The Power of Right-Wing Populism in the Twitter Age: Analysis of Donald Trump's Tweets During the 2016 Election
IN THIS ARTICLE
The emergence of social media platforms into American life has remarkably altered the political communication landscape. Websites such as Twitter have become a prioritized communication medium for politicians looking to directly reach the electorate, replacing more traditional mass-media avenues. Concurrent with this transformation, the United States has seen a rise in modern right-wing populism, reaching a new peak with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. This article dissects the role of Twitter as a vital communication channel for Trump's right-wing populist rhetoric throughout his 17-month campaign for president by examining the targets and content of his Tweets. It finds that Trump's ethno-nationalism, anti-elitism, and attempts to circumvent and influence traditional campaign discourse and media examination of truths and falsehoods thrived on Twitter’s digital platform. The ways in which social media could exacerbate right-wing populism's growing threat to liberal democracy are discussed.
The growing relationship between social media and political campaigns has transformed the American political communication landscape. Platforms such as Twitter have gained popularity not only with the public, but with politicians who turn to Twitter as a priority channel of communication. Initial studies of the relationship of social media and politics focused on the democratizing and mobilizing potential of social media, citing examples such as Occupy Wall Street.1 More recent studies have examined social media as a host to the viral spread of misinformation, Russian meddling in elections, and invasive voter data mining and analysis. This led to a belief that President Donald J. Trump’s remarkable 2016 election victory was because “social media duped people into voting for him.”2 What such studies tended to overlook or under-analyze was how the intrinsic aspects of social media helped facilitate and stimulate Trump’s particular brand of populist political communication.
Populism is known to be a fluid, ill-defined political approach and one that must be evaluated alongside its host ideology.3 Western democracies have seen a recent surge in right-wing populist leaders who have achieved greater political power by appeals to ethno-nationalist sentiments and by attacking ‘corrupt’ elites.4 Trump’s election win was consistent with this trend. Throughout his campaign, Trump garnered tremendous public and media attention through his frequent and inflammatory right-wing populist remarks during interviews, rallies, and, most notably, on Twitter. This article argues that a significant portion of Trump’s election success can be attributed to his use of Twitter as a primary communication medium to disseminate his right-wing populist ideals. By analyzing the Tweets sent by Trump throughout his campaign for populist themes and tactics, this article aims to explore how digital media enhances the capacity and effectiveness of right-wing populism. Furthermore, this article will discuss how right-wing populism’s added strength in the digital realm is tremendously detrimental to American democracy by popularizing the idea of a homogenous population and a demand for government to follow the general will of this “in-group” without restrictions.5
History of American Right-Wing Populism
Trump’s rise and victory are a part of a long tradition and evolution of right-wing populism within the American Republican party. Beginning in the 1950s, with anti-communism and New Deal resentment as a backdrop, conservatives began to organize around a perceived ‘tide of collectivism’ threatening the future of the country.6 Such right-wing activists ascended from the outskirts of the Republican party to leadership, agenda setting positions through their use of vigorous political organizing throughout the Civil Rights era. Segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace is considered to be a founder of conservative populism by successfully and furtively infusing his racism with anti-communist politics to mobilize fear and hatred throughout the South without explicitly mentioning race.7
Richard Nixon was the next American pioneer in right-wing populism by strategically redefining his party as a haven for white, middle-class Americans who felt overlooked and abused by an elitist ‘Establishment’ of culture and politics.8 This was achieved by utilizing the politics of hate and reinforcing the cultural norms of ‘who hated who’. White middle class fears were covertly legitimized and pandered to without directly admitting they were driven by racism. In the 1990’s, Ronald Reagan narrowed right-wing populism by establishing a pejorative definition of the elite as ‘special interests’, not including the wealthy, whose actions and policies diminished people’s safety, values, and economic status.9 Liberal leaders, rather than just minority groups themselves, began to be villainized as unjustly prioritizing minority and immigrant rights above those of ‘the true American people’. These trends, together with the 2000’s emergence of conservative media establishment, the mobilization of the Tea Party, and the growth of online political discourse, have led to modern day right-wing populism becoming an established and institutionalized aspect of the Republican party.10 While perhaps a culmination of these movements, Trump also contributed to and helped shape the evolution of modern right-wing populism through his unique use of social media throughout his successful 2016 campaign.
Social Media’s Effect on Traditional Media
Alongside the rapid technological advancements, the American media system has experienced a period of intense change. Once the lead gatekeepers and agenda-setters, newspapers, magazines and broadcast channels have come under tremendous economic pressure as digital media began to overwhelm market shares. To survive this increased competition, journalists have changed the way they report news by navigating a new environment in which “anyone can make news.”11 In addition, conventional media sources have digitized themselves, creating websites and social media platforms to attract more eyes and readers. According to the Pew Research Center, social media sites have surpassed newspapers as a news source for American adults, wherein one in five adults get their news on social media platforms.12 Pillars of the American free press, such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, have responded by posting and disseminating online articles via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and more in an effort to maintain a viable economic model for their operations.
