On Trumpism: Maximizing Fear for Gain

Scholars have noticed that former president Donald Trump’s rhetoric has played upon common fears (1). 

Through hyperbolic language, Trump presented simplistic solutions for complex situations where fear has been a factor to legitimize his campaign. Commentator Robert Kagan says that Trump’s “incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger” (2). 

In her essay, Trumpism: A Disfigured Americanism (2018), Mimi Yang argues that Trumpism has contributed to American culture turning away from equity and inclusivity to hierarchy and exclusivity (3). There is a normalization of an “us” versus “them” rhetoric which often occurs across racial and cultural lines: “In terms of race and culture, Trumpism has been long harbored in fear, bigotry, distrust and discrimination towards immigrants and people of color.”

Trump offered himself “to the nation as the new, worthy leader” (4). As Antonio Reyes explains, activating fear is “a necessary emotion for legitimizing his coming as a savior, as a strong president who can stand up to those threats” (5). Fear is a strong emotion and it can be exploited by political actors to shape and influence the opinion of their audiences regarding specific matters (6). Perhaps one of Trump’s more controversial quotes is relevant,

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people” (7).

Trump was aware that the notion of outsiders entering the United States is alarming to many and so connected immigrants and refugees to outside threats and perpetrators of serious crimes. His “America First” rhetoric is appealing to those “who are afraid that their jobs and opportunities will be taken away by “foreigners” and their ways of life will be interfered [with] by a different religion or people of non-white skin color” (8). These associations appeal to fear and when repeated over and over become normalized (9).

Trump strategically built upon fears surrounding terrorist groups such as ISIS. He has spoken of ISIS as a threat that cannot be overcome by other politicians: “How are they going to beat ISIS? I don’t think it’s gonna happen”. As Trump stated, “Our country is in serious trouble” and “Our enemies are getting stronger and stronger”. Trump asked: “How stupid are our leaders? How stupid are these politicians to allow this to happen? How stupid are they?”

Trump utilized these fears to gain support and turn followers away from rival politicians. On August 10, 2016, Trump controversially proclaimed Barack Obama to be “the founder of ISIS,” repeating, “He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder. He founded ISIS.” Trump also singled out “crooked Hillary Clinton” as the “co-founder” of ISIS. Connecting rival politicians to arguably the most feared and despised terrorist organization serves as a rhetorical device that calls into question both policy and management.

There is imminence in Trump’s discourses. According to Reyes, “Trump projects fear into speeches depicting the worst-case scenario as an imminent catastrophe” (10). Trump has employed such terms as “very soon” to exemplify the supposed imminence of threats and therefore enhance fears concerning them. Trump presents a world in which threats are everywhere, 

“In the Trumpist world, Mexican rapists, criminals, and murderers are rampant. In the Trumpist world, Mexican planes are “ready to attack.” And, as the narrative of fear continued, ISIS extremists are hiding behind every hijab and in every Muslim home. Through Trump’s rhetoric and political platform, a clear division was drawn between the we who represent Trump’s “Great [white] America” and those who don’t belong: Latinxs, Blacks, Muslims, and those who promote “political correctness.”” (11).

There is power in metaphors about killing and death, and images of immigrants as rapists that evoke strong emotions. Perhaps what linguist scholar Ruth Wodak has stated is pertinent. Wodak has studied how populist discourses “instrumentalize some kind of ethnic/religious/linguistic/political minority as a scapegoat for most if not all current woes and subsequently construe the respective group as dangerous and a threat ‘ to us ’, to ‘our’ nation; this phenomenon manifests itself as a ‘politics of fear’” (12). 


1. Saramo, Samira. 2017. “The Meta-violence of Trumpism”. European Journal of American Studies 12(2):1-18; Yang, Mimi. 2018. “Trumpism: a disfigured Americanism.” Palgrave Communications 4:1-13.; Reyes, Antonio. 2020. “I, Trump: The cult of personality, anti-intellectualism and the Post-Truth era”. Journal of Language and Politics 19:6:869-893. p. 887.

2. Kagan, Robert. 2016. This is how fascism comes to America. Available; Reyes, Antonio. 2020. Ibid. p. 887.

3. Yang, Mimi. 2018. Ibid. p. 2.

4. Austermuehl, Frank. 2020. “The normalization of exclusion through a revival of whiteness in Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign discourse.” In Strategies of “Normalisation” in Public Discourse: Paradoxes of Populism, Neoliberalism and the Politics of Exclusion, edited Michal Krzyżanowski. p. 21-22.

5. Reyes. Antonio. 2020. Ibid. p. 886.

6. Reyes, Antonio. 2011. “Strategies of legitimization in political discourse: From words to actions.” Discourse and Society 22(6):781-807.

7. Reyes. Antonio. 2020. Ibid. p. 886.

8. Yang, Mimi. 2018. Ibid. p. 8.

9. Wodak, Ruth. 2015. The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean. London: Sage. p. 178.

10. Reyes. Antonio. 2020. Ibid. p. 887.

11. Saramo, Samira. 2017. Ibid. p. 6.

12 Wodak, Ruth. 2015. Ibid. p. 2.


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