In the Journal

When do coalitions form under presidentialism, and why does it matter?

The literature about coalition cabinets has been marked by three main “analytical wages” which led to increasing diversification and sophistication. This extensive production has contributed to bringing about a significant update in the understanding of how and why coalition cabinets form in multiparty presidential regimes. Also, most of the literature has focused on explaining coalition agreements duration or survival, that is why some coalitions are more durable or less brittle than others. Unsurprisingly, the most common arguments presented deal with institutional factors (see, for example, here, here, here and here).

However, very few works have risen the when question. This issue is quite relevant as the presidential system seems to bring a high visibility and predictability to election results, as the winner of the presidential election automatically becomes president. However, when explaining the phenomenon of coalition cabinets, the most common observation made is that they happen because the president’s party could not reach a majority. This statement assumes that coalitions are a product of post-electoral agreements whose objective is to confer to the president a majority that could not be obtained in the election. The main evidence to support this argument amounts to highlighting the minority status of the president elect’s party. According to this argument, the agreements for the forming of coalition cabinets are expected to be short-lived, as they would have been concluded more by necessity than through willingness.

However, although a president’s party may have had no majority in parliament, this situation could be the result of a bargaining strategy, after a previous pre-electoral agreement. Hence, the timing of the operationalization of this type of coalition agreements would be pre-electoral. In other words, the president’s party could not reach a majority alone, because it formed an electoral alliance.

As a matter of fact, in my recent article in Politics, I point out that this situation is far from being causal. Indeed the first descriptive finding of this paper is that, actually, coalition cabinets are – generally – the product of pre-electoral agreements. I present a six-stage timing of coalition agreements, including four degrees of precocity. Secondly, I set out that earlier agreements are relevant conditions for producing enduring coalitions. Last but not least, I show that the most common conditions driven out by the literature (i.e. institutional arguments) seem to have been overrated, when including the timing condition into the model.

Is populism essentially an anti-EU discourse?

The study of populist parties and populist discourses is on the rise in political science. However, populism is a catch-all word generally alluding to several dimensions of the political behavior and identity of political actors. In recent research of populism, there seems to be a consensus that pundits and academics should understand populism as a type of political discourse, a thin ideology or a mode of communication consisting of dividing the symbolic field between the people and the elites. While the thin ideology approach tends to consider populism as a set of established beliefs that are combined with full ideologies producing more or less stable configurations, the discourse-oriented approach focuses on the contingent articulation between the populist discourses and other semiotic ensembles. What remain unclear in both approaches are the implications of this discourse, thin ideology or political communication for other dimensions of political action. Is the populist discourse relevant enough to shape the political orientation of political actors in other dimensions such as fiscal policy, redistribution, EU politics or foreign policy?

In my recent article in Politics I took a discourse-oriented approach to this topic and explore in particular the power of populist discourses to shape the orientations of political parties in EU politics. To do so, I analyzed two parties, generally classified as populist in the literature, located at the opposite extremes of the left-right ideological spectrum: Podemos in Spain and Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany. First, I looked at how the populist discourse is formed in both parties; that is, how this opposition between the people and the elites is constructed in its form and substantiated in its content. In a second step, I sought to unearth the relationship between the populist discourse and the representations of Europe and the EU in both parties.

This paper yields relevant findings for the literature on populism and EU contestation. First, it confirms the differences that previous comparative studies found between left-wing and right-wing populist parties in constructing the people and the elites. Second, and perhaps more importantly, this paper empirically substantiates two key features of the relationship between populism and EU contestation with important theoretical implications for populism studies: the ambivalence and the contingency of the relation between populism and EU contestation. On the one hand, populism may lead to confrontation against EU elites fueling EU opposition but it can also stimulate a pro-European view in defense of European peoples and in favor of grater social integration of EU member states. It is, therefore and ambivalent and not unidirectional relation. On the other hand, the relation between populism and EU contestation is proven to vary over time in the case of populist parties. I find a clear influence of populism shaping EU contestation only in the case of the left wing party Podemos. In the case of the AfD it is not populism what determines the forms to represent the EU but the ordoliberal ideology that is central in the discourse of the German party. Even in the case of Podemos the findings indicate that the centrality of populism varies throughout the various stages of the party development (2014-2018).

Based on these findings, it is necessary to be cautious in future research on populism and revise the unproblematic association between populism and EU opposition. As this paper shows, a more complex and contingent relation between populism and EU contestation should be the starting point for the further comparative investigation of this topic.

How do institutional and contextual factors influence the parliamentary entry of new parties?

The entry into Parliament of a new political party has the potential to influence established patterns of electoral competition and government formation and to affect existing policy-making coalitions. New parties can increase responsiveness and accountability by focusing on issues previously ignored by mainstream politicians. Or they can generate more confusion for voters and further weaken their ability to identify what political competitors stand for, as the existing parties might adapt their positions to respond to the challenger. This emphasizes the relevance of improving our understanding of how institutions and political contexts facilitate new party success.

In our article published in Politics, we rely on a sample of 351 elections held in young and consolidated democracies from 1960 to 2013, to examine the likelihood that new parties gain parliamentary representation as a function of electoral system permissiveness and contextual factors that shape political entrepreneurs’ perception of political opportunity. However, not all new parties are the same, and their likelihood of gaining parliamentary representation and subsequently their impact on the party system is likely to depend on their origin.

We acknowledge this caveat and our article adds a new layer to the literature by distinguishing genuinely new parties from both splinter and merger new parties. We also illustrate that distinct factors drive the parliamentary entry of the three types, except for higher district magnitude, which increases the chances of representation for all types of newcomers.