However, this online transition for newspapers and broadcast channels has come with a significant change in power dynamics. Unlike ever before, the boundaries of news reporting online have been “blurred by the proliferation of communicators with a wide range of values and goals, including partisan commentators, citizen journalists.”13 Long seen as minimal players in the media’s agenda setting, individuals and small groups in the general public are beginning to have an influence on journalism.14 Traditional media relies on social media platforms for increased audience reach in today’s economy, but are forced to, for the first time, reckon with highly visible public participation and influence in an increasingly competitive media sphere.
Twitter’s Role in American Political Communication
Founded in 2006, Twitter initially emerged as political force used to facilitate grassroots mobilization, divert top-down political communication, and given a voice to groups hidden on the political periphery.15 The no-cost communication platform expanded the reach of political communicators and organizers at an unprecedented scale. Alongside Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, which will be discussed, the Tea Party movement is known to be one of the first political actors to achieve salience and popularity via this platform.16 Twitter holds the unique power to connect and amplify ideologically similar groups from across nation by drastically increasing messages’ potential reach, particularly through the use of hashtags.
Low-cost, direct-reach Twitter communication’s proven political success has transformed the website from a possible tool for politician’s communication team into an absolute necessity. Social media coordinators and interns have become essential staff to 21st century political offices and campaigns. Politicians have coopted Twitter as a new political podium to disseminate messages and ideas to a growing and connected audience.17 However, while politicians often tout their Twitter feeds as a place for constituent-leader engagement, it has been found that most candidates choose to use Twitter as a “broadcast medium, rather than a venue of discussion.”18 Politicians and candidates commonly utilize Twitter as a way to shape their persona and news coverage in real time at no cost. As Twitter has transformed the new media landscape, politicians use their accounts to script the platform and influence the press by creating more “news.”
Candidates’ Twitter Use During 2012 Presidential Election
Barack Obama’s use of Twitter during the 2012 presidential election showcased the platform’s political communications potential during his campaign. Obama became known for dominating the digital media sphere in a creative and novel way, especially in comparison to his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. A study focusing on Obama’s 2012 campaign’s Twitter and social media staffers revealed that their online content was primarily tailored to contain information journalists would find valuable in an attempt by the candidate to shape news coverage.19 The staffers sought to create ‘viral moments’ by keeping Obama’s Tweets well-timed and contextually appropriate to spark public engagement and news coverage. Obama’s campaign found that the organizational power of a creative social media team’s ability to influence other actors’ definition of their candidate cannot be overlooked.
In contrast to the Obama campaign’s heavy and nimble use of social media, it was reported that candidate Mitt Romney’s digital team had to have every post reviewed and approved by twenty-two people.20 While Obama’s team was allowed to work fairly independently to craft real-time posts, Romney’s Tweets had to undergo several levels of scrutiny to reach the public, leaving staffers to regularly reuse already-approved content. Though Twitter engagement (i.e. the number of Likes and Retweets) is not accurate or inclusive barometer for public approval, a performative Twitter strategy can create moments of newsworthy buzz, with the potential to influence public sentiment and news coverage in a meaningful way.21 Such moments, as will be analyzed in this article, transformed the course of the 2016 election.
To fully understand Trump’s brand of right-wing populism’s use of social media in the 2016 election campaign, a quantitative and qualitative analysis of his 5,165 original Tweets sent out between the public launch of his campaign on June 16, 2015 and election day on November 8, 2016 was undertaken. The dataset of the Tweets during this period was retrieved from the online collection of Trump’s Tweets.22 Trump’s Retweets during the period were not included as part of the study. To categorize the Tweets, two research studies regarding populist political communications on Twitter were relied upon. Authors Waisbord’s and Amado’s 2017 study involved Twitter communications in presidential campaigns in Latin America, while Schertzer’s and Woods’ 2019 study evaluated Trump’s ethno-nationalism on Twitter. Based on the categorizations and characteristics of populist communications found by these research studies, relevant Trump Tweets containing populist themes were organized into one of three categories: (1) antagonistic discourse against political elites; (2) fixation with the press; or (3)ethno-nationalist sentiments.Antagonistic discourse includes messages that “annoy, question, criticize, bully, denounce, threaten any political elite.”23 This includes those currently or previously serving in an elected position, including his primary and general election opponents, as well as general mentions of “The Establishment” and contingent parties. Fixation with the press are Tweets that both positively or negatively focus on specific journalists, articles, news outlets, or, broadly, ‘the media’. Ethno-nationalist sentiments include Tweets that attempt to identify a virtuous American “in-group” and/or Tweets that clearly identify a malicious, over-served “out group.”24 Most of these Tweets often involve a racial, ethnic, or religious group. Trump’s Tweets were evaluated for those characteristics to see which avenue of populism Trump utilized most frequently on Twitter. A content analysis of the Tweets is executed to observe language and rhetorical patterns to better understand Trump’s unique take on right wing populism and Twitter as a political channel.
Trumpism on Twitter During the 2016 Campaign
Targets and Tactics
During the observed campaign period, it was found that Trump sent out 1,658 Tweets that met the right-wing populist characteristics as established in this study. The divisions of the three categories was fairly even: 538 Tweets contained themes of overt ethno-nationalism; 551 Tweets fixated on the press; and 571 Tweets were categorized as antagonistic discourse against political elites. Many of the remaining Tweets were self-promotional, including attaching links to campaign websites, events, or interviews, or thank you messages to supporters and states.
