Posted by: George | March 1, 2016

Trump and Pathos

When Donald Trump announced that he was running for president, The Daily Show had a camera pan through the show’s office, documenting reactions from the staff as they leapt for joy and launched into action. This was a moment of exigency. Comedy material was coming their way, and they needed to be ready for it. Jon Stewart, who had already announced his retirement from the show, lamented that he would not be around to take part in what he expected to be a golden age of political humor.

Then, Trump began to dominate poll after poll, and his campaign, contra all expectations, just didn’t seem very funny. On the 24/7 news channels, on show after show, panelists tried to figure out the appeal. Why was Trump drawing such large crowds? Why was he ahead of mainstream politicians? Why did blunder after blunder have no affect on his growing support?

One frequently cited explanation was that people are angry about government not working, and Trump was using that anger to fuel his rallies, which were regularly drawing in excess of 20,000 supporters.

No doubt, anger is at the core of it, but there are other emotions at work as well. I will use Aristotle’s description of emotions in the Rhetoric, Book II, to explain.

At the center of the rallies is, of course, Donald Trump. He does not have a traditional stump speech. Rather, he speaks in the moment, sometimes for a couple of hours, feeding the crowd and feeding off the crowd, seemingly without a script and certainly without a filter. While the core of this rhetorical situation is Trump and his followers, other characters are a part of the drama: the opponents that are not present but that Trump addresses, the all-too-present threats to America (primarily, immigration, terrorism, and bad deals), which stand as evidence that our leaders are “not very smart,” and protesters or critics (some present, some not) who question Trump’s motives, ethics, or wisdom. All of these elements evoke different emotions, yet all of the emotions feed the same vortex.

Early in the Trump campaign, commentators said that his crowds tended to be poorly educated, white, and working class. However, as Trump’s support has grown, these characteristics seem less definitive. Something else has proved more a more enduring trait. In “The One Weird Trait that Predicts Whether You’re a Trump Supporter,” Matthew MacWilliams, reporting on his own poll data, argues that the salient trait of Trump supporters is they have authoritarian tendencies (Political Magazine, posted January 17, 2016). What does this mean? People with authoritarian personalities tend to believe that there is—or, at least, there should be—a clear, hierarchical order to groups and society. They don’t necessarily believe that they should be running things, but they do believe that the social order needs clear rules or procedures for advancement. They gravitate toward “strong leaders” and “respond aggressively to outsiders.”

If MacWilliams is right, we could say that Trump supporters know their place within the social hierarchy, and they don’t want others, like immigrants, jumping ahead of them. Illegal immigrants are not following the rules, honest Americans like them are being left behind, and that makes them angry.

Aristotle says that people feel anger when they are slighted in some way, they imagine retaliation, and this fantasy gives them pleasure. Trump talks of carpet bombing Isis and deporting millions of illegal immigrants. He enacts retaliation when he has security remove protesters or reporters from his rallies. A frequent form of retaliation, Aristotle further points out, is belittling others. Think of the audience being entertained by the insults Trump hurls at his competitors.

If Trump supporters are angry at being left behind or having their place in the hierarchy threatened, why would they gravitate to Trump, one of the most privileged people in the country? They emulate him. Aristotle says that we emulate those who embody positive values, like bravery and wisdom. That was certainly true of Ancient Greece. In our culture, we emulate people who have been successful in business. Aristotle also says that we emulate those “whose praises and encomia are spoken by the poets.” In our culture, fame is its own form of capital, and Trump is a master of making his name a brand. As Mike Barnicle recently said on Morning Joe, “Trump supporters look at him like a lottery ticket.”

When Trump performs at his large rallies, he is present, speaking without a script, reacting to the crowd, in a way that creates an intimacy, an acknowledgment of people who feel ignored by Washington. As Trump said at a recent rally, “I love the uneducated.” He acknowledges those who emulate him, which makes them feel validated. He disparages his competition (“Jeb is low energy,” “Cruz is a liar,” “Rubio wears makeup”), which provides a theatrical release for the crowd’s anger and elevates the crowd to the height of Trump. He speaks of his poll numbers, which reinforces the idea that he is one who should be emulated. If a member of the crowd (reporter or citizen) speaks against him, he has security throw them out, without their coats. He speaks of threats to America (fear of immigrants, terrorism, bad deals, stupid leaders) and offers clear and simple solutions (build a wall, bomb them, negotiate like a businessman, kick the dummies out of office). He also speaks of those who criticize him, but they are outsiders, the enemy, the Other, who only bring the crowd closer together. A Trump rally is, in short, a crucible of emotions where anger grows without restriction, where anger is validated, where anger finds a release.

Trump seems to know that anger, disdain, fear, and emulation are driving his campaign. Each emotion feeds the others, and the intensity of it grows because, within the environment of a Trump rally, it meets no resistance. This might be why Trump seems reluctant to denounce even some of the more fringe elements of his “fans.”






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