Our findings indicate that the electoral formula and the proportionality of the electoral system shape the ability of new splinter parties to gain parliamentary seats, but do not affect the other two types. Conversely, genuinely new parties and new parties resulting from mergers are much more likely to enter Parliament in the first elections organized after the (re)foundation of a democracy than later on.

While previous research has suggested that coalition infighting and frequent changes in government drive protest voting, our analyses show for the first time that genuinely new and splinter new parties are significantly more likely to enter Parliament when the previous governmental cycle was marked by instability. Further research is needed to explore the mechanisms behind this effect beyond our intuition that governmental instability creates demand for alternatives, which astute political entrepreneurs are quick to identify as a window of opportunity to launch new parties.

Another exciting avenue of further research concerns the role of limited programmatic diversity of existing parties for the success of new parties. We found evidence in favour of this hypothesis only for the analyses ran on the post-communist sample, which is remarkable in itself, given the relatively widely held opinion that ideological appeals matter less in Eastern Europe and ‘newness’ is sufficient to attract voters without the need to advocate for new issues. Future studies might want to take into account not only programmatic coverage and diversity, but also attempt to measure the quality of how existing parties represent salient issues and ideological positions.

What is driving political party protests in South Africa?

Over the past two decades, South African politics have increasingly been shaped – and perhaps even defined – by contentious politics. Citizens have taken to the streets to protest corruption, inadequate service delivery, and ineffective leadership. This rise of protests and riots has occurred during a period of political transition, where the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has lost influence while opposition parties have grown. As historical party loyalties dissolve, political parties have adopted a strategy of directly engaging in and leading protests themselves. Given the many options that political parties have to communicate their messages – rallies, speeches, traditional media coverage – why have they opted to engage in protests?

In my recent article in Politics, I show that in a time when traditional partisan solidarities are breaking apart following a quarter-century of inefficient government and corruption, political parties see protests as a credible means to communicate their commitment to South African voters. Words and slogans are cheap, and voters are increasingly frustrated with the inability of the government to make good on its promises. Party-led protests, which entail all the costs of mobilizing large groups of people, serve several functions. First, they are costly signals of a party’s commitment to following through on its claims. Unlike other venues for such promises, such as rallies or political advertisements, party-led protests require the physical mobilization of groups of people and often include the threat of physical confrontation with political opponents or the police. Such protests, then, serve to demonstrate that a party is willing to pay a potentially high price to align itself with the needs of the people. Second, engaging in protests allows political parties to communicate their commitments through the language of contention. To the increasing number of South Africans who take to the streets but forsake the ballot box, protests provide evidence that parties understand that the time for simple platitudes and promises has passed.

Using counts of party-led protests at the municipal level corresponding to the 2004, 2009, 2014, and 2019 elections, I demonstrate that for South Africa’s opposition parties, protests correlate positively and significantly with increased vote share. The analysis demonstrates that political parties target their existing strongholds for such protests. Yet, while the established opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, and the insurgent far-left Economic Freedom Fighters both benefit from such contentious engagement, the ANC does not. Deeper analysis indicates that this is due to the fracture within the ANC; less than half of its protests focus on social issues. Rather, most of the ANC’s protests centre on in-fighting and attacking the ANC’s opponents. The results indicate that if the fault lines of South African politics continue to shift, political parties are likely to continue engaging in protests to attract popular support. The move from traditional political messaging to contentious engagement reveals a deep weakness with the South African political establishment; a quarter-century of failed promises have led a country’s citizens to trust insurgent – and often violent – contentious engagement over the promises of political leaders.

Despite Trump’s scathing electoral rhetoric against the EU, dialogues continue to shore up the transatlantic relationship

During his 2016 election campaign and the presidential transition period, Donald Trump made no secret of his dislike for the European Union, NATO, and for transatlantic cooperation in general.  Emmanuelle Blanc writes that despite Trump’s rhetoric, dialogues between high-level US and EU officials have continued successfully. While this key diplomatic practice is often taken for granted, her analysis shows that they play a key role in reassuring both sides of the strength of their relationship in times of uncertainty.

 This article is based on the paper,“We need to talk”: Trump’s electoral rhetoric and the role of transatlantic dialogues’. published in Politics, as part of the special issue ‘Elections, Rhetoric and American Foreign Policy in the Age of Donald Trump’ (10.1177/0263395720935376)

 This article first appeared on the LSE American Politics and Policy blog.


 Autumn 2016. We likely all remember the sense of confusion, anxiety and uncertainty which prevailed in Europe during the last American Presidential campaign, and culminated with the victory of Donald Trump. This general sense of bewilderment was well-justified. During the 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly attacked the EU, challenging the foundations of transatlantic relations in a way that no other US president had ever done – leaving the future of those relations more uncertain than ever.

This rhetoric put the entire transatlantic relationship at risk, including the intense channels of communication that had been institutionalized over the years. Since the signature of the Transatlantic declaration (TAD) at the beginning of the 1990s, EU-US dialogues – face to face meetings between high level officials – have become common, and now cover an ever-expanding range of issues (migration, non-proliferation issues, trade…) and involve diverse actors (lawmakers, diplomats, business groups …). As we usually expect that the foreign policy of the President elect will by and large follow its rhetoric, this impressive architecture of dialogue – a testament of the strength and vitality of the transatlantic relationship- seemed to be in jeopardy.

Yet since Trump’s election, rather than dwindling, these dialogues have gained in importance. Why is it the case? Why did transatlantic dialogues continue, in spite of the fierce presidential rhetoric on the transatlantic relationship suggesting otherwise? To find out, my research looked at the EU-US dialogues during the transition period following Trump’s election as the US President. I paid particular attention to the dynamics of meetings between diplomats, lawmakers in the framework of the Transatlantic Legislators’ Dialogue (TLD) and civil society dialogues. My analysis relied on textual, video and interview data with European and American representatives that took part in these dialogues.