Trump’s ethno-nationalism manifested itself on Twitter is both overt and furtive ways. When curating his idea of an American ‘out-group’, Trump frequently and explicitly identified Muslims and Islam as imminent threats to the security and safety of the American people. Of the 57 published Tweets containing the word “terror,” over one third of them mentioned Islam. Additionally, it was found that Trump did not refer to the religion of Islam once without mentioning the word ‘radical’. Leveraging the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, Trump’s Tweets depicted a massive ongoing invasion of Muslim terrorists into the United States as Democrats sought to increase the number Syrian refugees into the country. Islam, Muslims, and Muslim countries were categorized by Trump as proponents of violent hatred against the United States and a major threat to public safety.
The next members of Trump’s out-group were Mexican immigrants, upon whom he focused on heavily during the beginning stages of his campaign. Three days after launching his campaign and utilizing Twitter for only self-promotion and aggrandizement, Trump sent out three Tweets outlining a pillar of his campaign platform and rhetoric. The Tweets claimed that Mexico was flooding the United States with “druggies, drug dealers, rapists and killers” because of a weak southern border25. Three out of four times that Trump would Tweet about immigration, the message would also include the word “illegal.”
As his campaign advanced, Trump transitioned from the use of Mexicans immigrants to just ‘illegals’. Using the same ethno-nationalistic strategy as he did with Muslims, Trump endorsed the idea that most Mexican migrants were criminals, threatening the lives of Americans and that strong borders were vital to public safety. However, in addition to appealing to safety fears, Trump pushed an idea that Mexican immigrants were also intentionally looking to displace true Americans by stealing jobs, government resources, and political power. The need for America’s dominant ethnic group to recapture their country was also pursued by contrasting the favorable treatment of illegal immigrants compared to that afforded to truly patriotic American veterans.26
Trump’s use of veterans to assign Mexican immigrants and residents as an “out-group” was a part of his mission to define the “in-group” through refining and exacerbating existing traditional ethnic conceptions of American identity.27 Slightly veiled through references to religion, whiteness showed to be a key characteristic of Trump’s in-group. Alongside his demonization of the out-group, Trump interlaced his feed with Tweets praising and glorifying evangelical Christians, a majority white religious group, for their upstanding morals and political support. Another strategy in creating this exclusive group was using the term “the silent majority,” which aimed to clearly shape the boundaries of an American ethnic identity that focused on white citizens and suggested that this population was being neglected by political elites who were more concerned with the well-being of the out-group. It is clear that Trump’s brand of populist ethno-nationalism aimed to concentrate American politics around ethnic identity, religion, and race.
Fixation with the Press
Trump’s obsession with the press was one of the most salient themes throughout in this Twitter study. Top broadcast television networks Fox News and CNN, respectively, garnered the most of Trump’s attention, trailed by the New York Times. Comments on the general establishment media came in third, gaining nearly 125 Twitter mentions. The clear majority of Trump’s press fixations were negative, with just over 10 per cent containing positive mentions.
The most prominent theme in Trump’s fixation with the press was his strong belief in a corrupt, dishonest media. Nearly half the Tweets addressing the general ‘media’ included the words “dishonest,” “lies,” “rigged,” “bias,” “unfair,” and “corrupt.” In describing his media coverage, Trump would repeatedly use the word “me” and would identify himself as a victim. False or negative media coverage of him was quickly allocated one of three characteristics: the outlet’s failing ratings, biases stemming from specific journalist’s intelligence or personal motives, or the expansive corruption of the media to condemn unorthodox political actors.
As discussed previously, traditional media sources have experienced tremendous economic pressure and organizational changes from market transitions to the digital sphere. As a business person and television entertainer, it is understandable that Trump would obsess over news outlets’ ratings and viewership, especially when they are talking about him. Trump has made right-wing populism’s fixation with the press his own by explicitly ‘connecting the dots’ for his followers between a network’s or news show’s ratings and their negative coverage of him. If a particular news segment or piece met with Trump’s ire, he would immediately take to Twitter to excessively rationalize the coverage through sweeping statements of the networks’ struggling finances and ratings.
The New York Times was almost never Tweeted about without the addition of ‘failing’ to its name. Additionally, Trump would regularly promote the idea of high ratings as the most significant marker of credibility and trustworthiness. After being directly featured in an interview or debate, Trump would often, the next day, check the network’s ratings in order to publicly attribute any ratings increases to the public’s utmost interest in him and as an economic stimulant to the network.
In addition, Trump often responded to negative press by personally attacking the motives, intelligence, and personal biases of the network and, frequently, the story’s individual reporter. For example, when New York Times journalist Michael Barbaro co-authored a piece detailing examples of Trump’s sexist and predatory interactions with women, Trump immediately took to Twitter to discredit the political reporter himself. In a thread of Tweets, Trump called Barbaro a “low life” and demanded his resignation citing that he “tweeted poorly about [him] in the past.”28 The power of the Tweets came from Trump’s ability to attribute conventional new outlets’ negative coverage of him to a single journalist’s personal vendetta against him and his norm-breaking candidacy.
