Boston University

Donald Trump and Populist Rhetoric in 140 Characters or Less by Anna Spier @Boston University

President Donald Trump is no stranger to twitter. His tweets are frequent and he makes no obvious effort to hide his true opinions on a vast array of subjects, from foreign affairs, to the media, to fellow politicians. Not only do these constant twitter rants give us insight on how our current leader thinks, they also show the frequency with which he utilizes populist rhetoric. In the past few days, Trump’s twitter page has been a storm of direct attacks to news broadcasting stations, along with various ramblings involving HealthCare, taxes and the infamous wall. While discussing each of these issues, the language and subject matter of the tweets from the past few days is able to raise the issue of Trump’s populist tendencies.

Trump tweeted this past Wednesday and said “Network news has become so partisan, distorted, and fake that licenses must be challenged and if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!” This tweet was believed to be motivated by a claim made by NBC that Trump had requested an increase in the US nuclear arsenal. This claim made the president appear egotistical and made it seem as though he had a limited understanding of US defense.

The tweet he released in response is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, Trump’s displeasure is channeled in a way that is meant to polarize the current opposition, in this case network news, or NBC. He parrots the language about partisan divides that is routine when discussing the issues in the US government in an attempt to discredit their ability to deliver news with accuracy. Secondly, despite the fact that his dissatisfaction is rooted in the way he himself is portrayed, he attempts to pit the public against NBC by including them as victims in this particular scenario. By bringing the US people’s attention to the issue and declaring that some kind of change be brought about, Trump cements his position as the sole defender of the public interest and protects his image in the process. According to Jan Werner-Muller, author of What is Populism?, polarization of enemies, and the defense of the will of the people are typical behaviors of a populist governance.

Another instance where Trump’s use of social media has presented strong populist undertones involves a tweet from October 10 where he said that “Since Congress can’t get its act together on HealthCare, I will be using the power of the pen to great HealthCare to many people- FAST”. In this tweet Trump immediately blames an elite power that operates behind the scenes (in this case Congress) for the problems with one of America’s most hot button issues.

Trump then mentions the “power of the pen”, a hint of a possible executive order that would swiftly alter ObamaCare and implement a system that Trump sees as more fit for the country. Again, he mentions the “many people” that are affected by the subject matter of the post. By tweeting about extending his presidential influence as far as it will go within the rule of law, Trump makes it clear that he intends to act very openly. This openness is justified once again by the will of the people. By mentioning the public at the end of his tweet, Trump stresses that all actions that he takes, even the ones that seem slightly less democratic, are for the common good of the American people. Muller describes this kind of action as perfectly acceptable within a populist philosophy.

One more recent tweet that exemplifies Trump’s populism was sent out into cyber space yesterday morning. “The Democrats want MASSIVE tax increases & soft, crime producing borders. The Republicans want the biggest tax cut in history & the WALL!”

Trump defines a clearly established elite group that he chooses to support along with what Muller describes as an immoral opponent. The Democrats and immigrants that result from “soft borders” are seen as the lower group in this instance. They are made out to stand against the tax cuts and security that the hard working Republicans Trump obviously supports desire. This clean cut division between “the people” and “the enemies of the people” is a strong component of populism.

The populist philosophy Muller describes is ever present in the majority of Trump’s tweets. Not only are they present, but they are also heard and responded to. The president’s twitter currently has 40.4M followers and is rated positively on twitter counter. Trump has managed to use this social media outlet as a weapon for the promotion of populism. He releases a constant stream of messages for the American public that all seem cement the idea that he is one of the people victimized by a failing American system. Partially due to the personal effect of twitter, much of the American public feels that they have someone familiar within the government, advocating for them. Trump uses twitter as a way of proving that he is aggressively fighting those who oppose the American way of life and will continue to do so by whatever means necessary, even if these means place strain on democracy.


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