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How President Trump's Rhetoric Has Affected U.S. Politics


We are in the final hours of Donald Trump's presidency. And during his four years in the White House, he has left a mark on American politics and policies. He's also changed the way political leaders talk. Jennifer Mercieca studies American political rhetoric at Texas A&M University, and she's the author of "Demagogue For President: The Rhetorical Genius Of Donald Trump."


JENNIFER MERCIECA: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: So as you study Trump's use of language, there are so many ways he is different from presidents who came before him. What would you put at the top of the list?

MERCIECA: First of all, he communicates like a demagogue and not like a president. And what I mean by that is he took advantage of preexisting distrust and polarization and frustration, and he used rhetorical strategies that were designed to make all of those things worse.

SHAPIRO: You know, you say President Trump attacks people, and that's broadly true as a figure of speech. But he also threatens violence more than any of his predecessors have.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He's walking out, like, with big high-fives, smiling, laughing. Like to punch him in the face, I'll tell you.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about the significance of that, those actual physical threats.

MERCIECA: Yeah, so one of Trump's rhetorical strategies has been to use ad baculum, which is Latin and means threats of force or intimidation. And Donald Trump has wielded language like a cudgel. He does it even in interviews. So, you know, a typical president would sit down with a reporter and answer questions. They might not answer them, you know, as honestly as they could, but, you know, generally they would answer - give some kind of answer. Donald Trump instead attacks, right? So he wants to show his audience how phony the interview is. And so he'll say, you know, that's a dumb question.


TRUMP: What a stupid question. But I watch you a lot. You ask a lot of stupid questions.

MERCIECA: And those are ways of, you know, attacking in the moment but also signaling to his followers that no one should trust the media. And that has had great benefit for him because he's allowed to, you know, increase the distrust between his followers and the mainstream media. And he lets them know that they shouldn't trust anyone but him.

SHAPIRO: You point out that President Trump is much more eager than any of his predecessors to dehumanize his opponents.


TRUMP: They're sneaky, dirty rats.

These aren't people. These are animals.

SHAPIRO: While this is out of the ordinary for a president, where have we seen this kind of language in the past?

MERCIECA: Absolutely. The only time that you see presidents using the rhetorical strategy of reification, which is treating people as objects, is when they're using war rhetoric. So when you have a president using those rhetorical strategies sort of every day, you know, using it against the media, using it against members of his own party, using it against the political opposition, what it is essentially is a call to warfare. And we've seen that has really specific results.

SHAPIRO: What do you mean when you say that?

MERCIECA: Well, I mean, when he dehumanizes people, when he tells his followers, you know, that you have to be forceful, you have to be strong...


TRUMP: Because you'll never take back our country with weakness - you have to show strength, and you have to be strong.

MERCIECA: You see them respond. So scholars call that stochastic terrorism. And so what that means is that you can't predict who exactly will respond, but you can predict with certainty that someone will respond. And so you saw people sending pipe bombs to the media, you know, saying that Trump told them to do it. You saw people over the last few weeks planning an insurrection and, in fact, invading the Capitol and then later saying, I'm here because my president told me to be. That is the consequence of Trump's war rhetoric.

SHAPIRO: When you look in total at the changes that Trump has brought to presidential rhetoric, what do you see as the cumulative effect, especially right now when the U.S. is in a public health emergency, a reckoning about race and an inability to even agree on basic facts, like vaccines work or Biden won a free and fair election?

MERCIECA: Yeah, he's absolutely used the fire hose of propaganda model. You know, in a way, he's like an authoritarian P.T. Barnum, trying to, you know, redirect our attention and yet keep our attention all of the time. I think that it'll be interesting to see what happens next. We'll see. I think that Joe Biden will be a much more responsible communicator than President Trump has been, and so we'll see if that sort of evens things out.

SHAPIRO: Jennifer Mercieca of Texas A&M University, author of "Demagogue For President: The Rhetorical Genius Of Donald Trump."

Professor Mercieca, thanks for talking with us.

MERCIECA: It's been my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.