Stratagems of hate: decoding Donald Trump’s denigrating rhetoric in the 2020 presidential campaign

Prof Rita Kirk

Professor and communication strategist who specializes in the analysis of public arguments and the successful (and ethical) implementation of communication campaigns. She served as an analyst for major news organizations for the past twenty-four years during presidential elections.

Twitter: @RealTimePolitic

Dr Stephanie A.Martin

Associate Professor, Southern Methodist University.

Martin is a scholar of public address and political communication, with a particular interest in the public discourses of conservative social movements, especially evangelical voters. She has worked on campaigns for both Republicans and Democrats.

Section 3: Candidates and the campaign

During the first presidential debate in 2020, President Donald Trump raised eyebrows when he refused to condemn white supremacy but, instead, summoned its proponents to his defense. “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” he said, during an exchange with Joe Biden about public demonstrations against police brutality; protests that had sometimes become violent. Trump’s entreaty to the Proud Boys hailed a known far-right and neo-fascist all-male organization known for promoting political violence in the United States and Canada. It was hardly the first time he had engaged in such dog whistling.

We first wrote about Trump’s tendency to engage hate speech as a political tactic following his election in 2016. Hate speech is not merely language that can hurt someone’s feelings. Rather, we are concerned with words and phrases that, as Jae-Jin Lee writes, are “abusive, insulting, intimidating, and harassing,” and “may lead to violence, hatred, or discrimination.” Our work includes language so coarse and provocative it becomes campaign strategy. Such “hate stratagems” work like tactics of war. Candidates use them like missiles to linguistically invade elections and destroy opponents using epithets, threats, and baseless lies.

Trump and his team used hate stratagems throughout the 2020 contest. Mostly, these stratagems took one of four basic forms, first identified in earlier research: appeals meant to inflame the emotions of followers; denigrate the outclass; inflict permanent and irreparable harm on an opponent; and to conquer.

Inflaming the emotions joins arguments with moral sentiments to draw in people who share similar beliefs. When leaders use speech to generate anger or malice, something sinister happens: logic gives way. In June 2019, Trump, in a tweet, accused Democrat opponents of engaging “the ultimate act of moral cowardice” by not defending border patrol agents, their silence evidenced a lack of “character, virtue, and spine.” The president’s attack called his supporters to anger, but the signifier for their wrath was not entirely clear. From whom and for what were the Democratic candidates supposed to be defending the agents? Such silencing rhetoric is common in hate stratagems that inflame emotions.

Stratagems that denigrate the outclass includes language that frames Black Americans, especially those in the inner cities, as lacking in values and virtue, and not taking personal responsibility for what happens in their lives. Going back to at least the Nixon administration, Republicans have run campaigns emphasizing a rhetoric of law and order. Trump takes this line even further, and divides the nation between (white) Americans who built the nation and represent its best values, and everyone else who poses a threat. During the summer of 2020 when cities in the U.S. erupted in violence following the police murder of George Floyd, Trump tweeted in support of law enforcement, and against protestors, “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen… when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” By calling the protestors thugs, the president was marking them as “other,” suggesting they had reduced rights to speech and dissent as provided in the first amendment. Twitter marked the tweet as in violation of site conduct rules, a significant step to take against the President.

Stratagems that inflict permanent and irreparable harm: In the leadup to the second presidential debate, Donald Trump attacked the moderator, NBC’s Kristen Welker, as a “radical Democrat” who was “unfair” and “no good.” Such denigration of the media as necessarily bad for democracy is common to the 45th president, who famously began his tenure as president by calling the mainstream media “the enemy of the people.” Such language is delegitimizing past its moment of utterance. It requires the hearer to decide which side they are on, and discard the other. In such circumstances, no opportunity for discernment remains, only joining a bandwagon and holding on.

Stratagems that seek to conquer are about winning the election. One way to win is to go toe-to-toe on the issues. The other is to emphasize a difference in approach and personality. Trump did this successfully against Hillary Clinton in 2016. In the days before his first debate against Biden, Trump doubled-down on this approach, tweeting “I will be strongly demanding a Drug Test of Sleepy Joe Biden prior to, or after, the Debate on Tuesday night. Naturally, I will take one also. His Debate performances have been record setting UNEVEN, to put it mildly. Only drugs could have caused this discrepancy???” This tweet gave Trump two avenues for victory, neither requiring him to prepare or do well in the debate. The first was that if Biden performed well, it had to be drugs, which would be proved by a test (that Biden almost surely wouldn’t take, a refusal that would also impugn his character). The second was that if Trump seemed worse than Biden, the answer was to be found in his abstinence, and so a bad performance was not due to his inadequacy or inferiority to Biden, but because the latter was juiced.

Hate stratagems work in campaigns when one side wants not only to win, but to rhetorically destroy the opposition. No one has used the technique with more mastery than Donald J. Trump. His defeat in 2020 leaves open the question as to whether a polarized electorate will continue to produce candidacies like his.