While dialogues can be used for coercion, cooperation and persuasion, European and American representatives heavily relied upon these channels of communication to reassure each other of the continuity of their friendship in these uncertain times. As actors seeking security for the transatlantic relationship, they took advantage of these dialogues to tame the anxiety related to the leadership change in the US.


Trump’s electoral rhetoric: uncertainty and anxiety kick in

Elections can inject a great deal of uncertainty regarding the future of diplomatic relationships, potentially creating anxiety. In the lead up to and following Trump’s election, there was a large build-up of uncertainty, creating a diffuse sense of anxiety regarding the future of the EU-US relationship and the shared understandings underpinning it. Trump doubled down on his negative remarks on Europe’s future, including cheering on Brexit, stating that NATO is obsolete, and questioning the need for the European bloc all together. Never has an American President gone so far in their attacks – like calling the EU a ‘foe’ on trade. For many commentators, Trump’s tendency to openly challenge the international liberal order was not just a change of direction typical when a new president enters the White House, but a rejection of the whole American foreign policy tradition. By challenging key fundamentals of the transatlantic relationship, he endangered the mutual recognition of the friendship relationship that had been forged over time and that provided a sense of stability to both Europeans and Americans.

What made this electoral period anxiety-producing is the fact that the uncertainty normally accompanying elections has only amplified over time. As part of the transition, the first actions of a new President generally focus on establishing the administration’s priorities, thereby reducing the uncertainty surrounding its future policy. However, the Trump administration kept sending mixed signals, leading scholars to argue that ‘unpredictability’ has become the defining feature of the transatlantic relationship. For instance, while Trump lambasted the alliance as ‘obsolete’, and questioned the unconditional solidarity underpinning NATO, he increased military spending and deployed troops to Eastern Europe as agreed under the Obama administration, adding to the confusion on the European side.


Dialogues help are a way of managing anxiety in the US-EU relationship

In light of this acute uncertainty, both European and American actors needed reassurance that their friendship would endure in the future in spite of the scathing electoral rhetoric. And this is exactly what dialogues allowed them to do. These face-to-face interactions that had long been institutionalized allowed European and American representatives to cultivate a sense of continuity at a time in which crucial aspects of their social world were threatened.

Each dialogue provides a valuable opportunity to reinforce routines and appeal to a familiar narrative focused on the friendship forged between the EU and the US over recent decades. For instance, official documents following these meetings highlight the persisting commitment of both sides to a shared vision of the world and link common past achievements with the prospect of future endeavours to create a sense of continuity.

The very way the dialogue unfolds also reveals the continuation of a close friendship relationship among the participants. For example, in a meeting between the European Parliamentary delegation to the US and Anthony Gardner, former US Ambassador to the EU, one Member of the European Parliament bluntly asked: ‘How do you think that the Europeans can improve their image in the US to be better appreciated by the new administration?’ To this question, Gardner answered: ‘To counter the bilateral transactional basis that the Trump administration is likely to take, you need to prove that the EU is capable of delivering. You need to couch your arguments in terms of what EU-US relations can do for the US. This is the language that resonates. Talk less about values and more about how it makes sense in terms of US interests if you want to convince them’. This exchange is just one example among many which show the closeness between European and American participants and embody the friendly practice of providing counsel to each other.


Not completely business as usual

Despite this continuity, we found several changes in the quality and quantity of dialogues conducted at this critical period. Content-wise, due to Trump’s improvised and explosive way of communication, more time was dedicated to clarifying the president’s intentions instead of focusing on substantial issues of cooperation, leading to high levels of frustration on the European side. In addition, a sense of urgency also prompted a variety of actors to build new bridges and consolidate ties over the Atlantic. Especially interesting is the reinforcement of direct ties between US cities and states with Europe, bypassing the Trump-era White House altogether. According to California Governor Jerry Brown, who was received at the European Parliament, ‘contacts between US states and other countries can be helpful and important, because you have to keep talking. This business of yelling at each other across the ocean is not good’.

That Trump’s aggressive rhetoric did not easily translate into foreign policy outcomes suggests that there are still strong mechanisms which limit the impact of the president’s biting rhetoric on the shape of US foreign policy. While institutionalized dialogues under the new administration continue, there are many who actively seek to preserve the friendship relationship through the practice of dialogue.

How pushing hyper-specific – and fact free – policy proposals helps politicians like Donald Trump

When election candidates and politicians address voters, they often face a choice in how they speak: they can be specific in what they propose, or they can be deliberately ambiguous. Gustav Meibauer looks at the trade-off between these two rhetorical strategies, and argues that many politicians – like Donald Trump – aim to get the best of both worlds by choosing to be hyper-specific but fact free.

 This article is based on the paper ‘Ambiguous Specificity: The Production of Foreign Policy Bullshit in Electoral Contexts’ published in Politics (10.1177/0263395720936039), as part of the special issue ‘Elections, Rhetoric and American Foreign Policy in the Age of Donald Trump’ (10.1177/0263395720935376)

This article first appeared on the LSE American Politics and Policy blog.

 Politicians of all ideologies face a strategic challenge in how they communicate with voters. Let’s assume, for simplicity’s sake – and discard the Electoral College for once – that all elected officials are interested in getting the most possible votes, and nothing else. Very generally, there are then two effective strategies for how they use speak and communicate (also known as rhetoric) they can use. One, is to be deliberately ambiguous in their communication, and two, to be precise and specific. The incentives behind both strategies are usually described as a trade-off, and as two opposites across a range of potential communication strategies.


