Scholar Samira Saramo has studied the Trump phenomenon and recognizes the role that words spoken by influential politicians can have on people, “Through their crafted words, politicians motivate people” (1).
Words can motivate both good and bad actions. The use of words “has meant getting people out to vote for them or to inspire nationalism and civic duty in times of war or hardship. But political words can also motivate hostility and violence” (2). Saramo argues that the meta-violence of Trumpism, which is evidenced by extreme emotions, social antagonisms, and international tensions, is strengthened through rhetorical violence as former president Donald Trump frequently praised the “passion” and “energy” of his supporters and he even promised to pay the legal fees of supporters caught in violent altercations.
There are various examples. At a March 4, 2016 rally, Trump commented on a protestor’s removal: “Try not to hurt him. If you do, I’ll defend you in court. Don’t worry about it.” At times, Trump condoned the use of violence against protestors. At a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on February 1, 2016, he stated: “If you see someone getting ready to throw tomatoes knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. OK. Just knock the hell… I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.” Trump also stated that he wished to “punch [a protestor] in the face,” although he did say that such tactics were unpopular: “Part of the problem and part of the reason it takes so long [to remove protestors] is that nobody wants to hurt each other anymore.”
At times, Trump has praised violent action against protestors: “I love the old days, you know? You know what I hate? There’s a guy totally disruptive, throwing punches. We’re not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.” After the Chicago riot, blaming Bernie Sanders supporters, Trump tweeted, “Be careful Bernie, or my supporters will go to yours!” Some point out that Trump supports the use of torture and bombing campaigns (3).
This theme in Trump’s discourse has been concerning to many there have been debates and discussions on whether Trump can or should be personally held accountable for inciting violence through his speech. But as Saramo explains, freedom of expression and political speech are vehemently protected in the United States and legally proving incitement is difficult. She refers to the 1969 case of Clarence Brandenburg, the leader of the Ku Klux Klan’s Ohio branch, who held a rally in the 1964 and declared: “if our president, our Congress, our Supreme Court, continues to suppress the white, Caucasian race, it’s possible that there might have to be some revengeance [sic] taken” (4). While Brandenburg was charged under Ohio law for inciting violence, the Supreme Court overturned his conviction. This has resulted in what is known as the “Brandenburg test”. According to Saramo,
“The court found that freedom of speech can only be suppressed when there is proof of inciting “imminent lawless action.” Therefore, while Trump has bordered on incitement—especially in the tomato case—his speech has not yet been legally challenged and has been accorded the right of First Amendment protection” (5).
A lack of a criminal conviction has not deterred critics from opposing Trump’s sewing of division through the power of rhetoric. Trump allegedly “uses the power of words to strengthen fear, hate, and anger, fueling his political career and driving a wedge in U.S. society” (6).
The Use of Mockery
Scholars also note the use of mockery in Trump’s rhetoric that has included “fat-shaming, sexism, lookism, ableism, xenophobia, racism, antisemitism, nationalism, and other prejudices” (7). Trump presents conversations in a theatrical manner that involves insults and mockery, including of people with disabilities (8).
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Alicia Machado responded to Trump’s comments about her weight gain following her victory in the 1997 Miss Universe pageant. Trump nonetheless told the hosts of the Fox News program Fox and Friends that Machado had “gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem.” Trump has been criticized for calling women “pigs, slobs, and dogs.”
During the first presidential debate between Trump and Clinton in 2016, Trump suggested that the Democratic National Committee leaks may have come from “someone sitting on their bed that weighs four hundred pounds.” Evidently “Through such insults, Trump has contributed to entrenched ideas of fatness that link physical health with moral rectitude and self-control” (9).
Critics have highlighted Trump’s record of allegedly sexist and cruel remarks about women. Trump responded that some of his controversial comments were “locker room talk”. Trump was also accused of several counts of sexual assault and predatory behavior just weeks before the election (10). Saramo argues that this “casual rhetorical violence can trigger serious trauma and insecurity in women’s daily lives” (11).
Trump’s insults have made him entertaining and popular for many. It has made him “more marketable in news and media constructing a political product whose Message and persona are closer to reality TV and a media sensation than previous presidents of the USA” (12). According to Hall et al., Trump is “entertaining – not just for the white rural underclass, not just for conservatives, but also for the public at large, even those who strongly oppose his candidacy. Whether understood as pleasing or offensive, Trump’s ongoing show was compelling” (13).
As an entertainer, Trump “has license to disobey rules” (14). Trump’s unconventionality has been a powerful strategy for attaining fame and notoriety: “Trump’s unconventional political style receives attention that helps rather than harms his candidacy because it is absorbed as entertainment by a heavily mediatized public sphere” (15).
1. Saramo, Samira. 2017. “The Meta-violence of Trumpism”. European Journal of American Studies 12(2):1-18. p. 9.
2. Saramo, Samira. 2017. Ibid. p. 8-9.
3. Jacobs, Ben. 2016. Donald Trump renews support for waterboarding at Ohio rally: ‘I like it a lot.’ Available.
4. Howard, Jeff. 2017. The ‘Brandenburg test’ for incitement to violence. Available.
5. Saramo, Samira. 2017. Ibid. p. 8.
6. Saramo, Samira. 2017. Ibid. p. 9.
7. Byrd, McDaniel., and Renfro, Paul M. 2019. ““This is Not Normal”: Ability, Gender, and Age in the Resistance to Trumpism”. Disability Studies Quarterly 39(2). Available.
8. Byrd, McDaniel., and Renfro, Paul M. 2019. Ibid.
9. Byrd, McDaniel., and Renfro, Paul M. 2019. Ibid.
10. Cohen, Claire. 2017. Donald Trump sexism tracker: Every offensive comment in one place. Available.
11. Saramo, Samira. 2017. Ibid. p. 6.
12. 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. 880.
13. Hall, Kira., Goldstein, Donna M., and Ingram, Matthew B. 2016. “The hands of Donald Trump: Entertainment, gesture, spectacle.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6(2):71-100. p. 72.
14. Hall, Kira., et al. 2016. Ibid. p. 73.
15. Hall, Kira., et al. 2016. Ibid. p. 75.
Trumpism is simply an age-old manipulative device that turns hidden, perhaps embarrassing, feelings of anger and antagonism for “others” into political power by ‘giving voice’ to emotions that people usually suppress. Rather than any rational argument for positions or even in policy debates, he substitutes outrage and feelings of grievance that both energizes those feeling aggrieved and further eggs on their feelings of grievance. As in authoritarian states, this is a cancer on the debate needed in democracy and we all suffer the consequences.
Thanks Mike and James. I’m interested to see if any Trump supporters show up and how we all deal with the challenge of listening.