However, no one journalist consumed Trump’s Twitter feed as did Fox News’ Megyn Kelly is mentioned by Trump nearly fifty times in this period, in a collection of Tweets that are almost entirely negative. About two-thirds of Trump’s Megyn Kelly Tweets include personal insults on her character and media persona, with the most frequent words being “crazy,” “bad,” “overrated,” “terrible,” “lightweight,” and “puppet.” His Kelly Tweets were particularly emotional, as he would often plead that the television host to cover the other candidates instead of ‘just him’.29 However, Trump’s Kelly Tweets began to slow in their frequency after he became the Republican frontrunner. After dozens of Tweets criticizing Kelly and her reporting, Trump made an appearance on her show in May 2016 and immediately after Tweeted “Well done Megyn --- and they all lived happily ever after!,” signaling his pleasure that she had finally performed as he had always wanted her to.30
This revealed a key strategy in Trump’s fixations with the media; scold and reward. The candidate for president was very comfortable with directly and punitively attacking a reporter or news source and then, months, weeks, or just days later, praise and endorse their work in response to positive coverage. This presented Trump’s hope for a transactional relationship with the press, wherein when they positively cover him, he, in return, will take a not only make live appearances on their shows, but also validate and promote their reporting to his base of supporters.
Finally, Trump reckoned with negative media coverage by claiming the entire industry has been corrupted by the establishment to squash his ‘inevitable’ success. Trump continuously took to Twitter to label the media as not only his personal nemesis, but as an enemy of the people. The motive for negative news about his campaign was attributed to the establishment media’s desire to maintain their political power in support of the elites’ liberal agenda, with the corrupt media being part of that elite.
Antagonistic Discourse against Political Elites
The final third of Trump’s right-wing populist communications on Twitter came in the form of antagonistic discourse against political elites and the “establishment.” Having never served in a public office or elected position, Trump politicized his outsider status to validate his platform critiques of establishment politicians. In addition to naming specific politicians, Trump most frequently used “establishment,” “special interests,” and “politicians” as all-encompassing references to government corruption. Descriptive words including “inept,” “incompetent,” “failing,” “liar,” “crooked,” “dumb,” “untrustworthy” and “all talk” are used regularly in Tweets about these groups. Trump also popularized the use of #DrainTheSwamp during his campaign period to summarize his plan to totally rid American government of out-of-touch members of the political establishment once assuming office.
It showed clearly that Trump’s antagonistic discourse during his campaign period targeted ‘elites’ from both political parties’. Leading Republican presidential candidates during the nomination process were the first to be berated, most memorably through Trump’s demeaning and repetitive use of nicknames such as Lyin’ Ted Cruz, Low-Energy Jeb Bush, and Little or Lightweight Marco Rubio. In addition to framing his opponents as sympathizers with the “out-group” by citing their actions, or lack of action, in their current elected positions, Trump also painted his fellow Republicans as unfit for the presidency due to their inherent personality traits. Once made the Republican nominee, “Crooked Hillary” became Trump’s primary target. Trump used his nickname consistently and liberally, promoting ‘corruption’ and presidential candidate ‘Clinton’ were one in the same.
Political elites outside the presidential race were also not safe from Trump’s antagonistic discourse. Trump took a particular interest in Senator Elizabeth Warren, mentioning her more than any other Democrat outside the race. Almost every single Tweet sent out about Warren included the word “goofy,” several of which also identified her as Pocahontas. Beyond nicknames, he attacked Warren for unproductive, all-talk and no action, and clueless as to lives of true “American workers.”
However, it appeared clear that Trump’s tirades against Warren were sparked just by talks of her as Clinton’s vice presidential choice. Trump’s more difficult battle was against his two Republican presidential nominee predecessors, John McCain and Mitt Romney. Both Senators had publically criticized Trump’s norm-breaking conduct and bigotry, which put them on Trump’s Twitter radar. Trump’s primary form of attack was their shared failure to earn the Republicans the presidency. Additionally, Romney and McCain’s criticism were quickly, but excessively, ‘invalidated’ by citing their ‘loser’ status within the party.
Analyzing Trump’s Twitter Audience Engagement
Just before launching his campaign for president, Trump’s Twitter account had amassed around three million followers since its creation in May of 2009.31 This exceeded all his Republican primary opponents who each had fewer than one million followers in the late spring of 2015. Hillary Clinton exceeded Trump in Twitter followers at this time; however, Trump’s feed quickly gained followers and surpassed the number of Clinton followers in the fall of 2015. By election day, Trump skyrocketed to 13.3 million Twitter followers, in comparison to Clinton’s 10.6 million. To further set the scene of Trump’s Twitter account, before his campaign announcement, his follower engagement (the number of Retweets and Likes of his original Tweets) was static and unremarkable, receiving an average of 79 Retweets per tweets at the beginning of 2015.32 However, by January 2016, that average soared to 2,201 Retweets.