The upsides and downsides of ambiguity

On one end of that range, ambiguous rhetoric avoids being “pinned down” to concrete promises or suggestions. Ambiguity is attractive during elections because candidates need to signal commitment to different voter groups at the same time to maximise their support. When it’s unclear which candidate voters prefer, as well as less important compared to other issues in the eyes of prospective voters, appealing to broad themes common across voter groups rather than making concrete proposals is preferable. On foreign policy, for example, voters may even reward such loose rhetoric where it appears bipartisan.

Ambiguous rhetoric is also harder to fact-check or disprove. Think about the type of words used in a Fourth-of-July speech. Such rhetoric is ceremonial, and more about presidential “sound” and stock phrases rather than any particular content. This lends itself better to some occasions and policy areas than others: for example, as many voters lack interest in and knowledge of foreign policy, some presidential candidates refrain almost entirely from engaging in detailed discussions about it. Politicians would then take specific positions only in specific forums, where special audiences demand them and where they are easily missed by the public.

However, overly ambiguous and evasive tactics may cause problems for those running for office. The speaker risks being pressed on vague rhetoric, especially in situations like televised debates or “townhalls”. Audiences may see through well-trodden verbiage because they are already familiar with the dynamics of elections. They may have learned how to be able to tell when a candidate is telling the truth or not, so will be able to identify when a candidate just tries to bullshit their way through. Voters may then prefer candidates to be more specific to reduce the uncertainty associated with vague positions.


Being specific often signals competence

On the other end of the range, therefore, a rhetorical strategy of specificity and precision can help mobilize specific voter groups. Perhaps more importantly, in electoral contexts, it may signal competence, leadership and tell voters something about a candidate’s “character”.

Specificity may well be aimed primarily at voter motivation and mobilization. Insofar as it speaks to the interests, ideas and themes important to some people (rather than others), it can shore up support in those that care deeply about the specific suggestion that is made. For example, a suggestion to cut foreign aid by 15 percent and instead invest the saved amount into the military speaks to a specific target audience. It could mobilize voters that care about the military (or do explicitly not care about foreign aid) in support of the candidate. By extension, however, it also mobilizes voters that care about foreign aid against the candidate. The speaker (and their advisers) must decide which voter group is larger, more likely to vote, and more likely to vote predominantly on their views on that specific suggestion (as opposed to all other suggestions also made). Politicians can get this estimation wrong in systematic ways. Wanting to hedge bets may lead them back to a strategy of ambiguity.

Importantly, rhetoric is aimed at convincing at least the important parts of the electorate of the candidate’s expertise, authority, character and suitability for the presidency. Specific knowledge and proposals show competence and expertise on a topic and make follow-up questions less likely. Being specific in complex political environments is hard, though, especially for less experienced or informed candidates


Why candidates and politicians are ambiguously specific

Being faced with either taking an ambiguous rhetorical stance or a more specific one can pose a dilemma for those running for office. Usually, candidates do not want to commit to either only one (which may alienate other audiences), or too obviously to multiple proposals, ideas and themes (which runs the risk of making contradictory statements). Instead, candidates can use overly specific suggestions to hide their ambiguity and their lack of real facts.

Bullshit is often understood, and even used colloquially as synonymous with, ambiguous or unclear statements. However, political rhetoric can also take on a hyper-specific nature, comparable to adverts that use made-up medicinal statistics to flog snake oil. This can persuade a trusting audience of the speaker’s evidence for their statements even though that evidence is not adequate to standards of truthful speaking: the speaker still produces bullshit. Donald Trump, usually prone to ambiguous rhetorical strategies, is a good example.

Again, this concerns the impression of what is said, rather than factual content. Hyper-specific bullshit helps sell the speaker’s competence because it sounds detailed, not because it actually is (Donald Trump’s insinuation that two medications can be used to treat COVID-19 is factually incorrect, as was pointed out by his own chief medical advisor immediately prior to his statements and tweets). In seeking to maximise potential voter shares, a politician (like Trump) may not primarily care whether their proposal actually solves the issue at hand; they are indifferent to truth (in opposition to the liar, who deeply cares about what they think is the truth). Their motivation lies in creating an impression of competent leadership during crisis.

The importance of such specific-yet-ambiguous concepts in political debates increases the more uncertain actors are about the consequences of different policies, and the more they perceive a need to appeal to a wide range of diverse voters. The latter point is particularly important for big-tent candidacies and parties, such as those run by most of the recent Democratic candidates, and presumably less so for narrower, mobilization-focused candidacies such as Trump’s in 2015/16. Uncertainty and complexity in the issue at hand makes it more likely for audiences to be ignorant or indifferent audiences. This makes it more likely that hyper-specific bullshit, i.e. trying to deceive audiences with only seemingly detailed proposals that hide their ambiguity and factual emptiness, is successful. In turn, this makes the continuous use of hyper-specific bullshit dangerous (although it may well be fun elsewhere). Especially in cases where uncertainty should be communicated clearly, and precision needs to correlate with actual expertise, speakers are incentivized to bullshit their way through.


The dangers of playing fast and loose with the truth

This dynamic has consequences that extend further than elections, most notably where hyper-specific proposals end up actually becoming policy. This may be because candidates feel bound by earlier promises, e.g. to avoid losing their audience from backing down or switching position, or because they feel that thinking of alternative options once in office is overly costly.

As I have suggested in a previous blog post, bullshitting may well be a rational strategy in response to contrasting incentives embedded in the electoral system. Looseness with truth and hyper-specificity can build up and endanger the credibility of the political process. Where successful, it legitimizes untruthfulness, erodes public debate, and is thus harmful to a functioning democracy.

Political and electoral dynamics that incentivize politicians to latch onto nonsensical proposals because they might appeal to potential voters are especially problematic where the institutionalised feedback mechanisms such as media coverage, audience backlash and electoral defeat, are not operating well enough. This seems to increasingly be the case in the hyper-partisan American political landscape.

