From Fear, Anger, and Grievance to Boring Competence: The Rhetorical Journey from Trump to Biden

by Robert C. Rowland, professor of communication studies, University of Kansas and author of The Rhetoric of Donald Trump: Nationalist Populism and American Democracy

Presidential elections often lead to a shift not only in policy, but in rhetoric. Jimmy Carter’s straightforward simplicity was followed by Ronald Reagan’s graceful narrative of America as a “shining city on a hill.” George W. Bush’s blunt direct style was followed by Barack Obama’s depiction of a nation in which there “never has been anything false about hope.” While shifts in rhetorical practice are common when one administration succeeds another, there has never previously been a shift as stark and dramatic as when President Joseph R. Biden succeeded Donald Trump. A rhetoric based in fear, anger, grievance, and self-praise was succeeded by one based in themes and language that best might be characterized as boring competence.

In my very recently published book, The Rhetoric of Donald Trump: Nationalist Populism and American Democracy (University Press of Kansas, April 2021), I explain how Trump activates negative emotions such as fear, hatred, and grievance, and then resolves that activation through presentation of himself as first the citizen-outsider and later the strongman president who can fix the problems facing the nation through strength of will. Trump’s rhetoric had and has undeniable power. It has made much of the current Republican Party into his personal rhetorical fiefdom, a point that is quite evident in the efforts to remove Liz Cheney from the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives. Cheney’s sin was to put conservative principles ahead of loyalty to Trump. Only a few other Republican leaders have shown the same commitment to principle as Cheney, meaning that the current Republican Party probably should now be known not as the GOP, but as the POT (Party of Trump).

The source of the power of Trump’s rhetoric was not ideology, nor graceful style. Unlike principled small government Republicans (including, most notably, Ronald Reagan), Trump did not espouse a clear ideological perspective, nor was his rhetoric defined by an elegant style (there was very little artistry of any kind in his rhetoric), nor did Trump motivate his supporters by making a strong argument for a particular policy (in the way that Senator Bernie Sanders has captivated many progressive Democrats through advocacy for a single-payer health care system). Instead, Trump motivated his audience through emotional activation. He created fear and anger by warning of the dangers posed by groups who were Other than white Americans. Thus, he attacked undocumented immigrants, warned of the dangers of Islamic terrorists, attacked NFL players for protesting police violence against people of color, and so forth. His narrative of a nation where his core audience among the white working class was under siege from threatening Others was fundamentally false, but emotionally resonant. As I show in the book, Trump’s narrative was most powerful in places with few immigrants or representatives of the other groups he attacked and least successful in places where the groups he attacked were common. This explains why Trump’s message worked so well in places with few immigrants, such as North and South Dakota, but fell flat in places with many immigrants, such as California and New York.

In addition to fear and anger, Trump activated grievance against elites who he said disrespected and ignored “real” (white) Americans. He also used this strategy to undermine scrutiny of his campaign, presidency, and business by, for example, attacking the media as “Fake News” or even “the enemy of the people.” Finally, Trump resolved the strongly negative emotions of fear, hatred, and grievance by claiming that, as he said in his 2016 Republican National Convention acceptance address, “I alone can fix” this nation.

Since Trump’s rhetoric was defined by emotional activation and then resolution of that emotion through adulation for Trump, he hardly ever engaged in policy argument and never presented an important policy speech, either as a candidate or president. In the book, I detail the way that he took occasions that called for rhetoric focused on policy, such as the State of the Union address or COVID-19 briefings during the pandemic, and transformed them into speeches quite similar to his rally speeches. The same thing occurred on social media, which Trump used not to advance an argument, but to activate and resolve negative emotions. Trump’s focus on emotional activation was so heavy that there are individual speeches by President Barack Obama that contained more sustained argument about policy than in all of Trump’s presidential rhetoric combined.