How Twitter Enhances Right-Wing Populism
Before analyzing Twitter’s positive effects on promoting Trump’s right wing populism, it is important to mention the context in which he was presenting his populist message. Not only did Trump’s populist campaign occur during the internet revolution, but it was also during a time where tensions around socio-economic status and fears of immigration and of ‘others’ were increasing.33 What will be argued in the remainder of this article is that it was Trump’s use of Twitter as a primary form of communication that enabled his right-wing populist message to resonate so successfully for so many amidst these social-economic conditions and fears. Twitter’s political and technological attributes would add significant power to this populist messaging.
Humanizing Effects of Twitter Accounts
One unique aspect of Twitter, and many social media platforms, is the news feed’s algorithmic presentation of content posted on the site. When politicians create an account and start producing content, it equalizes and connects them to the millions of ordinary users. No longer must citizens seek out a politician’s website and read long, dense press releases. Instead they are able to easily access political communication, along with of their friends and peers, in a format that is forced to prioritize brevity and linguistic accessibility. While political figures have often felt unreachable by the public because of the traditional vertical communication restraints, Tweets helps to equalize and humanize the politicians by leveling the playing field of communication (to 280 characters or less).34
The humanizing effect of Twitter does a tremendous service to populists, who aim to be seen as similar to or sympathetic to ordinary people.35 Unlike other campaigns use of Twitter to issue strategically scheduled, policy based content and graphics, Trump took to Twitter as many other Americans do; to talk about his life, his likes, dislikes and grievances. Trump went on ‘Twitter Rants’, sent Tweets out at 3AM, and used simple, sometimes grammar flawed language when writing out Tweets. These characteristics of humanity and being an ordinary person are showcased perfectly on a platform like Twitter and strengthen the populist communicator’s connection with the general public.
Circumventing Traditional Media
While imagined as a place where back and forth political discussion can flourish, it has been found that politicians primarily use Twitter for broadcast purposes to increase their influence on the media and public.36 No longer must politicians wait for a press conference or rely on the traditional press’s vast reach to disseminate messages to the American public. Social media’s unmediated access to direct, immediate messages makes it a safe haven for populists who struggle to publicize their ideologies while adhering to the traditional mass media’s logic and journalistic routines.37 Right-wing populists thrive when they are no longer forced to subject themselves to the often critical, real time evaluations of media’s authority figures to order promote their messaging. Trump was able to the use the gateless design of Twitter during the crucial beginning stages of his candidacy as his initially unchecked polarizing ethno-nationalist sentiments garnered attention from the public and media.
Infiltrating the News Cycle’s Agenda Setting
Related to the opportunity to circumvent traditional media’s scrutiny, Twitter allows for populists to capitalize upon the new hybrid-media system. Twitter and other social media platforms have infiltrated the media market and gained dominance in the American political arena. Traditional media have lost some of their agenda setting power to the Twitter feeds of politicians and campaigns.38 Social media is no longer simply a medium for traditional media to share their digital articles and video, but are now a place where news is created and harvested. Trump’s populist communication and his coverage by the media are mutually reinforcing as he crafts his Tweets to showcase his personality and leadership, important characteristics of a populist leader.39 As Trump’s Tweets continue to break political communication norms and therefore garner media coverage, he is able to both bypass media gatekeepers and shape their coverage of his political persona and agenda.
Disrupting the Public Sphere of Discussion
Twitter is a particularly well-suited host for right wing populism’s goal of dismantling a rational, constructive public sphere of discussion to allow for baseless hostilities to grow.40 To communicate on Twitter is to pursue the power of a viral Tweet, the majority of which are emotional, surprising, and seek message personalization.41 Trump’s expressive, anti-elite, ethno-nationalist style of political communication was met with viral spread across the platform, allowing for users to reply with their agreement or disapproval. As Twitter users became more polarized and argumentative around the messaging, Trump’s normalization of ethnic, racial, and religious hostilities and antiestablishment rhetoric began to actualize and normalize within the American public.
Right-Wing Populism on Twitter’s Undermining of Democracy
Exclusionary Politics, Anti-Pluralism, and Threats to Media’s Autonomy
Trump’s populism focused on updating and refining a longstanding nativist conception of America’s ‘virtuous dominant ethnic “in-group” and a malicious “out-group” who, supported and protected by their corrupt elite allies, attempt to undermine the sovereign rights of “the American people.” 42 By utilizing Twitter’s gateless communication design, Trump was able to popularize this basis for ‘exclusionary politics’, wherein the political and social participation of the out-group is delegitimized and their exclusion justified.43 These false ideations of America’s homogenous ethnic conception and the in-group’s vulnerability and the threats posed by the out-groups circulated unhindered, gaining public attention and entered the American political arena through the hybrid media system’s obsessive reporting of Trump’s norm-breaking Tweets. Trump’s top-down use of Twitter to circulate his identity-based appeals mobilized voter groups who related to the depiction of a shrinking, endangered white-American population who wanted apathetic establishment elites removed from power.44
The revitalization of racist conceptions of American identity and its infiltration into policy and governing is a slippery slope back to the systemic exclusion of minorities from exercising their political rights.45 However, even more dangerously, it falsely seeks to homogenize society, which society is capable of being represented by one single voice; in this case, Trump. Twitter creates a safe space in which Trump can declaratively state, “I alone can fix this problem!” without explaining why or how and attacking those who question the credibility of his assertions.46In reality, the United States’ system of democracy relies on pluralism and an understanding that the equal but wildly diverse public must collaborate to find fair terms of living together. Right-wing populism runs counter to liberal democracy’s core belief that power can never be absolute. Instead, populist actors stress that democracy is more accurately executed by following the general will of “the people,” as voiced by the populists themselves, in an unmediated manner.47 This is primarily done by diminishing or silencing the voices of minority groups and weakening horizontal accountability.
Right-wing populism’s fixation with and attacks on the press has manifested itself in a powerful way in the social media age. The independent media has long held the role of analyzing the truth and falsehoods of politicians and policies in American democracy and generally has adhered to a system of professional norms and journalistic values when relaying news to the American public, free from government control or intrusion in their role.48 However, the rise of the hybrid media system and Twitter’s dominance in American political communication has given politicians the power to bypass traditional gate-keepers and shape the press’s coverage of themselves through the content of their Tweets. Twitter’s unmoderated environment not only allows for right-wing populists to fixate and often harass the press in a publicly accusatory and unlimited way.49 A key element of populism is to delegitimize independent sources of criticism or legal power, such as judges who rule against populist policy priorities.
There have been significant transformations in American society related to the growing influence of right-wing populism in American political discourse and the emergence of social media platforms into nearly all aspects of American life. This article discusses how these transformational political and communicational changes have become remarkably intertwined. The overlap between right-wing populist communication and Twitter as its medium was acutely showcased by the 2016 election of Donald Trump as President with his right-wing populist message that was amplified and made more potent by his use of Twitter.
Trump’s message, as demonstrated in the Tweets analyzed and discussed in this article, include ethno-nationalist appeals to his “in-group” of “true” Americans and his attacks on to the political and establishment elites for their support of “out-groups.”50 These messages and their influence in American politics threatens liberal democracy and the pillars on which it stands, including minority-rights, checks and balances and freedom of the press.
Chittal, N. (2014, December 6). It took 22 people to approve a Romney tweet. Retrieved April 20, 2020, fromhttp://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/new-details-show-romney-campaign-struggled-social-media
Conway, B. A., Kenski, K., & Wang, D. (2015). The Rise of Twitter in the Political Campaign: Searching for Intermedia Agenda-Setting Effectsin the Presidential Primary.Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication,20, 363-380. doi:10.1111/jcc4.12124
Engesser, S., Ernst, N., Esser, F., & Büchel, F. (2017). Populism and social media: How politicians spread a fragmented ideology.Information, Communication & Society,20(8), 1109-1126. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2016.1207697
Gil de Zúñiga, H., Koc Michalska, K., & Römmele, A. (2020). Populism in the era of Twitter: How social media contextualized new insights into an old phenomenon.New Media & Society,22(4), 585-594. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444819893978
Huber, R. A., & Christian, S. H. (2017). On the Distinct Effects of Left-Wing and Right-Wing Populism on Democratic Quality.Politics and Governance,5(4), 146-165. doi:10.17645/pag.v5i4.919
Kreiss, D. (2016). Seizing the moment: The presidential campaigns’ use of Twitter during the 2012 electoral cycle.New Media & Society,18(8), 1473-1490. doi:10.1177/1461444814562445
Krzyżanowski, M., & Wodak, R. (2017). Right-wing populism in Europe & USA: Contesting politics & discourse beyond ‘Orbanism’ and ‘Trumpism’.Journal of Language and Politics,16(4), 471-484. doi:10.1075/jlp.17042.krz
Newkirk, V. R., II. (2016, March 24). The American Idea in 140 Characters. Retrieved April 20, 2020, fromhttps://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/twitter-politics-last-decade/475131/
Schertzer, R., & Taylor Woods, E. (2020). #Nationalism: The ethno-nationalist populism of Donald Trump’s Twitter communication.Ethnic and Racial Studies,1(20). doi:10.1080/01419870.2020.1713390
Schroeder, R. (2019). Digital Media and the Entrenchment of Right-Wing Populist Agendas.Social Media + Society,1(11). doi:10.1177/2056305119885328
Shearer, E. (2018, December 10). Social media outpaces print newspapers in the U.S. as a news source. Pew Research Center; Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/12/10/social-media-outpaces-print-newspapers-in-the-u-s-as-a-news-source/
Trump Twitter Archive. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2020, fromhttp://www.trumptwitterarchive.com/
Trump, D [@realdonaldtrump]. (2015, June 19). Druggies, drug dealers, rapists and killers are coming across the southern border. [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/612083064945180672
Trump, D [@realdonaldtrump]. (2016, May 17). Michael Barbaro, the author of the now discredited @nytimes hit piece on me. [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/732762160842039296
Trump, D [@realdonaldtrump]. (2016, March 17). Highly overrated & crazy @megynkelly is always complaining about Trump and yet she devotes her shows to me. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/710510524031746052
Trump, D [@realdonaldtrump]. (2016, May 17). Well, that is it. Well done Megyn --- and they all lived happily ever after! [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/732738568725094402