Trump’s populist foreign policy rhetoric is more about cultivating his base than supporting US interests abroad

For many, Donald Trump has pursued a ‘presidency by Twitter’, using the social media platform to set out his views and policy positions on a variety of issues. Jonny Hall looks at how Trump’s Twitter rhetoric has affected US overseas counterterrorism campaigns. He finds that Trump’s words – including his pivot from talking about terrorists to immigrants – have been more to do with creating fear about the world to appeal to his base rather than justifying significant changes to US counterterrorism strategies.

This article is based on the paper, ‘In search of enemies: Donald Trump’s populist foreign policy rhetoricpublished in Politics, as part of the special issue ‘Elections, Rhetoric and American Foreign Policy in the Age of Donald Trump’.

 This article first appeared on the LSE American Politics and Policy blog.


One of the unique debates surrounding the Donald Trump presidency has been the extent to which analysts should focus on the president’s rhetoric or his administration’s policies. Prominent voices such as former CIA Director and Afghanistan commander, General David Petraeus, for example, has argued that we should be following ‘the troops, the money, and the substance of policies’ instead of being ‘too mesmerized by reading tweets’ by Trump. And yet, it seems too extreme to simply ignore Trump’s unscripted remarks or tweets given their impact, especially in a presidency that is probably more centred on what the president says than any before it.

How has Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric during his presidential campaign and the first two years of his presidency affected US foreign policy involving overseas counterterrorism campaigns? This area is important to study because of how Trump himself emphasised the issue of counterterrorism in his presidential campaign. If there is a link between Trump’s rhetoric and government policy, this area seems like a likely case. This is especially so given the extensive scope and costs of counterterrorism campaigns today, which (in theory at least) have to be justified to the American electorate.


On the purpose of foreign policy rhetoric

 Conventional wisdom on foreign policy rhetoric assumes that it serves a largely enabling role in generating necessary political and material support for carrying out certain foreign policies. If there is any divergence on this issue in the field of International Relations, it is largely about the degree to which this support can be manufactured or not.

Similarly, there is a large degree of consensus on the purpose of foreign policy rhetoric during presidential campaigns. When running as a challenger, foreign policy rhetoric is normally associated with criticisms of the incumbent government and proposed alternative foreign policies to resolve these failures. In this way, candidates can use their foreign policy rhetoric to establish their credibility as a future commander-in-chief highlight issues that they care about or contrast themselves to other candidates. When running for re-election as an incumbent, the president is expected to effectively treat the election as a referendum on their tenure to date, offering a positive message by highlighting the foreign policy achievements of their administration and ignoring any unfulfilled promises.

However, Trump’s conduct runs at odds with these conventional accounts in two ways. Firstly, Trump’s rhetoric appears to be aimed towards polarising the electorate, rather than unifying it in support of his foreign policy measures. This can likely be explained by the fact that US counterterrorism campaigns seemingly no longer need to be legitimised, with the electorate increasingly being shielded from the costs of war.

Secondly, Trump’s re-election campaign has failed to try to persuade other voters beyond those who elected him in the first place. In Trump’s own words, ‘I think my base is so strong, I’m not sure I have to do that’. Although Trump’s re-election campaign was updated to ‘Keep America Great Again’, it is noticeable that the campaign has continued to primarily rely on the themes of fear and crisis to mobilise support; as one commentator aptly summarised, ‘the familiar slogan has been updated … but the tone of the show has not’.

Trump’s reliance on the themes of crisis can be explained by scholarship on populism, which I define as a form of political rhetoric that relies on the theme of crisis to place ‘the people’ against alternative groups to generate support. As Benjamin Moffitt in particular has argued, without a sense of crisis, there is no populism. This is because a widespread sense of crisis creates a feeling of urgency and demands action, which populist politicians can thrive upon. The challenge then, for governing populists, is how to generate a sense of crisis without bringing one own’s legitimacy into question.


The Trump administration’s counterterrorism policies and Trump’s rhetoric

 On the 2016 campaign trail, Trump regularly invoked themes of crisis, arguing that terrorism (and particularly ISIS) is ‘the big threat’ facing the world. Trump placed the blame for this on the Obama administration (and thus, by extension, President Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton), even accusing the administration of ‘actively supporting Al Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist group that became the Islamic State’. Trump portrayed terrorists exclusively as Muslim, logically culminating in his call for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. Finally, Trump promised to provide the solutions to the issue of terrorism, declaring that ‘nobody would be together on ISIS’ than himself, and claiming that he had a ‘secret plan’ to defeat the organisation.

In the first year of his presidency, Trump followed in the path of his campaign by emphasising the threat of terrorism, such as his suggestion that the judge who ruled against the implementation of Executive Order 13769 (commonly known as the ‘Muslim Ban’) was allowing ‘very bad and dangerous people’ into the US, thus placing the ‘country in such peril’. The next day, Trump alleged that ‘all over Europe’, terrorist attacks were occurring but that ‘the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it’, fulfilling the conspiratorial tendencies of populism and crisis rhetoric.

In terms of policy, Trump repeatedly overexaggerated the effects of his presidency. With regards to ISIS, Trump claimed that ‘we’ve taken back almost 100 percent … of the land’ previously held by the group, and that this ‘all took place’ during his presidency. Furthermore, Trump located himself as the cause for this, stating in one instance that ISIS fighters were ‘now giving up … raising their hands … walking off’ and that ‘nobody has ever seen that before … because you didn’t have Trump as your president’.

