Communication Currents

Communication Currents

How Donald Trump Uses Ressentiment to Cast Supporters as Victims and Incite a Need for Revenge

April 15, 2020
Political Communication

In a new article published in NCA’s Quarterly Journal of Speech, Casey Ryan Kelly analyzes President Trump’s speeches in light of ressentiment, meaning that the President’s speeches invoke white victimhood while maintaining the moral high ground and arguing for the need for revenge against political enemies. Focusing on the language used in Trump’s post-election rally speeches, Kelly argues that ressentiment captures “the paradoxical but mutually reinforcing relationship between virtue and victimhood” in the speeches.

Kelly demonstrates that Trump self-identifies as the chief victim of attacks, particularly attacks perpetrated by the media and the Democratic party. For example, in a speech to attendees of Turning Point USA’s Young Black Leadership Summit, Trump noted that “[w]e all get attacked . . . Who gets attacked more than me? . . . I can do the greatest thing for our country, and on the networks, it will play bad.” Kelly argues that Trump “monopolizes grief” through statements that convey he is a victim comparable to victims of systemic violence, such as LGBTQIA+ individuals or African Americans.

Kelly argues that Trump also finds commonalities with other victims, particularly other white men, such as Brett Kavanaugh. At a Mississippi rally, the President referenced Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh: “This woman [Blasey Ford] had no clue what was going on. No clue. And yet she made the most horrible charges against a number one in his class at Yale [Kavanaugh], perfect human being, great father, great husband. This is a great person.” In this and other similar examples, Trump implies that men who are accused of sexual violence are the real victims.

Furthermore, Trump identifies not just as a victim, but as a martyr. In another reference to Kavanaugh, Trump maligns Blasey Ford’s allegations and the media coverage of those allegations for violating due process; at the same time, Trump’s victimhood and martyrdom become virtuous because Trump is willing to make a sacrifice for others: “Guilty until proven innocent. That’s very dangerous for our country. And I have it myself all the time. But for me, it’s like a part of the job description. Let it happen to me. Shouldn’t happen to him [Kavanaugh]. Shouldn’t happen to him.”

In addition to portraying himself as a martyr, the President is a self-described warrior: “Warriors can take abuse: There’s another warrior in the room. These are warriors. Look, the abuse they take, the abuse we all take, if you’re not a warrior, you just go home, go to the corner, put your thumb in your mouth and say, ‘Mommy, take me home.’” According to Kelly, Trump takes up the self-described mantle of a warrior to depict himself as a protector of his supporters. By doing so, Kelly argues, Trump’s supporters become powerless, and Trump becomes their chief advocate.

Trump sees the media and Democrats as his chief foes. In one speech, the President describes the connection between these two foes: “Today’s Democrat[ic] Party is held hostage by left-wing haters, angry mobs, deep state radicals, establishment cronies, and their fake news allies. Our biggest obstacle and their greatest ally actually is the media.” Trump uses this association to push right-wing conspiracy theories. The President also describes Democrats and other enemies as part of “the elite,” as part of a vast conspiracy of “globalist” interests, and as “deep state radicals.” According to Kelly, these terms signal that Trump is not part of the elite and is an outsider; Trump also positions his supporters as outsiders.

Kelly argues that Trump frees supporters from the democratic norms against political violence and encourages them to engage in revenge against those who have wronged them. At one rally, the President encouraged supporters to beat up a protestor by saying things such as, “Do you know what they used to do to guys like that [a protestor] when they’re in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks,” and “knock the crap out of him [a Black Lives Matter protestor] . . . I promise you, I will pay your legal fees.” Trump’s words give his supporters permission to see revenge as morally acceptable because the supporters view themselves as victims who have suffered at the hands of political enemies.

Kelly also argues that Trump portrays such revenge as a “civic virtue.” For example, when discussing supposed criminals who cross the southern border of the United States, Trump said, “We are dismantling and destroying the bloodthirsty criminal gangs, and well, I will just tell you in, we’re not doing it in a politically correct fashion. We’re doing it rough. Our guys are rougher than their guys.” Drawing on examples from many speeches about immigration, Kelly shows that the President touts the American capacity for violence and revenge, particularly at the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the police, as “the nation’s greatest asset.”

Kelly argues that ressentiment captures how Trump uses victimhood to render his audience powerless, despite the President’s elite position and authority, and how Trump fuels supporters’ anger and need for revenge. For Trump’s supporters, rage and revenge become democratic values, which undermines collective civic values by emphasizing self-serving acts of violence. Consequently, ressentiment challenges democratic structures and forces that fight for progressive values by undermining collective civic virtue.

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Casey Ryan Kelly (2020) Donald J. Trump and the rhetoric of ressentiment, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 106:1, 2-24, DOI: 10.1080/00335630.2019.1698756

About the author (s)

Casey Ryan Kelly

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Associate Professor of Rhetoric & Public Culture, Department of Communication Studies

Casey Ryan Kelly