On campaigns and political trash talk

Prof Michael L. Butterworth

Director of the Center for Sports Communication & Media, the Governor Ann W. Richards Chair for the Texas Program in Sports and Media, and Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. He is a rhetorical scholar with an interest in the relationship between politics and sports, with particular interests in national identity, militarism, and public memory.

Twitter: @BurntO_Butterwo

Section 6: Popular culture and public critique

Just before Election Day in 2020, President Donald Trump appeared at a campaign rally in Scranton, Pennsylvania. In characteristic fashion, he played to the crowd with familiar appeals to his own popularity and the alleged diminishing popularity of sports leagues such as the National Football League and the National Basketball Association. Echoing previous comments of his own and other conservative commentators, he turned his attention specifically to superstar LeBron James and the low ratings for the NBA Finals. “How about basketball? How about LeBron?” he primed his supporters. Concluding that James’ (and others’) activism was responsible for the decrease in viewership of sports, he added, “When they don’t respect our country, when they don’t respect our flag, nobody wants to watch. . . . You got to stand for our flag, you got to be really great to our flag and to our anthem, and if you don’t do that, we’re not watching!”

The crowd responded to the sports reference as though they were actually at a game, beginning a chant of “LeBron James sucks!” A pleased President Trump stood back and declared, “What a crowd! What a crowd!”

This moment was far from the first time a political crowd turned to enthusiastic chants either to praise their candidate or to mock their opponent. During the 2016 election, Trump supporters routinely shouted “Lock her up!” to confirm their contempt for Hillary Rodham Clinton. And, political communication scholars have long observed the parallels between politics and sports, best symbolized by the persistence of “horse race” coverage. Yet Trump’s frequent references to sports have coupled with increasing partisan polarization to extend the legitimacy of treating elections as little more than a game to be won. In such a climate, and amplified by social media, it is no surprise that partisans understand themselves less as citizens and more as fans, turning to a win-at-all-costs mindset and invoking forms of discourse that are characteristic of sports fans’ trash talk.

It is one thing when voters behave as though they are at a pre-game tailgate party or are shouting down their rivals from the stands. It is yet another when candidates for elected office similarly mimic these behaviors. In a notable convergence of politics and sports, former college football coach Tommy Tuberville was elected last week to the U.S. Senate in Alabama. Tuberville’s campaign unsurprisingly traded on his football background, most notably his ten years at Auburn University where he was especially successful against his principal rival, the University of Alabama. Tuberville thrived on the rivalry, emphasizing his own team’s unity and relishing the opportunity to taunt opposing—losing—fans. This combativeness was featured in a campaign ad for incumbent Senator Doug Jones, in which Tuberville was criticized for his record of abandoning the teams he coached. The ad concluded with footage of the former coach while at the University of Cincinnati where, in 2016, he responded to one of his own team’s disappointed fans by yelling, “Go to hell! Get a job!”

If we can agree that political polarization increasingly understands citizenship in terms of fan affiliation, then perhaps no candidate in 2020 was better suited than Tuberville to mock his opposition when the outcome became clear. In a speech to celebrate his victory, Tuberville quickly thanked his supporters and then turned his attention to his rivals. “If you allow me to quote one of my opponent’s many campaign ads, they can all go to hell and get a job as far as I’m concerned!” Rather than signal to Alabamans a commitment to working on behalf of all citizens of the state, he instead seized the opportunity to reward his supporters by belittling his rivals.

Trump’s influence on U.S. politics has been substantial, but it is difficult to predict how much other Republican politicians will adopt his tone moving forward. Perhaps Tuberville will be content with his victory lap. Maybe tweeting, “Cry more, lib,” won’t be representative of Congressman-Elect Madison Cawthorn’s term in North Carolina. What is clear is that Republicans in particular seem to delight in this kind of political trash talk. This isn’t to suggest that Democrats are always or necessarily noble. Nevertheless, we might contrast the comments above with those of President-Elect Joe Biden, whose victory speech addressed the supporters of his rival directly, saying, “To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.” Such words are not, by themselves, sufficient. However, they are a necessary first step in reimagining our political rivals as adversaries worthy of mutual respect rather than the subjects of ridicule and contempt.