In contrast to Trump, much of the appeal of the rhetoric of President Biden can be traced not to a particularly graceful style, but to the fact that Biden’s boring competence was for many Americans a very welcome contrast with Trump’s rhetoric of fear, anger, grievance, and self-congratulation. As commentator Ezra Klein observed, Biden’s “quieter strategy” of using rhetoric to “turn down ‘the temperature’ on American politics” actually opened “space for a bolder agenda.” Without the scary emotional thrill ride that Trump’s rhetoric produced, there was more space to lay out and defend actual policy proposals.

The difference between the two approaches to rhetoric was quite evident in the contrast between President Biden’s recent address to Congress that took the place of a State of the Union address and the State of the Union addresses that Trump presented in his term. Biden’s speech to Congress on April 28, 2021, was short on poetry, but long on substance. It lacked the grace, for example, of the heroes-in-the-room theme found in State of the Union addresses from Reagan to Obama. At the same time, he laid out a coherent agenda for confronting the pandemic, rebuilding the economy, counteracting global warming, and acting on a host of other issues. In contrast to Biden, I explain in the book how Trump eviscerated generic norms for the State of the Union, transforming the normally policy-heavy speeches into something similar to rally speeches. For example, in his 2018 State of the Union there was relatively little actual policy exposition, but a great deal of time spent activating fear of undocumented immigrants, accusing NFL players of being unpatriotic for protesting police violence, discussing imaginary threats to gun rights, and so forth. The bottom line is that the only message Trump had was that of emotional activation and resolution. Consequently, every speech became a rally speech, every briefing (even the pandemic briefings he presided over in the spring of 2020) a rally briefing, and nearly every tweet a snippet of a rally speech.

In contrast, Biden’s focus on clearly describing his agenda, his promise of boring competence, which in normal times might have fallen flat, was quite appealing to many. It was not only that Biden had a clear plan for confronting the pandemic, revitalizing the economy, and so forth, but that this style functioned as what Frank Bruni described as “an exorcism of Donald Trump.” Bruni noted that Biden was “less showboat than tugboat,” but added that the “tugboat [was] humbly poised to pull us out of perilous waters.” Over time, Biden’s “boring competence” may wear thin, but in the immediate aftermath of a presidency defined by constant efforts to activate negative emotions, both boredom and competence were virtues that many Americans found quite appealing.

Joseph R. Biden, “Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by President Biden — Address to a Joint Session of Congress,” Whitehouse.gov, April 28, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/04/28/remarks-as-prepared-for-delivery-by-president-biden-address-to-a-joint-session-of-congress.
Frank Bruni, “Biden Has Disappeared,” New York Times, March 21, 2021, SR3.
Ezra Klein, “Biden is the Anti-Trump, and It’s Working,” New York Times, March 5, 2021, A20.
Donald J. Trump, “Full text: Donald Trump 2016 RNC draft speech transcript,” Politico, July 21, 2016, https://www.politico.com/story/2016/07/full-transcript-donald-trump-nomination-acceptance-speech-at-rnc-225974.
Donald J. Trump, “President Donald J. Trump’s State of the Union Address,” Whitehouse.gov, January 31, 2018, https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trumps-state-union-address.

A Review of President Barack Obama’s Clemency Record

by Jeffrey Crouch – American University & UPK Author

President Donald Trump made no secret of his opinion of Army Private Chelsea Manning’s critique of former President Barack Obama when he tweeted: “Ungrateful TRAITOR.” Yet before considering what President Trump might do with the clemency power, let’s take a last look at President Obama’s record.

Perhaps the most controversial clemency decision of the Obama years came on January 17, 2017, when he commuted Manning’s 35-year prison sentence. Manning has served about seven years, and will be able to walk out of prison on May 17. As someone who turned over classified documents to WikiLeaks, she is one of the more recognizable recipients of Obama’s presidential mercy.

fullsizerenderGiven Obama’s long-standing preference for avoiding high profile clemency cases, it was somewhat surprising that he saw fit to grant clemency to Manning at all. Still, the president had hinted a few days earlier that clemency might be in the cards. His press secretary took pains to distinguish between Manning and Edward Snowden, another infamous leaker of classified materials. Snowden has been living in Russia since 2013. Unlike Manning, he did not receive presidential mercy.