Trump, D [@realdonaldtrump]. (2016, March 27). I alone can solve. [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/714189569793646597
Trump, D. [@realdonaldtrump]. (2016, June 12) Is President Obama going to finally mention the words radical Islamic terrorism? [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/742053354189299712
Trump, D. [@realdonaldtrump]. (2015, July 12) We will soon be at a point with our incompetent politicians where we will be treating illegal immigrants better than our veterans. [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/623136748718137344
Trump, D. [@realdonaldtrump]. (2016, March 17) The reason lyin' Ted Cruz has lost so much of the evangelical vote is that they are very smart and just don't tolerate liars-a big problem! [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/710442630207901696
Trump, D. [@realdonaldtrump]. (2015, July 18) Ratings starved @CNN and @CNNPolitics does not cover me accurately. [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/622404796880793600
Trump, D. [@realdonaldtrump]. (2015, July 18) The $10 billion (net worth) is AFTER all debt and liabilities. So simple to understand but @CNN & @CNNPolitics is just plain dumb! [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/622406423121506304
Trump, D. [@realdonaldtrump]. (2015, September 17) Just announced that in the history of @CNN , last night’s debate was its highest rated ever. [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/644560712665329664
Trump, D. [@realdonaldtrump]. (2016, March 18) Everybody should boycott the @megynkelly show. Never worth watching. Always a hit on Trump! [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/710947686879531008
Trump, D. [@realdonaldtrump]. (2015, September 23) @FoxNews has been treating me very unfairly & I have therefore decided that I won't be doing any more Fox shows for the foreseeable future. [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/646716373473853442
Trump, D. [@realdonaldtrump]. (2016, August 14) If the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly and didn't put false meaning into the words I say, I would be beating Hillary by 20% [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/764803159692836864
Trump, D. [@realdonaldtrump]. (2016, February 26) Lightweight choker Marco Rubio looks like a little boy on stage. Not presidential material! [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/703252241487036417
Trump, D. [@realdonaldtrump]. (2016, June 11) Mitt Romney had his chance to beat a failed president but he choked like a dog. [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/741590381503086592
Tsur, O., Ognyanova, K., & Lazer, D. (2016, April 29). The Data Behind Trump’s Twitter Takeover. Retrieved April 20, 2020, fromhttps://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/04/donald-trump-2016-twitter-takeover-213861
United States. (n.d.). Media Landscapes. Retrieved April 21, 2020, from https://medialandscapes.org/country/united-states
Waisbord, S., & Amado, A. (2017). Populist communication by digital means: Presidential Twitter in Latin America.Information, Communication & Society,20(9). doi:10.1080/1369118X.2017.1328521
Winberg, O. (2017). Insult Politics: Donald Trump, Right-Wing Populism, and Incendiary Language.European Journal of American Studies,12(2). doi:10.4000/ejas.12132
1.) Schroeder, R. (2018). Digital media and the rise of right-wing populism. In Social Theory after the Internet: Media, Technology, and Globalization (pp. 60). London: UCL. doi:10.2307/j.ctt20krxdr
2.) Schroeder, R. (2019). Digital Media and the Entrenchment of Right-Wing Populist Agendas.Social Media + Society,1(11). doi:10.1177/2056305119885328
3.) Huber, R. A., & Christian, S. H. (2017). On the Distinct Effects of Left-Wing and Right-Wing Populism on Democratic Quality.Politics and Governance,5(4), 146. doi:10.17645/pag.v5i4.919
4.) Schroeder, Digital media and the rise of right-wing populism, 62
5.) Huber and Schimpf, On the Distinct Effects of Left-Wing and Right-Wing Populism on Democratic Quality, 147
6.) Winberg, O. (2017). Insult Politics: Donald Trump, Right-Wing Populism, and Incendiary Language.European Journal of American Studies,12(2). doi:10.4000/ejas.12132
7.) Winberg, Insult Politics: Donald Trump, Right-Wing Populism, and Incendiary Language, 4
8.) Winberg, Insult Politics: Donald Trump, Right-Wing Populism, and Incendiary Language, 5
9.) Winberg, Insult Politics: Donald Trump, Right-Wing Populism, and Incendiary Language, 5
10.) Winberg, Insult Politics: Donald Trump, Right-Wing Populism, and Incendiary Language, 6
11.) Conway, B. A., Kenski, K., & Wang, D. (2015). The Rise of Twitter in the Political Campaign: Searching for Intermedia Agenda-Setting Effects in the Presidential Primary.Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication,20, 364. doi:10.1111/jcc4.12124
12.) Shearer, E. (2018, December 10). Social media outpaces print newspapers in the U.S. as a news source. Pew Research Center; Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/12/10/social-media-outpaces-print-newspapers-in-the-u-s-as-a-news-source/
13.) United States. (n.d.). Media Landscapes. Retrieved April 21, 2020, from https://medialandscapes.org/country/united-states
14.) Conway et all, The Rise of Twitter in the Political Campaign: Searching for Intermedia Agenda-Setting Effects in the Presidential Primary , 364
