The Three Rhetorical Tricks That Bind Trump to His Base

Political communication scholars explain how, for Trump, telling lies, shifting blame, and asserting his own greatness help him keep his core supporters.
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President Donald Trump speaks during a signing ceremony for the Space Policy Directive-4 on February 19th, 2019, at the White House in Washington, D.C.

President Donald Trump speaks during a signing ceremony for the Space Policy Directive-4 on February 19th, 2019, at the White House in Washington, D.C.

This is arguably the month the Trump administration went fully Orwellian. The president declared an emergency where none existed. Unable to convince Congress to finance a wall on the Mexican border, he insisted construction was already underway. He even unveiled a deeply duplicitous re-election slogan: "Finish the wall!"

It's easy to see these moves as the desperate improvisations of a cornered man. But scholars who study political communication know better. Trump, they argue, may only communicate to one third of the nation. But those voters pick up on his messaging, and their bond with their leader only strengthens as a result.

"His strategy isn't laid out on paper anywhere," says Josh Scacco, an assistant professor of communication at the University of South Florida. "He would not be able to articulate it in any way."

"But he has a brilliant gift for a leader: The ability to read an audience. It comes from years of being a cultural icon—knowing how to gain attention, and keep attention. It's not necessarily beneficial for democracy, but it's a gift."

According to Scacco and his colleagues, the rhetorical ticks and other communication strategies Trump employs—the blatant falsehoods, the self-aggrandizement, the assertions of false consensus, and the framing of complicated issues in crude, simplistic language—all help him hold onto his core supporters.

And while a keep-the-base-stirred-up strategy is obviously risky, it's not crazy. Given the peculiarities of the Electoral College, a candidate needn't have majority support to win. It happened once for Trump, and it could happen again—with the right messaging.

"As a reality TV performer, Donald Trump understands the importance of a compelling visual," Scacco says. "That's why he doesn't want drone technology or 'invisible fencing' on the Mexican border. His voters need to see a wall."

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Humbug and Blame-Shifting

"Presidents lie—all of them," says Mary Stuckey, professor of communication at the Pennsylvania State University. "But none of them lie this systematically. None of them—not even [Richard] Nixon—have had so little regard for facts. It's disheartening and it's dangerous. His supporters are participating in a group fantasy."

"This is where his self-aggrandizing language also comes in, I think. That fantasy involves the belief that his people are being protected by a powerful leader. So his assertions that he is powerful allow the fantasy to continue."

Trump is a master of "humbug, à la P.T. Barnum," argues Jennifer Mercieca, associate professor of communications at Texas A&M University. "He only speaks in gilded prose. It's his brand. He isn't subtle. Things are stark—either the best or the worst."

When Trump makes a dubious claim, "some of his supporters will think it's true," Mercieca says. "Some of his supporters will know it's not, but they'll think he's clever for trying to trick everyone." From Trump's perspective, that's a win-win.

While Trump has set records when it comes to lying, the extreme certainty he projects—or attempts to project—is the continuation of a long trend in presidential discourse. In a recent study, Kayla Jordan of the University of Texas–Austin demonstrated that this trend can be traced back more than 100 years, as leaders have used mass communication to appeal to a larger, more diverse electorate.

Trump's language "is lower in analytic thinking, and higher in confidence, than [that of] almost any previous American president," Jordan wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Some will decry this rhetorical approach as dumbing down our discourse, but it's arguably quite savvy.

"People intuitively think that, if you speak confidently, you know what you're talking about," Jordan says. "We need to educate ourselves as to how politicians' speaking styles effect how we feel about their policies."

In contrast with Jordan's historical approach, Scacco's research focuses on the way presidential communication styles are changing along with the recent revolution in technology. To a degree unmatched by any predecessor, Scacco says, Trump has the ability to "narrowcast" to his supporters, thanks to the Internet and social media.

"He is only talking in places where his reality is affirmed," Scacco says. "He goes to places where his message is essentially cocooned by supportive people and supportive media."

"Last week, Jim Acosta of CNN challenged him in a press conference about the 'national emergency,' and Trump immediately shut him down, calling him 'fake news,'" Scacco says. "The reason he did that was that he had to immediately inoculate his supporters from that type of messaging. By insulating his supporters, he helps to create and affirm his reality."

But doesn't actual reality intrude at some point? "It does and it doesn't," Scacco says. "I have family in Western Pennsylvania, and a lot of them have talked about Trump's promises to open coal mines again. When that doesn't happen, a lot of them will rationalize it in some way. They might say it's Nancy Pelosi's fault, or the Democratic governor's fault. In their mind, it can't be Trump's fault."

Which brings up another effective Trump technique: blame-shifting.

"Every time he fails to get something done, he assigns blame," Scacco notes. "If and when the courts shut him down on this emergency declaration, he can then run against the system. That might actually strengthen his position with his supporters."

Another verbal tick that Trump frequently uses is asserting, often erroneously, that his positions are popular. He frequently uses phrases like "Everybody knows that..." or, "Many people are saying...." He even insisted that federal workers were calling him to tell him they were OK with the government shutdown.

"That's called a bandwagon or an 'ad populum' appeal," Mercieca says. "He's appealing to the wisdom of the crowd. He uses 'A lot of people say' or 'some friend' to bolster his position and lend credibility to whatever claim Trump is making. It's typically fallacious and easy to spot, but only if you are motivated to do so."

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Trump on Socialism

Trump's latest rhetorical gambit is calling all opposition to him"socialism," and suggesting that, if he is defeated, America will rapidly degenerate into Venezuela. Could that argument work?

"It works as what rhetoricians call 'devil terms,'" Stuckey says. "It labels something as bad without making an argument about why it's bad.... It certainly lacks the weight it had during the Red Scare and the Cold War."

"It may not resonate with a growing chunk of the public," Scacco agrees. "But the substance of the term isn't a concern to Trump or his base. It's a marker of us vs. them, and a means of highlighting what is American vs. foreign."

"Today, people associate socialism more with Scandinavian countries, which they see as relatively happy, healthy, and orderly,” Mercieca adds. “Socialism on that model doesn't look too bad. Call it the 'Ikea effect.'"

If that approach fails, the Trump campaign's focus will likely shift back to the border.

"One possibility is that Trump gets very little wall built but he tells his supporters that he did, and shows them images of portions of the wall that already exist," Scacco speculates. "He can point to them and say, 'This is the wall being built.'"

That's reminiscent of a possibly apocryphal scene recreated in the film Citizen Kane, where the title character—an avatar for publisher William Randolph Hearst—tells an artist assigned to illustrate a story about a non-existent confrontation involving American forces: "You furnish the pictures. I'll furnish the war."

Perhaps this time around, outlets such as Fox News will supply the pictures, and Trump will supply the wall.

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