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

Morgan Marietta 1 , Tyler Farley 1 , Tyler Cote 1  and Paul Murphy 1
  • 1 University of Massachusetts, Massachusetts, USA
Morgan Marietta
  • Corresponding author
  • University of Massachusetts, Lowell Department of Political Science, Massachusetts, USA
  • Email
  • Further information
  • 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.
  • Search for other articles:
  • degruyter.comGoogle Scholar
, Tyler Farley
  • University of Massachusetts, Lowell Department of Political Science, Massachusetts, USA
  • Further information
  • 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.
  • Search for other articles:
  • degruyter.comGoogle Scholar
, Tyler Cote
  • University of Massachusetts, Lowell Department of Political Science, Massachusetts, USA
  • Further information
  • Tyler Cote are seniors in the Honors College.
  • Search for other articles:
  • degruyter.comGoogle Scholar
and Paul Murphy
  • University of Massachusetts, Lowell Department of Political Science, Massachusetts, USA
  • Further information
  • Paul Murphy are seniors in the Honors College.
  • Search for other articles:
  • degruyter.comGoogle Scholar

Abstract

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

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

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

  • 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.

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

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

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

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

  • 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.

Purchase article
Get instant unlimited access to the article.
$42.00
Log in
Already have access? Please log in.


Journal + Issues

This journal provides a forum for professionally informed commentary on issues affecting contemporary American politics. This includes but is not limited to issues engaging parties, elections, and political participation; the news media, interest groups, Congress, the Presidency, and the Courts; trends in public finance, presidential popularity, congressional productivity; in contemporary, historical, or comparative perspective.

Search