15.) Newkirk, V. R., II. (2016, March 24). The American Idea in 140 Characters. Retrieved April 20, 2020, fromhttps://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/twitter-politics-last-decade/475131/
16.) Newkirk, The American Idea in 140 Characters
17.) Conway et all, The Rise of Twitter in the Political Campaign: Searching for Intermedia Agenda-Setting Effects in the Presidential Primary, 365
18.) Conway et all, The Rise of Twitter in the Political Campaign: Searching for Intermedia Agenda-Setting Effects in the Presidential Primary, 365
19.) Kreiss, D. (2016). Seizing the moment: The presidential campaigns’ use of Twitter during the 2012 electoral cycle.New Media & Society,18(8), 1482. doi:10.1177/1461444814562445
20.) Chittal, N. (2014, December 6). It took 22 people to approve a Romney tweet. Retrieved April 20, 2020, fromhttp://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/new-details-show-romney-campaign-struggled-social-media
21.) Kreiss, The presidential campaigns’ use of Twitter during the 2012 electoral cycle, 2016
22.) Trump Twitter Archive. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2020, fromhttp://www.trumptwitterarchive.com/
23.) Waisbord, S., & Amado, A. (2017). Populist communication by digital means: Presidential Twitter in Latin America.Information, Communication & Society,20(9). doi:10.1080/1369118X.2017.1328521
24.) Schertzer, R., & Taylor Woods, E. (2020). #Nationalism: The ethno-nationalist populism of Donald Trump’s Twitter communication.Ethnic and Racial Studies,1(20). doi:10.1080/01419870.2020.1713390
25.) Trump, D [@realdonaldtrump]. (2015, June 19). Druggies, drug dealers, rapists and killers are coming across the southern border. [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/612083064945180672
26.) Schertzer & Woods, #Nationalism: The ethno-nationalist populism of Donald Trump’s Twitter communication
27.) Schertzer & Woods, #Nationalism: The ethno-nationalist populism of Donald Trump’s Twitter communication, 2017
28.) Trump, D [@realdonaldtrump]. (2016, May 17). Michael Barbaro, the author of the now discredited @nytimes hit piece on me. [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/732762160842039296
29.) Trump, D [@realdonaldtrump]. (2016, March 17). Highly overrated & crazy @megynkelly is always complaining about Trump and yet she devotes her shows to me. [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/710510524031746052
30.) Trump, D [@realdonaldtrump]. (2016, May 17). Well, that is it. Well done Megyn --- and they all lived happily ever after! [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/732738568725094402
31.) Tsur, O., Ognyanova, K., & Lazer, D. (2016, April 29). The Data Behind Trump’s Twitter Takeover. Retrieved April 20, 2020, fromhttps://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/04/donald-trump-2016-twitter-takeover-213861
32.) Tsur, The Data Behind Trump’s Twitter Takeover
33.) Schertzer & Woods, #Nationalism: The ethno-nationalist populism of Donald Trump’s Twitter communication, 2017
34.) Newkirk, V. R., II. (2016, March 24). The American Idea in 140 Characters. Retrieved April 20, 2020, fromhttps://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/twitter-politics-last-decade/475131/
35.) Schroeder, Digital media and the rise of right-wing populism, 62
36.) Conway et al, The Rise of Twitter in the Political Campaign: Searching for Intermedia Agenda-Setting Effects in the Presidential Primary, 364
37.) Engesser, S., Ernst, N., Esser, F., & Büchel, F. (2017). Populism and social media: How politicians spread a fragmented ideology.Information, Communication & Society,20(8), 1109. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2016.1207697
38.) Conway et all, The Rise of Twitter in the Political Campaign: Searching for Intermedia Agenda-Setting Effects in the Presidential Primary, 367
39.) Schoeder, Digital media and the rise of right-wing populism. In Social Theory after the Internet
40.) Gil de Zúñiga, H., Koc Michalska, K., & Römmele, A. (2020). Populism in the era of Twitter: How social media contextualized new insights into an old phenomenon.New Media & Society,22(4), 585-594. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444819893978
41.) Gil de Zuniga et al, Populism in the era of Twitter: How social media contextualized new insights into an old phenomenon, 588
42.) Engesser et al, Populism and social media: How politicians spread a fragmented ideology, 1115
43.) Schertzer & Woods, #Nationalism: The ethno-nationalist populism of Donald Trump’s Twitter communication, 2017
44.) Krzyżanowski, M., & Wodak, R. (2017). Right-wing populism in Europe & USA: Contesting politics & discourse beyond ‘Orbanism’ and ‘Trumpism’.Journal of Language and Politics,16(4), 471-484. doi:10.1075/jlp.17042.krz
45.) Huber and Schimpf, On the Distinct Effects of Left-Wing and Right-Wing Populism on Democratic Quality, 148
46.) Trump, D [@realdonaldtrump]. (2016, March 27). I alone can solve. [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/714189569793646597
47.) Huber and Schimpf, On the Distinct Effects of Left-Wing and Right-Wing Populism on Democratic Quality, 150
48.) Engesser et al, Populism and social media: How politicians spread a fragmented ideology, 1115
49.) Waisbord & Amado, Populist communication by digital means: Presidential Twitter in Latin America,
50.) Schertzer & Woods, #Nationalism: The ethno-nationalist populism of Donald Trump’s Twitter communication, 2017