The Numbers

For the first three-quarters of his presidency, Obama was not much different from George W. Bush. In eight years, Bush had pardoned 189 offenders and commuted 11 sentences out of roughly 11,000 applications for clemency. By December 17, 2014, President Obama’s clemency record was sparse — he had pardoned only 64 and had commuted just 21 sentences. However, by the time Obama left office, he had made a remarkable turnaround, pardoning 212 and commuting a whopping 1,715 sentences. Of course, one must consider Obama’s totals alongside the huge number of applications he received: 3,395 petitions for pardon and 33,149 requests for commutation. He received many, many more applications for clemency than any of his recent predecessors.

Why the influx of applications? Obama launched a new clemency initiative in April 2014. The administration wanted to prioritize for clemency review those offenders who met a number of specific criteria. These criteria include the fact that “[t]hey are currently serving a federal sentence in prison and, by operation of law, likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense(s) today,” and that they are otherwise low risk, minor offenders.

crouchIn response to Obama’s announcement, five interested groups pooled resources and formed a new organization, Clemency Project 2014, to help locate and direct good candidates for clemency to the Department of Justice. Many applicants – and later, many commutation recipients – were low-level drug offenders who were serving disproportionate sentences. With all of this activity brewing, Obama slowly picked up the pace of pardoning. At the same time, he offered an enormous number of sentence commutations, starting with a rather modest 22 on March 31, 2015 and, after several other batches, ending with his last group of 330 on January 19, 2017.

Obama’s final total of 212 pardons is a bit low for a recent two-term president: alongside George W. Bush’s totals mentioned above, consider that Bill Clinton pardoned 396, George H.W. Bush pardoned 74 (in one term as president), and Ronald Reagan pardoned 393. However, Obama’s 1,715 commutations put Obama in a class by himself: Clinton commuted 61 sentences, while George H.W. Bush (again, in a single term) commuted only three and Ronald Reagan commuted 13 sentences.

The People

Aside from the Manning commutation, Obama made a few other higher profile clemency decisions on his way out the door. He pardoned General James E. Cartwright, formerly a trusted advisor on foreign affairs issues, for making false statements to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Cartwright received Obama’s good news before he was sentenced for his offense. Obama also commuted the 55-year prison sentence of Oscar Lopez Rivera. Lopez was a leader of the pro-Puerto Rican independence group, “FALN,” and had been in prison for 35 years. Interestingly, Lopez and other members of his organization had received the option to accept conditional clemency from President Bill Clinton in 1999, but Lopez declined. Other famous figures that received clemency from Obama in his final days include a pair of tax offenders: Ian Schrager, credited with establishing Studio 54 and luxury hotels, and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Willie McCovey.

Despite considerable press attention, Obama declined to offer clemency to several notable offenders. Perhaps most prominently, he passed on pardoning Edward Snowden (as noted earlier) and Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist who is in prison after being convicted in 1977 of shooting and killing two FBI agents. Unlike Clinton and George W. Bush, who each granted one posthumous pardon, Obama decided against doing so, although he had heard from supporters of the late boxer Jack Johnson and late “Back to Africa” proponent Marcus Garvey.

Which brings us back to President Trump. When might he decide to exercise his clemency power? If he follows the example of his two most recent predecessors, it will be a while – both George W. Bush and Barack Obama waited nearly two years before offering pardons or commutations. Trump may not pay attention to clemency for a while either, considering his ambitious legislative agenda that includes building a border wall, implementing tax reform, and other large-scale projects. That would be a shame, because the presidential pardon power has for hundreds of years been an important tool for presidents to use to show mercy. It will be ready for Trump when (or if) he decides to call upon it.

 

Dr. Jeffrey Crouch is an assistant professor of American politics at American University. He is the Reviews and Book Editor for AU’s Congress & the Presidency journal. His first book, The Presidential Pardon Power, was published by the University Press of Kansas in 2009.