Trump never transitioned away from campaign rhetoric
President Trump held a large, raucous campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan in late March. It was heralded by the Daily Beast as “a taste of President Trump’s 2020 Make America Great Again Again pitch,” a preview of the rhetoric we can expect from the president in the upcoming campaign. This is a bit misleading, however, because it implies that, at some point, Trump stopped campaigning. He did not.
And that got me thinking: If it is not obvious that the president only utilizes campaign-style rhetoric, then maybe his other rhetorical choices are not so obvious either. So, here is an introductory guide to Trump’s rhetoric, which is governed by three simple principles.
- Trump’s rhetoric aims exclusively at campaigning.
The single greatest feature that distinguishes Trump’s rhetoric from that of previous presidents is that it never shifted from campaigning, which seeks to influence a singular decision on a given date (whom to vote for) to governing, which seeks to influence public opinion over time. Trump was only ever interested in one thing: winning. And immediately after he won, he started running again. In case you have not noticed, winning is very important to him, and he views the whole world through the lens of winning and losing.
Trump has no interest in or aptitude for governing. He arguably has no leadership abilities. Trump is, always has been, and always will be a “candidate” for president. This is evident in the fact that he never seeks to build coalitions or broad-based public support for policy initiatives. Indeed, he has no real policy initiatives. “Build the wall” is a campaign slogan, not a policy. “Repeal ObamaCare” is a campaign slogan, not a policy. You cannot implement campaign slogans unless, of course, you ignore the entire legislative process.
That Trump is always campaigning explains why his rhetoric is addressed only to his base. He is always trying to win their adoration, their loyalty and — most of all — their vote. Given Trump’s obvious insecurities and narcissism, he seemingly needs constant affirmation.
- Trump’s campaign rhetoric follows a simple formula.
Since he is always campaigning, Trump is always running against someone or something. Here is the basic formula that underlies his rhetoric:
- identify a target or targets to campaign against (immigrants, Hillary Clinton, the mainstream media, Robert Mueller investigation, etc.);
- vilify the target as dishonest and dangerous (“violent criminals,” “crooked,” “enemy of the people,” “witch hunt,” etc.);
- urge followers to vehemently reject the target. It is not enough simply to pick Trump, you must want to punish his opponent (“lock her up”).
To his base, whose support is uncritical, unreflective and unwavering, it is an easy choice. After all, Trump spends considerable time demonizing, dehumanizing and otherwise degrading the alternatives. Every issue and every decision is framed as a choice between Trump and his target. Pick Trump or an invading horde? Pick Trump or a lowlife criminal? Pick Trump or the lying, deceitful, fake media? Pick Trump or the deep state? There is no complexity in Trump’s rhetoric. You are either for him, or you are for the boogeymen he creates.
- Trump’s rhetoric appeals to emotion rather than reason.
Understanding Trump’s formula does not explain why it is so effective though. Trump is rhetorically effective because he appeals primarily to emotion rather than logic — and it is hard to resist our emotions. His preferred emotion is hatred, and Trump is very skilled at evoking it. Trump seems to project his worst qualities onto his targets. This is why he loves to call others bigots, stupid and losers.
So, as we enter the 2020 campaign season, please understand that Trump is not going to start campaigning now. He never stopped. The only real surprise would be if he started governing.
Brian L. Ott, a professor of communication studies and director of the TTU Press at Texas Tech University, is co-author, with Greg Dickinson, of “The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage.”
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.