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.