However, as has been noted elsewhere, there were no significant changes in the counter-ISIS campaign, with policy being largely a continuation of the Obama administration’s campaign led by the same key personnel. What’s more, where the Trump administration has made changes in terms of its counterterrorism strategy, they have often been without much fanfare. This disconnect between rhetoric and policy comes back to the purpose of Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric, which is less concerned with generating support for these day-to-day operations, and more with using foreign policy rhetoric as a way of appealing specifically to his domestic base.


Changing targets in Trump’s rhetoric

 Although there had always been conflation in Trump’s rhetoric between terrorists and immigrants, there was a noticeable shift in the lead up to the November 2018 midterm elections with the identification of immigrants as the primary threat to the homeland, which coincided with the territorial defeat of ISIS and the decline in ISIS-inspired attacks in the West. Trump described the migrant caravan from Central America as an ‘invasion’ of the US, claimed that the caravan had ‘criminals and unknown Middle Easterners … mixed in’, and suggested that the Democrats ‘had something to do’ with the formation of the caravan for their own political purpose. No convincing evidence was presented for any of these assertions, but the political logic was clear, with 75 percent of Republicans in considering illegal immigration a ‘very big’ problem for the US, and just 19 percent of Democrats thinking the same.

Furthermore, although this shift in Trump’s rhetoric initially coincided with the midterm elections, it continued after them. In both December 2018 and January 2019, there were more than 90 tweets by Trump including the phrases ‘border security’, ‘open border’, ‘illegal immigrant’, ‘immigrant’, ‘immigration’, and ‘MS-13’ as his administration attempted to convince the public that the US was ‘in the midst of a crisis at our southern border’. In February 2019, following a federal government shutdown, Trump then declared a state of national emergency to increase funding for his administration’s southern border wall, using similarly dubious claims of crisis to justify this position. The disputed nature of Trump’s allegations can be seen in the rejection of the national emergency in the House and Senate, but again, 73 percent of Republican voters supported Trump’s declaration, allowing him to present himself as their true representative.

Since he was elected, the target of Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric has changed from terrorists to immigrants, and this relates back to the fundamental purpose of populist rhetoric and the need to continually perpetuate a sense of crisis, rather than to generate support for policies or celebrate policy success. Although this particular case may be unique to Trump, it could well be that this mode of changing targets – especially by targeting different external groups – is something that we can recognise elsewhere.

Further reading


Long Read: Trump’s electoral rhetoric has become self-interested, nativist policy

In 2016, Donald Trump unexpectedly won the White House following an anti-elite populist election campaign which emphasised an exceptionalist and nativist view of America’s place in the world. Reviewing the president’s tweets and speeches in the lead up to the 2018 midterm elections, Corina Lacatus finds that Trump’s far-right populist rhetoric now links closely with his administration’s policies, including pursuing a harder, more self-interested line on immigration, US international commitments and trade relationships.

This article is based on the paper, ‘Populism and President Trump’s approach to foreign policy: An analysis of tweets and rally speeches published in Politics, as part of the special issue ‘Elections, Rhetoric and American Foreign Policy in the Age of Donald Trump’

This article first appeared on the LSE American Politics and Policy blog.


Donald Trump has been described as the populist par excellence. In the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, candidate Trump ran a campaign infused with a right-wing populist view of the world. In the absence of a well-developed policy programme, he made promises to ‘drain the swamp’ of American politics, to rid the United States of illegal immigration, and to restore the international respect that the country had lost by agreeing to enter into ‘bad deals’ with long-term allies.

As is common in election campaigns, Trump focused his public communication predominantly on domestic issues, taking positions on foreign affairs only in broad terms and mostly to advance his message on national policies. In the first half of his presidency, Donald Trump has been keen to convince his voter base that he ‘delivered on his campaign promises’ to keep America safe, grow the economy and increase employment. It is fair to expect that, at least to some extent, his public communication as president would echo the messages of his election campaign.

To what extent has the signature populist rhetoric of 2016 presidential hopeful Trump continued to shape President Trump’s approach to policy-making in the years since his victory?

To answer this question, I study the use of populist rhetoric in Donald Trump’s public communication ahead of the November 2018 midterm elections, from rally speeches held during the two months prior and tweets published in the official personal account @realDonaldTrump at the same time. I find that resurgent Jacksonian populism – an early 19th century anti-elitist movement which emphasised presidential power – promoted by the Tea Party’s position shapes President Trump’s approach to both domestic and foreign policy. Fundamentally anti-elitist, Trump’s populism opposes migration, multilateralism, and is deeply sceptical of the United States’ capacity to support a liberal global order that he perceives as detrimental to the economic interest of the American people.


What is a Jacksonian view of the world?

The contemporary rise in support for the Tea Party movement and Donald Trump is best understood as a current form of Jacksonian revolt against misguided and corrupt elites. Inside the Tea Party, two main voices dominate – on the one hand, the inward-looking, neo-isolationist approach advanced by Senator Ron Paul and his supporters (which would see a complete withdrawal of the US from international interventions) and on the other hand, the faction which endorsed 2008 Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin and her stronger preference for the United States to win wars rather than withdraw completely from international conflict.

At its core, Jacksonian populism is anti-elitist. More often than not the elites are members of government and the political establishment, i.e. senior party members. The Tea Party has revived Jacksonianism with a particular aversion for those perceived to belong to a liberal, well-educated, and intellectual elite. This antipathy extends also to the international sphere and the institutions that uphold liberal internationalist values, such as the promotion of liberal democracy around the world, any efforts to cooperate through multilateral organisations as well as entering and upholding international treaties. Endorsing a Hobbesian view of the international system, they view the world as a place where states always pursue their own selfish interests and have limited interest in co-operation. In this context, they endorse nationalist and American exceptionalist views and harbour deep scepticism about the ability of the United States to create and uphold a liberal order.

