The emotional politics of 2020: fear and loathing in the United States

Prof Karin Wahl-Jorgensen

Professor in the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Culture, and Ander Visiting Professor of Geomedia Studies at Karlstad University, Sweden, in 2020/21.Her research focuses on journalism and citizenship, and she has authored or edited ten books, close to 70 journal articles and more than 40 book chapters.

Twitter: @KarinWahlJ

Section 3: Candidates and the campaign

We usually expect presidents to be in command of their emotions. By contrast, Donald Trump has always been characterized by his emotional volatility and unreliably, often compared to a tantrum-throwing toddler. Marina Hyde, reflecting on the president’s response to his impending election loss in a Guardian article on November 6, 2020, suggested that for “parents of small children, Donald Trump’s latest meltdown is extremely, totally, instantly recognizable.” At the time of writing, the hashtag #trumptantrum is trending on Twitter, with users sharing memes and video clips poking fun of the president’s refusal to accept defeat in the election.

Trump’s emotional register, however volatile, has always been dominated by anger. This is significant because the recent history of U.S. politics has been largely characterised by emotional regimes of positivity. In particular, presidents often draw on the positive and forward-looking emotion of hope. For example, Barack Obama’s “Hope” poster became iconic in his campaign, while Bill Clinton branded himself “The Man From Hope” – conveniently, of course, he originally hailed from Hope, Arkansas.

By contrast, although Trump’s mantra, “Make America Great Again,” embodied hope for a transformative future, this was countered by his consistently and essentially angry rhetoric.

Trump’s anger has been put to good use and could be seen as essential to his brand of politics. I have previously made the case that we can see Trump’s brand of “angry populism” as an indication of a change in the “emotional regime” – or the dominant ways of talking about emotions in public which underpin political regimes. Trump’s anger propelled him to office because it allowed him to voice the discontent of voters who have felt left behind by globalization, economic transformations and cultural change. But in doing so, it also signaled the salience of an angrier form of politics more generally – a shift we have seen played out over the past four years.

While Trump’s angry populism clearly continues to resonate with his core voters, with more than 70 million casting their ballots for him, it also appears to have lost some of its shine amid the profound crises facing the world and the United States in 2020. Perhaps most obviously, it is easier to be successful as an angry challenger than an angry incumbent.

However, more importantly, there is evidence to suggest a shift in the emotional regime as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. While there is no doubt that the Black Lives Matter protests were driven by anger at the injustice of police violence, the overwhelming mood of 2020 has been one of fear. People are afraid of the virus itself, as well as of its economic and social consequences. Although theorists of emotion often view fear as an emotion driven by irrationality, in this case the fear could be seen as both reasonable and justified given the frankly terrifying circumstances.

And here, the responses of Trump and Biden to this fear have reflected an important and fundamental difference between their responses to this fear. Trump’s strategy has been one of denialism. From the very earliest days of the pandemic, when he reassured citizens that the disease would disappear “like a miracle,”  to his insistence, after returning from hospital treatment for coronavirus at the Walter Reed Medical Center, that Americans shouldn’t “be afraid of it,” he has consistently sought to minimize the severity of the pandemic which has so far killed 237,000 citizens.

By contrast, Biden has made the coronavirus the key theme of the election, leading to a surge in support among older voters who have been justifiably concerned about Trump’s handling of the pandemic given their greater vulnerability. He has consistently emphasized the need for a clear plan for handling the pandemic, tackling the fears head on.

Biden may not come across as the most charismatic and energetic presidential candidate, but much of his appeal can be ascribed to the fact that he is not Trump. As such, he has benefited from another negative political emotion – loathing of Trump.

Fear and loathing do not offer a promising starting point for an optimistic vision for the future. But the ambition of facing the fears – and taking action to solve its causes – offers a more hopeful emotional politics, and possibly the best way forward. The scenes of celebration on the streets of New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. following on from networks calling the election for Biden also highlight the importance of positive emotions – including joy and relief. While Biden’s path ahead is rocky given the intense polarization and division of the U.S., whipped up by the force of angry populism, it also holds the possibility of a future of overcoming the fears that has for so long seemed out of reach.