Why Donald Trump’s messages resonated despite being largely untrue

May 18, 2021 3:33 am

President Donald Trump leads a cabinet meeting July 16, 2019, at the White House. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Robert (Robin) Rowland is professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas and author of “The Rhetoric of Donald Trump: Nationalist Populism and American Democracy,” released in April by the University Press of Kansas.

Many Americans are mystified by the fact that Donald Trump’s message resonated so strongly, even though much of what he said was false.

The power of Trump’s rhetoric was evident in the 2016 and 2020 campaigns and throughout his presidency. Although Trump lost the 2020 election, a shift of under 50,000 votes in key states would have led to his re-election. Moreover, in the midst of a terrible pandemic, he won seven million more votes than any previous sitting president. The most concerning sign of the potency of his rhetoric occurred on Jan. 6, 2021, when an enraged mob of supporters marched from a Trump rally to attack the U.S. Capitol.

He often roused fear with warnings about left-wing Antifa violence and crime committed by undocumented immigrants. He tweeted about Antifa five times on Nov. 1 and 2, in one case warning that “ANTIFA, the rioters, looters, Marxists, & left-wing extremists. THEY ALL SUPPORT JOE BIDEN!”

Beginning with the speech announcing his candidacy in 2015 and throughout his campaigns and presidency, he also often spoke of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.

Trump was successful in creating fear and anger about Antifa, undocumented immigration, and other groups despite the fact that these groups were not particularly threatening.

In recent years, far-right groups have committed vastly more political violence than have left-wing groups. While Antifa is tied to one death, the dominance of right-wing groups in domestic terrorism was even greater during Trump’s presidency. One study found that two-thirds of domestic terrorism in 2019 and 90% in the first half of 2020 were perpetrated by right-wing groups, against less than 10% for left-wing groups. Similarly, while undocumented immigrants do commit crimes, they do so at a lower rate than American citizens.

A similar point applies to Trump’s attacks on the media. The Trump Twitter Archive includes almost 1,000 tweets labeling the media as “Fake News” and more than 50 calling them the “Enemy of the People.” In fact, Trump was a prime purveyor of real “fake news,” a point supported by many fact-checking sites.

The broader point is that Trump’s message powerfully resonated despite being largely untrue, a point I develop in my new book, “The Rhetoric of Donald Trump: Nationalist Populism and American Democracy.”

The explanation for the power of Trump’s rhetoric is that it was based in emotional activation, not policy argument. He created fear and anger by warning about threats to groups he described as “real” Americans, including the white working-class and evangelicals, by dangerous “Others,” including undocumented immigrants, foreign trade partners, Antifa, Black Lives Matter, NFL players protesting against police brutality, and so forth.

He also triggered a sense of grievance against elites in business, politics and the media, blaming them for failing to protect real Americans (Trump supporters) from the dangerous Others. With this message, he activated the feeling among many supporters that they were disrespected by elites and the media. He then resolved these strong emotions of fear, anger and grievance by presenting himself as the savior of these groups. In his speech accepting the Republican nomination in 2016, he said that he had “seen firsthand how the system is rigged” and added, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” It is impossible to imagine any other modern president claiming that he alone could fix the problems facing the nation.

The power of Trump’s message was not tied to the presentation of a clear agenda. Normally, presidents who most skillfully use rhetoric present a coherent ideological message and back it up with an optimistic retelling of the American Dream. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama had very different views about the proper role of government, but they both used that approach to activate positive emotions such as hope. Trump was completely different. As I explain in the book, he rarely discussed policy in any detail. Rather, he activated strongly negative emotions and then resolved those emotions by presenting himself as the protector of his largely white supporters.

Trump eviscerated democratic norms with his rhetoric of nationalist populism. It was a message based in fear, not facts, division, not unity. The power and danger posed by that message were evident in the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6. Yet, even that attack was not the greatest threat. The United States is, as Ronald Reagan memorably explained, an “empire of ideals.” Trump’s rhetoric threatened those ideals.

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Robert C. Rowland
Robert C. Rowland

Robert (Robin) Rowland is a professor at the University of Kansas. He has won multiple national awards for his dozens of articles and books on political rhetoric and public argument. Rowland presented the keynote on rhetoric at the Reagan Centennial, and is the author, most recently, of "The Rhetoric of Donald Trump: Nationalist Populism and American Democracy," published in April 2021 by the University Press of Kansas.