LAWRENCE – With his angry attacks on opponents, warnings about dangerous “others” and strongman bluster, President Donald Trump has revealed a weakness in the American political system – if not the American character — that a smarter, savvier leader in tougher times might harness to even more devastating effect.
That is the conclusion of the article “The Populist and Nationalist Roots of Trump’s Rhetoric” in the fall 2019 edition of the journal Rhetoric & Public Affairs by Robert Rowland, University of Kansas professor of communication studies.
After laying out the genesis of Trump’s rhetorical commitment to right-wing nationalist populism, Rowland writes, “It is disquieting to consider how ... a (more) disciplined candidate might appeal to the more than 40 percent of American voters who possess an authoritarian personality type ...”
Rowland, who was the 1976 national college debate champion and who has won many teaching awards, has published widely on presidential rhetoric with a particular focus on former presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. He co-wrote “Reagan at Westminster: Foreshadowing the End of the Cold War” (Texas A&M University Press, 2010).
In his new article, Rowland argues that Trump’s pugnacious rhetoric and “persona as a charismatic outsider ... can be considered an affective genre that responded to a broad sense of threatened identity among white working-class voters.”
Rowland calls nationalist populism “a rhetorical practice that fulfills an affective function by providing scapegoats to blame for the loss of cultural status.” It virtually requires a strongman to enact, he writes.
Rowland notes that, as a New York real estate mogul and reality TV star, Trump “did not have a longstanding relationship with the white working-class audience that became his base. This suggests that something in Trump’s rhetoric created that relationship” and that “explaining how he conducted that anger to create an affective bond is essential to understanding his appeal.”
In Rowland’s analysis, the “white” modifier before “working class” is crucial. He cites a variety of other scholars’ work on the point, best summarized by The New York Times’ Amanda Taub as a “majoritarian backlash” spurred by fears: of losing their racial majority, of social change, terrorist attack, gender fluidity, immigrants and more.
Although his article was written long before this summer, when the president tangled with a group of freshman Democratic congresswomen of color, telling them to “go back home,” Rowland said it was entirely predictable.
“There's been an argument that Republicans have used a dog whistle to appeal to racism,” Rowland said. “But Trump's not using a dog whistle. It's a bullhorn.”
Rowland fears Trump has no other strategy.
“In contrast to Lincoln's line about appealing to better angels of our nature, he's appealing to the worst in all of us. He's appealing to racial division. He's trying to highlight anger at each other,” Rowland said. “It's all about identity. It's about highlighting difference. It's a real threat to the ties that bind us together.”
Rowland says Reagan is open to criticism for his policies. But he considers that the former movie actor earned the sobriquet of the Great Communicator of American ideals.
Trump, on the other hand ...
“When you undermine the rhetoric, when you undermine the words in works like the Gettysburg Address, the Federalist Papers, the speeches of both Roosevelts ... when you reword the Statue of Liberty to make it a document about recruiting rich investors from wherever, you're undermining what Ronald Reagan called the 'shining city on a hill,'” Rowland said. “Trump's America is antithetical to the vision of America put forward by the greatest Republican hero of the second half of the 20th century and to everything Ronald Reagan said about this nation.”
Such rhetoric has actual and legal consequences, Rowland said.
“When you undermine the ties that bind us together and you make your political opponent an other, when you say it's justifiable to keep people in cages because they’re animals, then at that point, the rhetoric undermines the legal norms,” he said. “Because if they're animals, they don't deserve the same protections that the rest of us do. While the unifying rhetoric of Lincoln, both Roosevelts, King, Reagan and Obama can pull us together, rhetoric that demonizes political enemies and preys on fear toward groups who are portrayed as dangerous 'others' can tear us apart and make it impossible for government to confront the nation’s problems.”
Photo: Donald Trump speaking at a rally in Fountain Hills, Arizona, during the 2016 presidential campaign. Credit: Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons.