Trump’s MAGA message doesn’t translate

Donald Trump’s domination of the Republican Party continues apace with his victory one week ago in the New Hampshire presidential primary, where, as expected, he handily defeated former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Angered because he failed to win by a larger margin and then Haley did not quit after her defeat in New Hampshire, Trump, acting like a mob boss political thug, threatened that she would be charged for non-specific “crimes” and insulted her appearance during his victory speech.

One of the driving forces behind Trump’s power over the Republican Party and his voters is that he is a master communicator and propagandist. Trump knows his public and how to connect with them in a way that is almost unequaled in recent American history (President Obama is the only close equivalent). In that way, Trump is a hybrid professional wrestling heel, reality TV star, preacher, TV pitchman and confidence man fake billionaire, a carnie, and messiah father figure and lover.

At his core, Trump is a political sadist; he knows his followers’ pain points, how to trigger them, to stab at their sense of (white) aggrieved entitlement and then promise relief from the very same pain and suffering through “revenge” and “retribution” that he and the Republican Party and “conservative” movement caused them.

Those in the mainstream news media, the Democrats, “traditional” Republicans, and others who exist outside of TrumpWorld and the MAGAverse are usually bewildered and frustrated by Trump’s style of speech and communication. To them Trump is “stupid”, “dumb”, “inarticulate”, “a liar”, a “dotard” or some other derisive label.

They are not Trump’s audience. Moreover, Trump views them with hatred and contempt.

One of Trump’s most powerful themes is that he – and by implication his MAGA people – are victims of “injustice” and “unfairness” who are being “stabbed in the back” and “betrayed” by the “elites”, “the deep state,” “the crooked and corrupt system” in the form of “the liberals”, “the Democrats,” “the news media,” “the globalists”, “the left”, “illegal immigrants” (and non-white people in general) and the forces of “political correctness” and the “Woke Mob.” Trump also personalizes his claims of victimhood by focusing on President Biden, philanthropist George Soros, Hillary Clinton, special counsel Jack Smith, Attorney General Merrick Garland and other so-called enemies.

These appeals by Trump and other right-wing and “conservative” leaders to white victimology, white rage, white resentment, and white grievance would not be so effective if the MAGA people and other white Republican and right-wing voters had not been primed and stoked for decades (and centuries) by their leaders and other trusted voices to hold such unjustified and misdirected feelings and beliefs against black and brown people and others deemed “not real Americans.”

Research by Kobi Hackenburg, William J Brady, Manos Tsakiris which was featured in the June 2023 edition of the journal PNAS Nexus highlights Trump’s rhetorical strategy and use of moral language – a skill that has given him a great advantage over his rivals. At PsyPost, Eric Dolan summarizes the methodology and context for the study as follows:

The researchers were particularly interested in whether the use of different moral values in rhetoric by opposing political candidates entrenched voters in their existing views, thereby exacerbating political polarization, a key concern in contemporary politics.

To explore these questions, the researchers conducted a comprehensive analysis of tweets published by presidential candidates during the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential primaries. This period was chosen for its rich and diverse political discourse, providing ample data for analysis.

Dolan explains the findings of the research: 

[T]he researchers also identified instances where candidates deviated from their party’s typical moral rhetoric and used language more commonly associated with the opposing party. For example, Donald Trump during the 2016 Republican primary used a significantly larger amount of fairness language compared to other Republican candidates. This was an unusual strategy within the Republican field.

However, Trump’s use of fairness language did not align him closer to Democratic candidates, who typically emphasize this moral foundation. Instead, it seemed to create a unique rhetorical space for him. He deviated from both Republican and Democratic norms by using fairness language in a way that was distinct to his campaign, setting him apart within the political discourse. For example, while Trump employed fairness language such as “biased,” “dishonest,” and “unfair,” Democrats employed fairness language such as “rights,” “justice,” and “equality.”

“Donald Trump’s status as a political outsider in 2016 corresponded with meaningful differences in his moral-rhetorical style vis-à-vis other candidates, making him a moral-rhetorical outsider as well. His unique use of negatively valanced fairness language pushed him far to the periphery of moral-rhetorical space, away from his own party and the opposition,” the researchers wrote.

A series of recent profiles and interviews with Trump MAGA and other Republican and right-wing voters in Iowa and New Hampshire adds a human voice to these research findings.

CNN recently spoke with Trump’s (white) “working class” supporters in New Hampshire:

She is an accountant, voted for Bill Clinton twice, backed Trump beginning in 2016 and, like many voters we meet, is past her boiling point with Washington and politicians.

“Anything to do with government from the dog catcher to the president needs a term limit,” Katsanos said in an interview in a Portsmouth book shop and bar.

Why Trump?

“At first I didn’t like him and thought he was a big blowhard,” she said. “But then I started listening. … He talked like, he talked like me. I felt I could carry on a conversation with him.”…

Katsanos employs a double standard – she would say distinction – we hear from many Trump voters.

She’s not a Biden fan, she says, because “he’s been caught in a lot of lies” throughout his 40-plus years in elected office.

We remind her, in a polite understatement, “Trump’s not known as the world’s greatest truth teller.”

No disagreement.

So how is conduct that disqualifies Biden acceptable from Trump?

“I don’t like politicians,” Katsanos said. “I don’t think one term made him a politician.”

Her bottom line on Trump: “Sometimes he just doesn’t know when to shut up.”

But he will get her vote Tuesday because of her bottom line on what she wants most from Washington.

“Close the border and get this economy moving again” is her list. “He’s got faults,” she says of the former president. “He’s not a saint. He doesn’t walk on water. I think he relates to people. He’s relatable.”

Politico profiled a die-hard Trumpist in New Hampshire:

 “This,” Ted Johnson told me, “is what I hope.” We were here the other day at a bar not far from his house, and we were talking about Donald Trump and the possibility he could be the president again by this time next year. “He breaks the system,” he said, “he exposes the deep state, and it’s going to be a miserable four years for everybody.”

“For everybody?” I said.

“Everybody.”

“For you?”

“I think his policies are going to be good,” he said, “but it’s going to be hard to watch this happen to our country. He’s going to pull it apart.”…

“He’s a wrecking ball,” Johnson told me here at the place he chose called the Copper Door.

“Everybody’s going to say, ‘Trump is divisive,’” he said, “and he’s going to split the country in half.” He looked at me. “We got it,” he said.

It’s what the Ted Johnsons want.

Johnson, like other MAGA people, is attracted to and not repelled by Trump’s horribleness:

“And trust me, the guy’s a pig, he’s a womanizer — arrogant a——-e,” Johnson said of Trump. “But I need somebody that’s going to go in and lead, and I need somebody that’s going to take care of the average guy.”

“But is taking care of the average guy and breaking the system the same thing?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “Because they’re all in it for themselves.”

“And if you break the system, what does that look like?”

“Accountability,” he said.

As detailed in a remarkably sharp and evocative essay at Vanity Fair, Joe Hagan traveled to Iowa for the Republican primaries where he would also attend his first Trump rally:

Here, Hagan offers a profile of Trump’s MAGA people, their discovering community with one another, and ecstatic celebration of the Dear Leader and the movement:

The crowd laughed and yea-sayed. The message wasn’t merely about grievance and vengeance; observably, it was about the communal pleasure of grievance and vengeance. The media’s attention to Trump was their attention, a spotlight they could splash around in like a kiddie pool, along with demi-celebrities Billy Long and wrestler turned Trumper Dan Gable and lil “Jimmy” Jordan. When Trump promised to retake the White House for “four more years…and beyond,” the fascism was technicolor and candy-coated. There was no factual reality that couldn’t be obliterated by a one-liner with the force of a sledgehammer wrapped in an American flag. And merch tables piled high with T-shirts, caps, and beer koozies. As with Capone, Trump demanded loyalty, recalling with wistful pleasure the day Ron DeSantis came “begging for an endorsement, tears in his eyes” to save his campaign for governor of Florida. He promised the room that a vote for Trump would “score the ultimate victory over all of the liars, cheaters, thugs, perverts, frauds, crooks, freaks, creeps, and other quite nice people,” instantly minting another meme the press and his fans couldn’t resist.

A serpent-tongued viper might call these true believers goobers, rubes, suckers, and dupes, but what good would it do? Haley and DeSantis were never going to break through this self-reinforcing wall of occult power. The race for the GOP nomination was, from the start, Coke and Pepsi versus a 50-gallon drum of Red Bull. And despite the media’s repeated nostrum that only people with high school educations favored Trump, The New York Times reported that same weekend that 60% of college-educated Republicans also supported him. This was real.

Donald Trump’s skill as a propagandist with an almost preternatural ability to influence his MAGA followers has given him control over the Republican Party. However, as shown in New Hampshire and Iowa – and throughout his time in public life – that power does not greatly extend outside of his base of support. As the 2024 election approaches, Trump will need to modulate his approach to bring in enough “traditional Republicans” and “independents” (and demobilize the Democrats and others who believe in real democracy and oppose the MAGA movement and neofascism) among the several hundred thousand people in key battleground states to take the White House and become the country’s first dictator. Do Trump and his propagandists have that level of self-control and skill? Unfortunately, the future of the country will be heavily determined by the answer to that question.

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