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Are Trump's Tweets Self-Defeating?

New research finds incivility decreases politicians' public approval, even in a hyper-partisan environment.
President Donald Trump speaks to members of the press in the Oval Office at the White House on September 11th, 2018.

President Donald Trump speaks to members of the press in the Oval Office at the White House on September 11th, 2018. 

A number of prominent politicians, including the president, are currently fretting about their sinking poll numbers. Well, new research suggests a way they may regain some of their lost popularity, while simultaneously strengthening our democracy: Try being civil to your opponents.

"Politicians take a hit to their own approval, and gain no advantage in how people perceive their opponents, when they engage in uncivil behavior," write psychologists Jeremy Frimer of the University of Winnipeg and Linda Skitka of the University of Illinois–Chicago. "Incivility comes with large social costs, and seldom if ever yields benefits."

In a series of six studies, they found this holds true for both fictional and real-life political figures—including the tweeter-in-chief. "Even self-identified diehard supporters of President [Donald] Trump evaluated the president more favorably after he responded with civility to a personal attack," they write in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The researchers began by asking whether a famous quote—Mary Wortley Montagu's 1756 observation that "civility costs nothing and buys everything"—still applies in an environment where one's ideological opponents are regularly demonized as the enemy. For their first study, they used text-analysis software to estimate the level of civility in Congressional debates between 1996 and 2015.

"We treat civility as synonymous with politeness, and define it as verbal behavior that shows respect for other people, and allows them to avoid embarrassment," they write. Compliments, apologies, and terms such as "perhaps" and "maybe" connote civility; insults and boasting signify the opposite.

Gallup polling data revealed the public gave Congress higher approval ratings when the exchanges were more civil. Notably, civility was as important a factor as the crime and unemployment rates in influencing opinions about the legislative body.

What's more, the researchers discovered cordiality creates a virtuous circle. Their analysis "suggested that civility boosts approval, which in turn boosts civility."

Frimer and Skitka then turned specifically to Trump. Using data from the online Ipsos poll for Trump's first year in office, they compared his public approval with his level of incivility, which they calculated using "the number of Twitter insults he issued in a given day."

"The more President Trump insulted others, the lower his approval ratings were among liberals and moderates," they write. "Time-lagged analyses even suggested that Trump's uncivil tweets depressed approval with his conservative base several days later."

The remaining studies found a similar pattern. In one, "after incurring a personal attack from a journalist/commentator, retaliatory tweets lowered President Trump's approval ratings, and pivoting away boosted them," the researchers report.

If the president thinks he is projecting power, he is wrong. "We found little evidence that civility changes how dominant the speaker seems," the researchers write. Rather, it only influenced judgments of his warmth (or lack thereof).

"Not only does incivility harm the actor's reputation; it also does little to harm the target of incivility," they add. "When they engage in uncivil behavior, politicians take a hit to their own approval, and gain no advantage in how people perceive their opponents."

Frimer and Skitka argue this reflects "the fundamental need to feel respected, accepted, and valued." On a basic level, we understand the importance of delivering criticism in such a way that allows the recipient to save face. People who ignore this norm—or trample over it, as the case may be—tend to be judged harshly.

"Donald Trump's 2016 campaign was successful not because, but in spite of, his name-calling, threats to imprison opponents, racist and sexist slurs, and braggadocio," the researchers conclude.

The next time he feels determined to engage in such behavior, perhaps members of the "steady state" should snatch away his phone. This research suggests they'd be doing him, and his party, a favor.