How the Candidates’ Talking Points Are Getting Inside Your Head
If you’ve ever sat around a dinner table, you know how politics and emotion are intertwined. Especially this year. But, even though Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are polarizing presidential candidates, peoples’ feelings about them extend well beyond love/hate.
Rhetoric is a way of using language specifically to persuade, and it is partly responsible for any political message’s emotional response. Campaigns adopt specific rhetorical strategies—like Clinton’s message of calm competence or Trump’s gut-punch populism. And whether they mean to or not, those styles ply different areas of human psychology. Talking points and even styles of speaking can spin you up or quiet you down, make you think critically or bypass thinking altogether. Behind the spin is actual science.
Most political rhetoric amounts to a resume dump. “At first blush, it seems like a dry recitation,” says Patrick Jackson, a political scientist at American University. “But it’s actually a tremendously powerful rhetorical strategy: Here are the jobs I’ve held, here are my accomplishments. It’s the rhetoric of competence.” Perception of competence is fundamental to gaining approval (and maybe votes) in politics. So, Trump cites his business and brands, while Clinton talks about prior political work and public service. Their rhetoric has been memeified. But the candidates (and their supporters) have done great jobs picking apart each others’ resumes, to the point that many voters have trust issues with Hillary, and doubt the Donald’s deal-making bluster. So, other rhetorical strategies have come to the fore. Result: a high-emotion/low-fact scenario.
Trump’s rhetorical brand is anger. In his speeches and tweets, Trump is constantly reinforcing that unlike “Crooked Hillary” he is not part of the “rigged” political system. “If the system is rigged, you’re going to be mad,” says Richard E. Petty, a psychologist at Ohio State University. “Anger makes people rely more on stereotypes and heuristics and simple ways of judging things, and more certain that they’re right.” So if you’re a pissed off Trump supporter, “Build a wall” and “Lock her up” are all you want, and the more you hear them, the more they stick.
Clinton speeches are bit more kumbaya—she favors optimism and inspiration. That doesn’t mean that the rhetoric is any more virtuous or fact-first. “Triumphalism is just so much wet paper over actual realities,” says Dana Cloud, a professor of rhetoric at Syracuse University. “It’s a kinder, gentler way of presenting the status quo.” Hillary’s (problematic) line in her DNC keynote, “I believe in science,” plays that emotional chord: it feels good only as long as you don’t think too hard. “Inspiration encourages you to think in broad terms, and not focus on detail,” says Peter Ditto, a psychologist at UC Irvine. On a psychological level, inspiration isn’t all that different than anger—they’re both emotions disruptive to rational thought.
The dominant emotion of this election cycle is fear, and the candidates are either reinforcing or rebuking it. “The rhetoric of fear works by implication, like an Alfred Hitchcock movie,” says Jackson. “You don’t show the monster. You link any opposition to one’s position to a vague external threat and let people’s imaginations take over.” Trump has been working this angle the whole time, making looming specters of Islamic extremists and of well, the country of Mexico. Lately, the left has been making a potential Trump presidency their own vague harbinger of doom.
Jumping on the fear bandwagon makes sense. It’s not good enough just to rile people up. You have to get them to actually vote for you. And while you might think that scare tactics would drive more people under their beds than out to the polls, the opposite is true: “The feeling of threat we know is very activating,” says Jon Krosnick, a political psychologist at Stanford. It also sets a candidate in a powerful position. “Fear is an emotion associated with uncertainty. It makes you look for somebody powerful to take care of you, an all-knowing powerful person to fix things,” says Petty.
But when both sides keep upping the rhetoric of fear and casting each other as the villain, it’s the facts that lose out. “Mistrust is the Swiss Army knife of motivated reasoning,” says Ditto. “People can believe anything. So they’re trying to use emotion to organize the facts into two different, exaggerated ‘factual’ pictures.” When you’re psychologically predisposed to trust one person to the exclusion of all others, that person can say whatever he or she wants.
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