At the same time, Jacksonian populists tend to prefer aggressive militaristic responses to crises around the world, while advocating for trade protectionism and the dismissal of costly alliances and security guarantees. In their eyes, the United States is not meant to be the police of a liberal global order, but war is a necessary response when states violate their international obligations or attack the United States.


A populist president on a perpetual presidential campaign

In 2018, Trump’s public engagement with his electorate and the wider public at his rallies and on Twitter echoes the same tone of the official campaign communication in 2016. As Figure 1 shows, virulent critiques of previous administrations and Democratic politicians occur alongside kudos for Republican politicians who have supported the Trump’s administration’s policy initiatives so far and made approving remarks about the activity of the president since his inauguration. Both speeches and tweets communicate to the electorate a clear message, as printed on many rally signs: ‘Promises made; promises kept.’ President Trump is a man of his word, who made guarantees in his 2016 campaign and has made every effort possible to keep them despite opposition by Democrats in Washington. His policies are not only very good, in fact, they surpass the policies of previous administrations and often, are simply the best America has ever seen. Importantly, his policies are the only ones motivated solely by the best interest of the American people.

Figure 1 – Coded themes in Trump’s tweets (over 10 references)

In his speeches (Figure 2), the ‘American people’ is synonymous with disenfranchised workers from the Midwest and the South, who have suffered from lower incomes and loss of employment due to globalisation, job flights, and bad trade agreements signed by previous administrations. To correct mistakes from the past, Trump has imposed new tariffs on European and Chinese goods and has entered a new continental trade agreement, the UMSCA, with Canada and Mexico. He cites higher employment rates to demonstrate the success of his efforts to protect the rights of workers in agriculture, manufacturing, as well as the steel and aluminium industries. To secure employment and benefits for American citizens, Trump considers border security and strict immigration controls to be essential. Illegal migrants are malevolent, criminals, and a direct threat to the employment and public services paid for by American workers. He is also particularly concerned with the wellbeing of veterans and of the active members of the military, seeking to make healthcare and other public services readily available to them.

Figure 2 – Coded themes in Trump’s speeches (over 40 references)


Trump says no to the liberal internationalism of his predecessors

What sets Trump apart from all other presidential candidates in 2016 was his aggressive dismissal of liberalism and, with direct foreign policy implications, also of liberal internationalism. In his eyes, the democratic norms and multilateral institutions that support the liberal international order are fundamentally flawed because of the economic and financial imbalance they generate. By 2018, Trump’s approach to foreign policy had crystallised further. He views a world order that relies on a greater financial commitment and stronger military support from the US as essentially unfair and exploitative. Trump presents such a change in international position as directly relevant to his voter base, guaranteeing increased economic prosperity and greater pride in their nation’s ability to garner international respect. Trump does not appear interested in the promotion of human rights abroad, or the promotion of democracy tied to foreign aid and international development efforts. In fact, he derides international financial assistance as a form of exploitation to which the US has fallen victim due to poor foreign policy agendas of previous liberal administrations. In his public communication, his international political affinities lie primarily with far-right political figures, such as the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro and the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In line with far-right populist discourse, Trump advances an exceptionalist and nativist view of America’s position in the world in his tweets and rally speeches from 2018. Trump’s official rhetoric centres on the need to immediately remedy three main areas of foreign policy concern – renegotiating existing trade agreements with principal trade partners, strengthening American’s military position in the world, and curbing illegal migration. Trump frames his main role as president in populist terms. His experience in the area of international business is essential to correct mistakes made by previous administrations, who have signed ‘bad policies and agreements’ and have allowed other leaders around the world to take the United States for granted. Subsequently, the United States is in the position of a victim of disadvantageous agreements, due to which it has suffered economic decline and significant job loss. To paraphrase him, America has regained the international respect of which it is worthy. Importantly, this respect translates directly into more jobs and higher incomes for the American people.


Trump’s consistent anti-immigrant and pro-border security rhetoric

Two of the most important themes in his official communications both in 2016 and in 2018 are the border security and, relatedly, of immigration control. These two policy issues lie at the centre of Trump’s public discourse of a distinctly populist nature, with important ramifications for both domestic politics and foreign policy. Domestically, Trump presents illegal immigration as a threat to the physical security of the American people, as migrants crossing the border from Mexico are often violent criminals. Once settled in the US, they are likely to be taking jobs away from American citizens and are thus a greater threat to Americans’ job security and personal wealth.

As a foreign policy concern mentioned in rally speeches, Trump often addresses the Mexican government and also other Central American administrations calling them to intervene with force to put an end to what he calls ‘the caravans’ of illegal immigrants consisting mostly of refugees from El Salvador and Honduras that travel through Mexico in hopes to reach the US. Trump does not stop short of threatening to commit military force in response of illegal attempts to cross the southern border of the US. To him, refugees are migrants who choose not to enter the US legally and who aim to take unfair advantage of benefits made possible through the hard work of American taxpayers. Moreover, Trump blames the liberal Democrats for being supportive of illegal migration and focusing on refugee rights protection. He blames liberals for jeopardising the security of the American people by intending to build ‘sanctuary cities’ that welcome migrants and to squander away public money to offer illegal immigrants access to public services. Worst of all, in Trump’s eyes, is the Democrats willingness to grant illegal migrants the ultimate right of all, to become American citizens and gain the legal right to vote.


Trump’s populist rhetoric pervades

One of the most remarkable, indeed shocking, aspects of the Trump presidency is his rhetoric. His manner of communicating with the public about his activities, policies, and the everyday is unprecedented in the White House. Trump’s regular use of social media, with its immediacy of contact, also makes communication feel spontaneous and authentic. Trump’s public discourse engages with themes pertaining to populism – he speaks against the elites while professing to represent the best interest of the American people. A staple of the electoral campaign of 2016, this type of populist rhetoric continued after Trump’s inauguration and has since spilled over into the practice of foreign policy-making.

