Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter July 29, 2017

The Rhetorical Psychology of Trumpism: Threat, Absolutism, and the Absolutist Threat

Morgan Marietta, Tyler Farley, Tyler Cote and Paul Murphy
From the journal The Forum


Conventional wisdom suggests that Donald Trump’s rhetoric – aggressive, insulting, often offensive – would be counterproductive to electoral success. We argue that Trump’s surprising victories in both the primary and general campaigns were partly due to the positive effects of his appeals grounded in the intersection of threat and absolutism. The content of Trump’s rhetoric focused on threats to personal safety (terrorism), personal status (economic decline), and group status (immigration). The style of Trump’s rhetoric was absolutist, emphasizing non-negotiable boundaries and moral outrage at their violation. Previous research has shown perceived threat to motivate political participation and absolutist rhetoric to bolster impressions of positive character traits. Trump employed these two rhetorical psychologies simultaneously, melding threat and absolutism into the absolutist threat as an effective rhetorical strategy. Analysis of Trump’s debate language and Twitter rhetoric, as well as original data from political elites at the Republican National Convention and ordinary voters at rallies in New Hampshire confirm the unconventional efficacy of Trump’s rhetorical approach.


Albertson, Bethany, and Shana Kushner Gadarian. 2015. Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World. New York: Cambridge University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Baron, Jonathan, and Mark Spranca. 1997. “Protected Values.” Organizational Behavior and Decision Processes 70 (1): 1–16.Search in Google Scholar

Baron, Jonathan, and Sarah Lesher. 2000. “How Serious are Expressions of Protected Values?” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 6: 183–194.Search in Google Scholar

Bobo, Lawrence. 1983. “Whites’ Opposition to Busing: Symbolic Racism or Realistic Group Conflict?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 45 (6): 1196–1210.Search in Google Scholar

Boyer, Pascal, and Nora Parren. 2015. “Threat-Related Information Suggests Competence: A Possible Factor in the Spread of Rumors.” PLoS One 10 (6): e0128421.Search in Google Scholar

Dick, Jason. 2016. “The Politics of Fear: Will Fear of Terror and Economic Uncertainty Drive this Year’s Election?” Roll Call posted 27 June.Search in Google Scholar

Feldman, Stanley, and Karen Stenner. 1997. “Perceived Threat and Authoritarianism.” Political Psychology 18 (4): 741–770.Search in Google Scholar

Fiske, Alan, and Philip Tetlock. 1997. “Taboo Trade-offs: Reactions to Transactions That Transgress Spheres of Justice.” Political Psychology 18 (2): 255–297.Search in Google Scholar

Gadarian, Shana Kushner. 2010. “The Politics of Threat: How Terrorism News Shapes Foreign Policy Attitudes.” Journal of Politics 72 (2): 469–483.Search in Google Scholar

Gross, Justin, and Kaylee Johnson. 2016. “Twitter Taunts and Tirades: Negative Campaigning in the Age of Trump.” PS: Political Science & Politics 49 (4): 748–754.Search in Google Scholar

Landau, Mark, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Florette Cohen, Tom Pyszczynski, Jamie Arndt, Claude H. Miller, Daniel M. Ogilvie, and Alison Cook. 2004. “Deliver Us From Evil: The Effects of Mortality Salience and Reminders of 9/11 on Support for President George W. Bush.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 30 (9): 1135–1150.Search in Google Scholar

Marietta, Morgan. 2008. “From My Cold, Dead Hands: Democratic Consequences of Sacred Rhetoric.” Journal of Politics 70 (3): 767–779.Search in Google Scholar

Marietta, Morgan. 2009. “The Absolutist Advantage: Sacred Rhetoric in Contemporary Presidential Debate.” Political Communication 26 (4): 388–411.Search in Google Scholar

Marietta, Morgan. 2012. The Politics of Sacred Rhetoric: Absolutist Appeals and Political Persuasion. Waco: Baylor University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Merolla, Jennifer, and Elizabeth Zechmeister. 2013. “Evaluating Political Leaders in Times of Terror and Economic Threat: The Conditioning Influence of Political Partisanship.” Journal of Politics 75 (3): 599–612.Search in Google Scholar

Onreat, Emma, Alain van Hiel, and Ilse Cornelius. 2013. “Threat and Right-Wing Attitude: A Cross-National Approach.” Political Psychology 34 (5): 791.Search in Google Scholar

Petriglieri, Jennifer. 2011. “Under Threat: Responses to and the Consequences of Threats to Individuals’ Identities.” Academy of Management Review 36 (4): 641–662.Search in Google Scholar

Pyszczynski, Thomas, Sheldon Solomon, and Jeff Greenberg. 2003. In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.Search in Google Scholar

Schmid, Katharina, and Orla Muldoon. 2015. “Perceived Threat, Social Identification, and Psychological Well-Being: The Effect of Political Conflict Exposure.” Political Psychology 36 (1): 75–92.Search in Google Scholar

Silver, Nate. 2017. “There Really Was a Liberal Media Bubble: Groupthink Produced a Failure of the ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ and an Underestimate of Trump’s Chances” 538 Blog 10 March 2017.Search in Google Scholar

Tetlock, Philip. 1986. “A Value Pluralism Model of Ideological Reasoning.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 50: 819–827.Search in Google Scholar

Tetlock, Philip. 2003. “Thinking the Unthinkable: Sacred Values and Taboo Cognitions.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7 (7): 320–324.Search in Google Scholar

Tetlock, Philip, Randall Peterson, and Jennifer Lerner. 1996. “Revising the Value Pluralism Model: Incorporating Social Content and Context Postulates.” In The Psychology of Values: The Ontario Symposium, Volume 8, edited by Clive Seligman, James Olson, and Mark Zanna. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Search in Google Scholar

Article note:

This paper was originally presented at The American Elections Symposium at St. Anselm College on March 18th 2017. The authors would like to thank Erik Cleven of St. Anselm and the Political Communication Group at UMass Lowell, including John Cluverius, Joshua Dyck, Mona Kleinberg, and Jenifer Whitten-Woodring for valuable commentary.

Published Online: 2017-07-29
Published in Print: 2017-07-26

©2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston