5th December, 2015
“Something bad is happening,” Donald J. Trump warned New Hampshire voters Tuesday night, casting suspicions on Muslims and mosques. “Something really dangerous is going on.”
On Thursday evening, his message was equally ominous, as he suggested a link between the shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., and President Obama’s failure to say “radical Islamic terrorism.”
“There is something going on with him that we don’t know about,” Mr. Trump said of the president, drawing applause from the crowd in Washington.
The dark power of words has become the defining feature of Mr. Trump’s bid for the White House to a degree rarely seen in modern politics, as he forgoes the usual campaign trappings — policy, endorsements, commercials, donations — and instead relies on potent language to connect with, and often stoke, the fears and grievances of Americans.
The New York Times analyzed every public utterance by Mr. Trump over the past week from rallies, speeches, interviews and news conferences to explore the leading candidate’s hold on the Republican electorate for the past five months. The transcriptions yielded 95,000 words and several powerful patterns, demonstrating how Mr. Trump has built one of the most surprising political movements in decades, and, historians say, echoing the appeals of some demagogues of the past century.
Mr. Trump’s breezy stage presence makes him all the more effective because he is not as off-putting as those raging men of the past, these experts say.
The most striking hallmark was Mr. Trump’s constant repetition of divisive phrases, harsh words and violent imagery that American presidents rarely use, based on a quantitative comparison of his remarks and the news conferences of recent presidents, Democratic and Republican. He has a particular habit of saying “you” and “we” as he inveighs against a dangerous “them” or unnamed other — usually outsiders like illegal immigrants (“they’re pouring in”), Syrian migrants (“young, strong men”) and Mexicans, but also leaders of both political parties.
At an event in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday evening, his voice scratchy and hoarse, Mr. Trump was asked by a 12-year-old girl from Virginia, “I’m scared — what are you going to do to protect this country?”
“You know what, darling? You’re not going to be scared anymore. They’re going to be scared. You’re not going to be scared,” Mr. Trump said, before describing the Sept. 11 terrorists as “animals” who sent their families back to the Middle East. “We never went after them. We never did anything. We have to attack much stronger. We have to be more vigilant. We have to be much tougher. We have to be much smarter, or it’s never, ever going to end.”
While many candidates appeal to the passions and patriotism of their crowds, Mr. Trump appears unrivaled in his ability to forge bonds with a sizable segment of Americans over anxieties about a changing nation, economic insecurities, ferocious enemies and emboldened minorities (like the first black president, whose heritage and intelligence he has all but encouraged supporters to malign).
“ ‘We vs. them’ creates a threatening dynamic, where ‘they’ are evil or crazy or ignorant and ‘we’ need a candidate who sees the threat and can alleviate it,” said Matt Motyl, a political psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who is studying how the 2016 presidential candidates speak. “He appeals to the masses and makes them feel powerful again: ‘We’ need to build a wall on the Mexican border — not ‘I,’ but ‘we.’ ”
In another pattern, Mr. Trump tends to attack a person rather than an idea or a situation, like calling political opponents “stupid” (at least 30 times), “horrible” (14 times), “weak” (13 times) and other names, and criticizing foreign leaders, journalists and so-called anchor babies. He bragged on Thursday about psyching out Jeb Bush by repeatedly calling him “low-energy,” but he spends far less time contrasting Mr. Bush’s policies with his own proposals, which are scant.
And on Friday night in Raleigh, he mocked people who reportedly did not contact the authorities with concerns about the California shooting suspects for fear of racial profiling.
“Can anybody be that dumb?” Mr. Trump said. “We have become so politically correct that we don’t know what the hell we’re doing. We don’t know what we’re doing.”
The specter of violence looms over much of his speech, which is infused with words like kill, destroy and fight. For a man who speaks off the cuff, he always remembers to bring up the Islamic State “chopping off heads.” And he has expressed enthusiasm for torturing enemies beyond waterboarding. Last month, after several men hit a Black Lives Matter protester at one of his rallies, Mr. Trump said, “Maybe he should have been roughed up.”
“Such statements and accusations make him seem like a guy who can and will cut through all the b.s. and do what in your heart you know is right — and necessary,” said Michael Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University, echoing the slogan that Barry Goldwater used in his 1964 presidential campaign.
And Mr. Trump uses rhetoric to erode people’s trust in facts, numbers, nuance, government and the news media, according to specialists in political rhetoric. “Nobody knows,” he likes to declare, where illegal immigrants are coming from or the rate of increase of health care premiums under the Affordable Care Act, even though government agencies collect and publish this information. He insists that Mr. Obama wants to accept 250,000 Syrian migrants, even though no such plan exists, and repeats discredited rumors that thousands of Muslims were cheering in New Jersey during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He promises to “bomb the hell” out of enemies — invoking Hiroshima and Nagasaki — and he says he would attack his political opponents “10 times as hard” as they criticized him.
And as much as he likes the word “attack,” the Times analysis shows, he often uses it to portray himself as the victim of cable news channels and newspapers that, he says, do not show the size of his crowds.
These patterns of elevating emotional appeals over rational ones is a rhetorical style that historians, psychologists and political scientists placed in the tradition of political figures like Goldwater, George Wallace, Joseph McCarthy, Huey Long and Pat Buchanan, who used fiery language to try to win favor with struggling or scared Americans. Several historians watched Mr. Trump’s speeches last week, at the request of The Times, and observed techniques — like vilifying groups of people and stoking the insecurities of his audiences — that they associate with Wallace and McCarthy.
“His entire campaign is run like a demagogue’s — his language of division, his cult of personality, his manner of categorizing and maligning people with a broad brush,” said Jennifer Mercieca, an expert in American political discourse at Texas A&M University. “If you’re an illegal immigrant, you’re a loser. If you’re captured in war, like John McCain, you’re a loser. If you have a disability, you’re a loser. It’s rhetoric like Wallace’s — it’s not a kind or generous rhetoric.”
“And then there are the winners, most especially himself, with his repeated references to his wealth and success and intelligence,” said Ms. Mercieca, noting a particular remark of Mr. Trump’s on Monday in Macon, Ga. (“When you’re really smart, when you’re really, really smart like I am — it’s true, it’s true, it’s always been true, it’s always been true.”)
“Part of his argument is that if you believe in American exceptionalism, you should vote for me,” Ms. Mercieca said.
Historically, demagogues have flourished when they tapped into the grievances of citizens and then identified and maligned outside foes, as McCarthy did with attacking Communists, Wallace with pro-integration northerners and Mr. Buchanan with cultural liberals. These politicians used emotional language — be it “segregation forever” or accusatory questions over the Community Party — to persuade Americans to pin their anxieties about national security, jobs, racial diversity and social trends on enemy forces.
A significant difference between Mr. Trump and 20th-century American demagogues is that many of them, especially McCarthy and Wallace, were charmless public speakers. Mr. Trump, by contrast, is an energetic and charismatic speaker who can be entertaining and ingratiating with his audiences. There is a looseness to his language that sounds almost like water-cooler talk or neighborly banter, regardless of what it is about.
For some historians, this only makes him more effective because demagogy is more palatable when it is leavened with a smile and joke. Highlighting that informality, one of his most frequently used words is “guy” — which he said 91 times last week and has used to describe President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, a stranger cheering him on at a rally and a celebrity friend.
“His relaxed, jokey tone makes statements about his resolve to solve every problem because he’s knows what’s right and has the energy to do it more persuasive,” said Mr. Kazin of Georgetown, who described Mr. Trump’s idea for a database of Muslims in the United States as insidious but also said he found Mr. Trump amusing at points.
Over many decades, Mr. Trump’s career as both a real estate developer and a celebrity has been infused with language described as divisive, even racially charged. In the 1980s, it was with advertisements condemning the young men, four of them black and one Latino, accused of marauding through Central Park and raping a jogger. Just over a decade ago, it was the controversy during the first season of his reality show “The Apprentice,” in which he played a boardroom billionaire who fired people. He and other cast members clashed with Omarosa Manigault, a black woman who claimed someone had called her a racial slur and suggested that Mr. Trump had been insensitive.
Mr. Trump has said he will tear into anyone who tries to take him on, and he presents himself as someone who is always right in his opinions — even prophetic, a visionary. He repeatedly insists that he alone predicted the rise of Osama bin Laden in 2001 (despite the fact that the Bin Laden network had attacked two United States embassies and the U.S.S. Cole in the three years before). “I said, ‘We better be careful, that’s gonna happen, it’s gonna be a big thing,’ and it certainly is a big thing,” Mr. Trump has said of what he wrote about the Al Qaeda leader in 2000.
It is the sort of trust-me-and-only-me rhetoric that, according to historians, demagogues have used to insist that they have unique qualities that can lead the country through turmoil. Mr. Trump often makes that point when he criticizes his Republican rivals, though he also pretends that he is not criticizing them.
“All of ’em are weak, they’re just weak,” Mr. Trump said in New Hampshire on Tuesday of his fellow candidates. “I think they’re weak, generally, you want to know the truth. But I won’t say that, because I don’t want to get myself, I don’t want to have any controversies. So I refuse to say that they’re weak generally, O.K.? Some of them are fine people. But they are weak.”
—Culled from The New York Times