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On Rhetoric, Leadership and Democratic Community



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President Donald Trump has lately descended into an almost incomprehensibly mean-spirited, meretricious and fantastical rhetoric, which has no parallel in modern American political life. Here are two recent examples, among many that could be provided, of this phenomenon. Trump voiced these statements during a lengthy unscripted and apparently unplanned stream of consciousness ramble at what was supposed to be a press conference to discuss U.S. China policy. I share The New York Times writer Peter Baker’s introduction to Trump’s comment, followed by the president’s remarks.

For instance, in discussing cooperation agreements with Central American countries to stop illegal immigration, he had this to say:

We have great agreements where when Biden and Obama used to bring killers out, they would say don’t bring them back to our country, we don’t want them. Well, we have to, we don’t want them. They wouldn’t take them. Now with us, they take them. Someday, I’ll tell you why. Someday, I’ll tell you why. But they take them and they take them very gladly. They used to bring them out and they wouldn’t even let the airplanes land if they brought them back by airplanes. They wouldn’t let the buses into their country. They said we don’t want them. Said no, but they entered our country illegally and they’re murderers, they’re killers in some cases.[1]

I cannot fathom what Trump meant to contend, but he indicated that former President Barack Obama and then Vice President Joseph Biden countenanced known “murderers and killers” for unexplained reasons. His rhetoric was nonsensical and despicable and apparently calculated to tar his “enemies” with horrific acts.

Here is a second example from that same event, which found Trump seeking to associate Biden with something with which Biden literally had nothing to do. Moreover, Trump either did not understand or he lied about the substantive matter he raised. Here is Trump’s claim, followed by the facts, as reported by The New York Times:

Biden personally led the effort to give China permanent most-favored-nation status, which is a tremendous advantage for a country to have. Few countries have it. But the United States doesn’t have it, never did, probably never even asked for it because they didn’t know what they were doing.[2]

Here is the relevant definition of the term at issue and the reality of Biden’s so-called role:

Most favored nation refers to a principle of fair trade that members of the World Trade Organization confer on each other. The United States has enjoyed ‘most favored nation’ status from all members of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade since 1947, and all 164 countries in the W.T.O., except Cuba. … Furthermore, Joseph R. Biden Jr., the former vice president and Mr. Trump’s presumptive 2020 Democratic opponent, was ‘never the leader’ in making the most-favored-nation status permanent for China, said Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Rather, it was an initiative of former President Bill Clinton and established by former President George W. Bush.[3]

I do not share these examples to complain that Trump is ignorant of relevant policy or willing to lie with impunity. His possession and exercise of those attributes is well known. Rather, his remarks set me thinking afresh about what sort of person would engage in such a degradation of the public trust and in a self-conscious effort to divide American from American, rather than seek to unite them under a shared banner of purpose and freedom. Trump’s diatribe also led me once more to ponder who would support such an individual—I do not label him a leader as he does not meet any definition of that term of which I am aware. What conditions and characteristics would cause citizens to attend public rallies that literally endanger their lives to cheer such fatuous and dystopian rants by a person unfit for the office he holds?

On the question of Trump’s efforts to seed division, I have found myself reflecting on the fact that he and his followers often compare him to President Abraham Lincoln.[4] Lincoln would surely make high company. He is not only judged by historians as one of the greatest leaders in American history, but he was also an incomparably gifted writer. Just as significantly, and magnificently, Lincoln rose above the tawdry claims of political rivals in the North and of the secessionist South alike.[5] Thus, with Union victory in sight as he was inaugurated for a second term of office on March 4, 1865, Lincoln did not crow about what a genius he was, or declaim concerning how only he could have led the nation to victory or, finally, call for vengeance and retribution. Instead, he chose to ask his fellow Americans, including those in the South, to look beyond the horrific war in which they had engaged that resulted in the deaths of 750,000 of their fellow countrymen and women to the opportunity the nation represented, and to do so on the basis of their better natures, of possibility and goodwill, rather than fear or hatred:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.[6]

