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.
About the authors
Morgan Marietta is Associate Professor of Political Science and author of The Politics of Sacred Rhetoric: Absolutist Appeals and Political Persuasion and A Citizen’s Guide to American Ideology: Conservatism and Liberalism in Contemporary Politics.
Tyler Farley is a senior in the Honors College, whose research on social facts at the Supreme Court has been published in the Journal of Law & Courts.
Tyler Cote are seniors in the Honors College.
Paul Murphy are seniors in the Honors College.
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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.
©2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston