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  • Tiago Costa

Emotional politics: Trump's Twitter shows evidence of illiteracy, angry rhetoric & authoritarianism

Understanding the differences between “emotional state of anger and angry rhetoric” is important to evaluate emotional politics. With the presidency of Donald Trump, the American people have seen a leader who encourages violence and threatens democracy. Even without being a dictator, some studies show Trump has the identity of an authoritarian. Henry Giroux, an American-Canadian scholar, says Trump represents a new form of authoritarianism; the one who promotes illiteracy and anti-politics through discourse.

Giroux says, “anti-politics empties politics of any substantive meaning and elevates emotion over reason, ignorance over evidence, and powerlessness over engaged citizenship.”

On Twitter, Trump speaks directly to the public, with no reservations. He has said before that the use of social media, especially Twitter, helped him win the 2016 election. However, not many people seem to understand exactly the intentions behind Trump’s tweets and how he persuades the public. A study published by Gallup shows 76% of Americans see, read and hear a lot or a fair amount, about Trump’s tweets. However, only 4% of the American public actually have a Twitter account, follow President Trump on Twitter and read “all or most of his tweets.” The majority of the people (69%) get to know Trump’s tweets through a second source, the study says. Thus, it becomes important to dig into Trump’s Twitter account and understand if there’s evidence of illiteracy, angry rhetoric, authoritarianism or populism.

It’s common to see media describing President Trump as “populist,” and Trump took himself the war against the media to a place never seen before. He convinced the audience that he was the great leader in a battle against the imposed “mainstreamism,” and just like that, Trump was elected President of the United States. Moreover, the 2016 election and Trump’s presidency marked a new era of public discourse, also called the “post-truth” era.

“Deliberative argument is not about truth, it’s about choices,” Jay Heinrichs says in the book The Power of Habit. “When in Rome, do as Romans do, but when you’re not in Rome, doing as the Romans do might get you in trouble.”

Heinrichs says about the virtue of a leader that a leader may not even be a great person, but the public will still follow him if they believe it won’t lead them off a cliff. And in fact, when it comes to politics, people get emotional and emotion alters people's behavior. Timothy J. Ryan, professor at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says the support of a leader with an angry discourse can be highly influenced by anxiety. Ryan says, “it is difficult to disentangle anxiety and anger, as the two often occur together.”

A study published by Adam Hughes and Patrick van Kessel for the Pew Research Center, shows an interesting discrepancy between the use of the Facebook’s “angry” button before and after the 2016 election. When members of Congress posted on Facebook before the 2016 election, their audience clicked the “angry” button 3.6 million times, but that number increased 14 million times after the election. This change represented an increase of 385%.

Anger evokes information seeking. However, if the information provided is fake or misleading, it can result in negative outcomes among information-seekers. According to the PolitiFact’s database, since Trump was elected to the White House’s office in November 8th, 2016, he has performed 470 statements that are considered clearly false, false and mostly false; and only 199 statements are considered half true, mostly true, or truthful. Ryan says that politicians “use emotionally charged communication” meant to be always influential no matter the outcomes.

Emotions are not always the enemy of reason, and in some cases, they can help take better decisions. Understanding the great balance between good and bad emotions is the challenging part, but extremely necessary.

Susan Bickford, professor of political science at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says passion is a feeling seen in deliberative decisions, although selfishness comes with it as well. She says, “my emotion may lead me to mischaracterize a situation, perhaps to overemphasize certain particulars." Emotions can “misguide judgement,” certainly because emotions are “formed in a context of racism, sexist, class inequality, and diverse social prejudices.”

Sadness makes people lose confidence in decision-making processes. Virginia Hughes, a science journalist, says emotion can bias people’s thinking, although it also helps organizing, prioritizing, and selecting what is relevant or not. Emotions are, indeed, within human nature, but it’s crucial for politicians to understand the importance of deliberation and common good. No matter if on the internet or in a public speech, politicians are influencers. And it’s important for them to acknowledge the necessity of “non-angry” rhetoric, because it “promotes noble ends such as reconciliation and forgiveness,” Kenneth S. Zagacki and Patrick A. Boleyn-Fitzgerald said.

The people of the United States are growing today under a society where information is provided in many ways. However, most of readers are not prepared for a reality where information and misinformation go together.

“Manipulativeness is also somewhat inherent to the art of the deal," The Atlantic journalist James Hamblin said. "[Trump] has attempted to silence not just media, but protesters at his rallies, implying support for violent retaliation and publicly suggesting that he may pay the legal fees of one assault suspect.”

The Study

The study includes three months of Trump’s activity on Twitter. The sample chosen for analysis were the months of January, February and March in 2019. During this period, President Trump tweeted 796 times (without counting retweets), which results in an average of 9 tweets per day. The day in which Trump posted the most was January 31st with 21 tweets, and March 23rd was the only day during this period in which Trump didn’t post at all.

To make the analysis of Trump's Twitter account, both rhetorical and content analysis were used in three distinct parts: 1) It was done an analysis on Trump’s lower-case tweets v. upper-case tweets v. the tweets that are mixed in both lower-case and upper-case. 2) It was created a collection of words with capital letter, which was named “Trump’s Dictionary of Capitalized Words.” 3) It was made an annotation of “I” references v. “We” references.

President Trump’s use of different case-letters or case-words have a specific purpose: To emphasis his message and gather the public’s attention. During the three months sampled, President Donald Trump posted 617 lower-case tweets, which represented 77% of his tweets during the first trimester of the year. An example of a lower-case tweet could be: “A third rate conman who interviewed me many years ago for just a short period of time has been playing his biggest con of all on Fake News CNN. Michael D’Antonio, a broken down hack who knows nothing about me, goes on night after night telling made up Trump stories. Disgraceful!” Posting lower-case words have a more informative purpose attached to it, while posting upper-case ones represent a more emotional state of mind and a clear call to action.

Trump posts a good number of upper-case tweets, and others where he intentionally mixed lower and upper-case words. President Trump posted 24 upper-case tweets, which represents about 3% of the total, and he posted 162 tweets mixing lower with upper-case words, which makes it another 20%. An example of a fully upper-case tweet could be: “BUILD A WALL & CRIME WILL FALL!!” And an example of a tweet where he mixes lower and upper-case words could be: “The New York Times reporting is false. They are a true ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!

By looking into the different usage of size cases, it is possible to understand where President Trump really wants to focus his message. If we separate the upper-case words from the rest, we read: “BUILD A WALL & CRIME WILL FALL” and “ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.” Besides this, on the lower-case tweet showed as example, it is possible to see that the combination of words Fake News have capital letters, when there are no grammatical rules in which supports this decision. Through this study, it was possible to see this is a consistent style used in Trump’s Twitter account.

In fact, only 30% of the Trump’s tweets follow English grammatical rules and the Associated Press Stylebook. The others 70% have either upper-case words and letters that are unusual in English communication, or grammatical errors.

The words and letters upper-cased by Donald Trump are most likely to be key words, or words that he wants the audience to retain and to reflect on. A conclusion taken after analyzing Trump’s Twitter is that he focuses more in specific words or small claims, than in a whole sentence. These words normally represent a demand, an attack or a call to action. These are usually emotional, and sometimes show anger reflected in Trump’s political goals.

The most consistent style in Trump's Twitter is the capitalized letters. Even though he doesn’t need to do it to respect grammatical rules, he does it to show emphasis on what he wants the public to retain. The “Trump’s Dictionary of Capitalized Words” is of my authorship, and it is meant to show that throughout this analysis, there is a systematic use of some specific words that are capitalized when they shouldn’t.

In first place, the words Wall and Country were both seen for 67 times. In second, the word Democrats was seen 49 times. The word President, in third, was seen 31 times, and after, the combination of words Border Security was seen 27 times. The words Democrats and President can sometimes require capital letter, but not always. In addition, there are other words that are considered a variation of these and were highly used during the time sampled.

Some variations of the word Wall seen in Trump’s tweets are: Walls (6x), Walls Work (2x), Border (15x), Border Wall, Border Crisis, Border Coyotes, Border Agents, Caravans, Drugs, Human Trafficking, Humanitarian Crisis, Southern Border (17x), Steel Barrier (8x), Security (2x), Open Borders (4), Illegal, Chaos, among others. Some variations of the word Country seen in Trump’s tweets are: Our Country (3x), National Security (3x), Nation (2x), Shutdown (21x), Stock Market (2x), Tax Cuts (2x), Tariffs (3x), or Military. These words also can be inter-related. Other combination of words with capital letters and often seen is Fake News (21x).

The third way used to analyze Trump’s rhetoric on Twitter was to take note of all the “I” and “We” references and compare the outcomes. In order to do that, words like my and me were counted as “I” references and words like our and us were counted as “We” references. During these three months sampled, it was possible to see 236 “I” references, which represents 54.6%. And 196 “We” references, which represents 45.4%.

The fact that Trump makes more references about himself as an individual, than to a group of work or to his administration, is relevant. It indicates that his vision and opinions are more important than the overall perspectives. He says in a different tweet: “I have been FAR tougher on Russia than Obama, Bush or Clinton. Maybe tougher than any other President.” This statement reflects the idea that he is superior to any other politician, and only his vision can be the greatest one. This is a clear evidence of authoritarianism and populism.

The results of this study are important because they support claims of President Donald Trump as someone who promotes division in the American society. The nation’s leader has to be a role model for everyone, but when it comes to the United States of America, the leader of this nation has to be a role model for the entire world. As a result of Trump’s angry rhetoric, it is possible to see an increase of the same style among other world’s leaders. Trump is divisive when he attacks the media, Trump is divisive when he systematically calls politician Hillary Clinton as "Crooked," and Trump is divisive when claims the Wall is the only and single solution.

However, this was what made Trump win the 2016 election, and this is what he hopes to make him win the 2020 election. Trump doesn’t seem to care about the people who don’t like him, even Americans born and raised in the United States. Trump seems to just want enough support in order be the single winner.

During the 2017 Women’s March in Seattle, Washington, a father and son pose for a portrait. Photo by Jose Moreno.


Re-edited on May 11, 2019.

Read this article on Medium.

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