bannon said that the press, rather than Democrats, was Trump's primary adversary and "the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit."[93][94]

As part of their attempts to overturn the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Trump and his allies repeatedly falsely claimed there had been massive election fraud and that Trump had won the election.[83] Their effort has been characterized as an implementation of the big lie propaganda technique,[8] and has been described as a "firehose of falsehood."[9]

On June 8, 2023, a grand jury indicted Trump on one count of making "false statements and representations", specifically by hiding subpoenaed classified documents from his own attorney who was trying to find and return them to the government.[95] In August 2023, 21 of Trump's falsehoods about the 2020 election were listed in his Washington, D.C. indictment,[96] while 27 were listed in his Georgia indictment.[97]

In what Philip Rucker describes as "an apparent nod" to Trump, former FBI Director James Comey reflects on "the psychology of liars". Comey recalls being a prosecutor against the Mafia, his time in the Trump administration, and the loyalty pledge he was asked to make but refused:

The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth.... [Liars] lose the ability to distinguish between what's true and what's not," Comey writes. "They surround themselves with other liars.... Perks and access are given to those willing to lie and tolerate lies. This creates a culture, which becomes an entire way of life."[98]

References

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