Lincoln sought to unite a nation that had just undergone a grievous and costly civil war. He did not regale and demean even those who had committed treason against their country. Nor did he mislead Southerners or Northerners about the enormity of the task ahead or seek to continue to divide Americans for partisan purposes. In contrast, Trump undertakes such efforts every day. Lincoln sought charity, honesty, common claim and popular unity as aspirations. Trump has wholeheartedly embraced cruelty, lies, ignorance and division. Lincoln spoke and wrote thoughtfully, humbly and eloquently. Trump is often incoherent and when he can be understood, is frequently engaged in hate-filled rhetoric aimed at sowing racial or other forms of dissensus, or in self-congratulatory bombast about his greatness. Both of these valences signal his complete dearth of empathy and moral imagination.

On the question of why individuals would support Trump despite his incompetence, cruelty and more, I have suggested previously that many do so on simple partisan grounds, while others have done so for ideological reasons. Still others suspend disbelief and view him as willing to protect them against the vagaries of global economic competition or cultural change. I suspect all of these can be true for different individuals. That is, each could, theoretically, allow citizens to rationalize their support. Further to recent painstaking sociological research undertaken by a number of different scholars in recent years, I have also argued that a broadly propagandized narrative, the “Deep Story” offered by the GOP for decades, has also fueled support for Trump’s anti-social brand of racial animus and demagoguery.[7] While all of these arguments are extremely helpful in seeking to understand why individuals would back Trump, they do not describe or explain how those people could come to their proclivity to accept the scapegoating explanations and conspiracy and magical “hoax” theories that comprise them and that Trump employs to rationalize his corrupt, erratic and uninformed behavior. Political scientists, epidemiologists and psychologists are exploring this question and I want to introduce two salient ideas from their research concerning the topic here.

First, relying on very large studies of twins in five different democracies, Peter Hatemi et al. have found that genetic influences appear to explain between 30-60 percent of the variance in social and political attitudes among individuals. As they argued:

The combined evidence suggests that political ideology constitutes a fundamental aspect of one’s genetically informed psychological disposition, but as Fisher proposed long ago, genetic influences on complex traits will be composed of thousands of markers of very small effects and it will require extremely large samples to have enough power in order to identify specific polymorphisms related to complex social traits.[8]

While genetic make-up does not determine ideology in a strict causal sense, much evidence suggests it certainly can and does predispose individuals to specific beliefs, and as Hatemi and his colleagues found, it significantly increases the likelihood that individuals will follow their innate dispositional path. This is decidedly not a nature versus nurture contention, however. Obviously, socio-cultural factors, including family composition and attitudes, education, as well as lived experience, contribute to the values and beliefs that an individual ultimately develops or adopts. But, importantly, researchers are finding that a disposition to specific values is, so to speak, “prewired’” in individuals.

In that same vein, and troublingly, Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood have found that what they label affective polarization, or the tendency to view co-partisans positively and those seen as possessing opposing attitudes negatively,

contributes to racial animosity. To understand affective polarization along partisan lines, our results suggest, requires us to consider partisanship and race not only as related groups but as inseparable in the minds of Americans.[9]

Second, a set of researchers have developed moral foundations theory and argued that Americans have sorted strongly in partisan terms in recent decades along five moral claims:

Liberals valued Care and Fairness more than did conservatives, whereas conservatives valued Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity more than did liberals.[10]

These differences are expressed in increasingly absolutist policy stands among members of those groups. Indeed, Kevin Smith, a political scientist whose work treats the etiology of individual political beliefs, responded to a query by Thomas Edsall of The New York Times, who recently wrote a column considering this concern, this way:

Fights about abortion, gay rights, gun rights etc. are less about policy than about underlying core values, values that for many are not up for discussion or compromise because they are deeply held — indeed, given the genetic influences on such attitudes, it’s probably fair to say they are at least partly biologically instantiated.[11]

Overall, these findings suggest at least two broad points. First, Trump’s support among a significant minority of Americans, perhaps 30-40 percent, may reflect their disposition toward affective polarization, particularly in their willingness to respond to his racially oriented attacks and scapegoating. Second, these studies suggest that protracted mobilization narratives—pressed for decades by Republican Party leaders and so-called movement conservatives and their financial backers—may play important roles in shaping political attitudes, at least at the margin.[12] In this sense, GOP attacks on democratic governance and in favor of the market as well as assaults implicitly and sometimes explicitly on minorities as “line cutters” who unfairly receive public support, have been deeply pernicious. Trump does not represent the first appearance of this “Deep Story,” which condemns democratic governance and minorities via an othering of both. He is its apotheosis. His inclination to demand that citizens rely completely on themselves and the market also reflects the radical individualism advocated for decades by his party.