A revived Jacksonian populism infuses Trump’s ‘America First’ approach to foreign policy. He harbours disdain for liberal elites and their ideals for international cooperation, multilateralism, and a global liberal order. Moreover, President Trump appears no longer interested in fostering old economic alliances, which he views as ‘bad deals’, and seeks to renegotiate new trade deals that he finds much more favourable to increase the wealth and well-being of the American people. Importantly, Trump’s rhetoric shows a deep scepticism for the United States’ capacity to continue maintaining a liberal order. Rather, in his eyes, a disgruntled America has found itself entangled in a great number of unprofitable international alliances from which it needs to reclaim its sovereignty. In this context, Trump’s use of populist rhetoric allows him to explain the main goals of his foreign policy through direct ties with domestic priorities he identifies as being of utmost import to the American people – job creation, economic growth, and border security. Ultimately, Trump claims to have begun the important process of restoring the long-lost international respect for the US as a global economic and political power.


Interpreting Public Speech

Although we frequently hear the complaint that politics is ‘all talk’, at the right moment speaking effectively can be a powerful resource. Steadying nerves, offering reassurance, provoking questions or disrupting consensus may, in specific contexts, make an enormous difference.

In my recent article in Politics I argue rhetorical enquiry helps us understand speech as an intervention in time. Rhetoric originated as the ancient art of speech and persuasion, a practical knowledge based on the observation of how people spoke in assemblies, ceremonies, and law courts. There are now many ways to explore political ‘discourse’ and ‘ideology’ and, often, rhetorical insights are integrated within these more general approaches. But rhetoric itself focuses in detail on argumentative strategies and linguistic manoeuvres. Attention is given to how speech intervenes in the situations from which they arise. To explore rhetoric nowadays is to be attuned to how public speech of various kinds – from formal speeches and brief remarks, to writing, texts, Tweets, and even imagery – actively figures the meaning of events, problems or circumstances and defines stances towards them.

This effort to create meaning is what I call the ‘hermeneutics of public speech’. Hermeneutics is a theory of interpretation, although it is not usually applied to the study of political speech and argument. Yet, in everyday public discourse as well as at moments of heightened tension or crisis, actors speak in order to steer events, open up opportunities and close down others. President Trump’s infamous Tweets or rally speeches, for instance, are perpetually directed at monopolising or distracting public attention by provoking his opponents. Likewise, Greta Thunberg’s exhortations concerning the failure of institutions to tackle climate change with sufficient urgency creates pressure by strategically mobilising disappointment.

But how does hermeneutics relate speech to time? I argue, with the help of philosophers John Caputo and Jacques Derrida, that rhetoric illuminates the temporal character of speech: meaning is made both in response to a specific moment and to what Derrida called the ‘coming of the other’, that is, the sheer uncertainty of the future. All politicians tackle situations with degrees of deliberate calculation – rhetorical analysis frequently clarifies the opportunism revealed in language choice (for instance, in order to build or sustain coalitions). But, inevitably, speakers seek to shape time by gesturing beyond immediate conditions to a future that is intrinsically incalculable – for example, by using images of social harmony, reconciliation or, conversely, warnings of impending disaster. This otherness of the future refers not simply to an actual, concrete circumstance that may be realised but, rather, a sense of ‘promise’ that invites degrees of ethical openness to what comes.

A rhetorical analysis attentive to hermeneutics, I claim, alerts us to the balance struck in public speech between calculation and promise. It underscores how, though often disparaged as empty, political talk is a quite particular – sometimes ‘risky’ – activity that always involves negotiating the demands of the present with our responsibility to the future.


The Business of Building a Wall: The Metaphors of President Trump

Our recent article published in Politics takes a rhetorical approach to understanding the politics of Donald J. Trump’s presidency by analyzing his “rhetorical signature” as it appeared in his 2015 speech announcing his entry into the presidential race. This announcement speech foreshadowed much of the more controversial elements of his presidency. Specifically, we emphasize Trump’s use of metaphor. Classical definitions of metaphor define it in terms of argumentative strategy or by its use as example, but more broadly, metaphors structure larger national understanding of political events. The metaphors presidents use to discuss the institution itself or issues like immigration exert great definitional power. In the case of President Trump, we identify two interlinked metaphors that animate his rhetoric: the “CEO presidency” and his promise to “build a wall.”

In the first metaphor we identify, Trump puts the U.S. presidency in terms more familiar to him: running a business. We analyze various examples of how Trump simplifies complex issues into “making a deal.” Trump presents his own ability to accumulate wealth through smart business decisions and his deal-making prowess as allowing him to defeat everything from ISIS to China, all positioned as rival businesses to the United States. Trump thus inverts his political inexperience into a strength through his re-definition of the presidency as a business in need of better management.

If making good deals is the goal of the CEO president, then building a wall is Trump’s signature deal. As he promised mere minutes in to his announcement speech, Trump may actually seek to build a literal barrier on the border, but we argue that the wall is also a metaphor for both foreign policy and immigration. It represents an isolationist stance of protecting the country from foreign threats and defines immigration policy in terms of stopping a dangerous flow of apparently undesirable immigrants. Trump’s comments on the wall position it as a trade deal with Mexico, which is not sending “the right people.” Building a wall both metaphorically stops the undesirable immigrants and allows Trump to negotiate with Mexico for “better” immigrants. Through the dual metaphors of the CEO presidency and building a wall, the humanity of immigrants is lost entirely and the racial dimensions of that discourse are masked by business terminology. By taking seriously the rhetorical and material consequences of Trump’s metaphors, we draw out their implications for the ways Trump defines the U.S. presidency and its policy requirements.