The upshot of these realities is that Trump has continuously sought to hew to his party’s ideology in his policy efforts, which has just as consistently across the past five decades embraced affective polarization, racialized mobilization and attacked governance as illegitimate, ineffectual and ineffective. What has become glaringly obvious under Trump, who has pressed all of these tropes to their extremes and is otherwise substantively incompetent, is that first, given their deeply motivating power, a share of Americans appears willing to undo democracy itself, to follow their clarion call. Second, it is indeed fiercely important who is elected to leadership roles and what regnant dominant social frame they embrace. Decades of neoliberalism have degraded democracy for a share of the citizenry and during those years Republican Party leaders have adopted the view that the market can and should govern—that is, that market elites should rule—and that individuals should stand alone before the vagaries of capitalism and capitalists. In this view, Lincoln’s call to community and nation above self would be considered naïve and his similar request of Americans to treat their former enemies with kindness and charity was, to use a favorite Trump word, weak.

This scenario suggests how important it is that Americans recast their national, state and local governments and populate them with leaders who understand democratic governance rests finally on the community and just as firmly on the deliberative capacity and prudence of its citizens. This is especially evident now in the midst of a coursing pandemic, when the very lives of that population depend on community and on adopting the orientation that Lincoln espoused. News reports suggest, however, that Trump cares not who lives or dies during this pandemic. The citizens he presumably leads mean nothing to him. To address this social and political abomination and prevent its recurrence, the population must be acculturated from birth to awareness of the significance of its citizenship role and equipped through education with the capacities, habits of heart and mind, to exercise it. One may hope Trump’s minority election represents a fillip and not the death spiral of our population’s will and capacity to value itself sufficiently so as to ensure its democratic privilege and capacity to govern.


[1] Baker, Peter. “The White House Called A News Conference, Trump Turned It into a Meandering Monologue,” The New York Times, July 14, 2020,, Accessed July 14, 2020.

[2] Qiu, Linda. “Trump’s Falsehoods on Police Shootings, Biden, Coronavirus and China,” The New York Times, July 14, 2020,, Accessed July 14, 2020.

[3] Qiu, “Trump’s Falsehoods on Police Shootings.”

[4] Weingarten, Gene. “How are Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln Similar? Let Us Count The Ways,” The Washington Post, October 11, 2018,, Accessed July 17, 2020.  

[5] Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster Publishers, 2005.

[6] Lincoln, Abraham. “Transcript of President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1865, Our Documents.Gov,, Accessed July 17, 2020.

[7] See, for example, Silva, Jennifer. We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

[8] Hatemi, Peter et al., “Genetic Influences on Political Ideologies: Twin Analyses of 19 Measures of Political Ideologies from Five Democracies and Genome-Wide Findings from Three Populations,” Behavioral Genetics, 44(3), May 2014, p.2,, Accessed July 17, 2020.  

[9] Iyengar, Shanto and Sean Westwood. “Fear and Loathing across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization,” The American Journal of Political Science, 59(3), July 2015, pp. 690-707,, Accessed July 10, 2020. 

[10] Graham, Jesse et al., “Moral Foundations Theory: The Pragmatic Validity of Moral Pluralism,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 47, Elsevier/Academic Press, 2013, pp. 55-130,, Accessed July 18, 2020. 

[11] Edsall, Thomas. “How Could Human Nature Have Become This Politicized?” The New York Times, July 8, 2020,, Accessed July 15, 2020.

[12] MacLean, Nancy. Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. New York: Viking Publishers, 2017.

Publication Date

July 20, 2020