Trump: The Media Spectacle and the Paranoid Spokesman

For my research this week, I looked at particular papers on the Paranoid Style in contemporary American politics and research on Trump’s media content, presence, and attention. I reflected on my research thusfar as well as the others’ research in connection to my own, and Trump as a ‘trigger’ for the historical socio-political research they have done. I also went through Trump’s Twitter feed for mentions of Mexican immigration and the border, though it seems that pre-2015 tweets are inaccessible through Twitter itself.

Encoding the Paranoid Style in American Politics: ‘Anti-Establishment’ Discourse and Power in Contemporary Spin’- Michael Serazio, Critical Studies in Media Communication 33:2

  • “anti-establishment”= ‘signifies act of co-optation: It appropriates an outsider image on behalf of insiders and inveighs against power concentrated in the Capitol while eliding any response to power that might be concentrated in capital.’
  • ‘revealing anxieties emerge about authority and governance at a time of institutional failure, democratic malaise, and increasing inequality.’
  • à through this, we can discover how “anti-establishment” appeal tries to position candidates against an ambiguous yet menacing power structure, encoding “rhetoric suggesting their independence from the political status quo…[which] may no accurately reflect a politician’s actual association with the political establishment” (Barr 2009, p. 33)
  • à “guerrilla-style” power- ‘rhetorically seeking to blend in with grassroots authenticity, while actually often working on behalf of elite institutional and economic interests (Seazio, 2013)’
  • channelling economic angst: they offered a means of stoking resentment without explicitly talking about the advantages afforded to the economic upper class—a mediated performance of cultural politics meant to channel that feeling of disenfranchisement.
  • Economic conditions are not the exclusive motivating factor behind anti-establishment appeals
  • Anxiety about increasingly non-white populations can be observed in Europe’s ethno-nationalist parties and signified in the United States by the first biracial president as well as Trump’s persistent immigration fear-mongering
  • — “nostalgia for an imagined time—the 1950s, maybe,”
  • typically evoked without acknowledging the post-war welfare state conditions that afforded shared middle-class prosperity (e.g. progressive taxation, robust union membership, etc.)
  • Right-wing anti-establishment discourse: framing the approach as an attack against “establishment” interests helps to mobilize the non-elite against their own financial interests (Frank, 2005).
  • ” In her reporting on the Tea Party, Zernike (2010a) ‘Critical Studies in Media Communication’ 191 identifies not just government as the brunt of that mistrust but “all of the establishments Americans once trusted unquestionably: doctors, banks, schools, the media” (p. 6).
  • Political communication of this sort attempts to convince citizens to think about power not in terms of taxes, wages, and wealth, but rather experience, lifestyle, and opacity of political process. That is a baleful conceptual substitution, because it suggests populist performance matters more than actual populist policies.


‘Donald Trump and the ‘Oxygen of Publicity’: Branding, Social Media, and Mass Media in the 2016 Presidential Primary Elections’- Sarah Oates and Wendy W Moe, 2016

  • Idea of ‘oxygen of publicity’= by Thatcher, used it to describe how terrorists could use the media to gain legitimacy
  • June 28: Trump suggested on CNN’s State of the Union show that Mexico should be forced to ‘build a wall’ along the US-Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants
  • Became focal point for public discussion on anti-immigrant forces
  • Of all the tweets relating to issues (economy, healthcare, immigration, and Iran), Trump unsurprisingly had the largest volume of tweets relating to immigration. However, these tweets were never a major proportion of his tweets in general (peaking at 13 tweets on immigration out of a total of 59 tweets—or 22%– on July 3rd) and the number of immigration themed tweets faded over time
  • an overview of the tweets that related to the candidates does not show a high level of political engagement at work, particularly for Trump
  • people on Twitter (according to data suggestion) are ‘merely echoing and re-distributing snippets of news or opinion around campaign events’ vs having ‘grass-root networks of discussion that arise from social media’
  • à immigration in particular triggered a large volume of tweets related to Trump
  • Thus, the social media comments served to augment and extend the traditional media coverage of Trump’s views on immigration, views that were at odds with mainstream US media narratives about immigration’
  • engagement tended to follow candidate behaviour, strongly suggesting that social media would generally augment, rather than contest, candidate narratives
  • for example, if his extremist statements were going to spark an interest in response by other candidates, we would expect to see a surge in tweets about immigration that mentioned Clinton (such as her response or different approach to the issue) but we did not find this in the data. We can surmise that Trump enjoyed strong ownership of the immigration discourse as a sub-element of his political brand.


  • Both Trump and immigration dominated in the coverage coded in the three national newspapers from July 1 through Sep 24, 2015
  • coding found that 208 of the 475 articles (43.8%) in our sample were focused on Trump, while only 90 (18.9%) were focused on Clinton
  • Immigration was mentioned in 264 out of 475 stories or almost 56% of the stories analysed.
  • It would seem that a mention of Trump almost always elicited a mention of his views on immigration.
  • – Trump’s stand on immigration bleeds into random stories about him (e.g. golf tournaments being cancelled, network dropping beauty pageant) and his controversy
  • Thus, Trump’s comments on immigration not only dominated the traditional coverage of a Presidential primary in the three newspapers; it is also made its way into other sectors of the news.
  • à anti-immigration became a key element of the Trump brand
  • In their rush to cover Trump’s extreme rhetoric, the traditional media gave visibility and, arguably, credence to these remarks


‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’, in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays- Hofstadter (2008)

Elements of the paranoid style:
– A way of seeing the world and expressing oneself. (4)
– Overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, apocalyptic.
– Against whole nation.
– Unselfish, Patriotic, Righteousness and moral indignation
– “The central image is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life.”( 29)
– “The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a “vast” or “gigantic” conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy…” (29)
– “He constantly lives at a turning point” (30)
– Exponent is “militant” … “He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of a working politician.” Not interested in compromise because it is a fight between good and evil. (31)
– Enemy all powerful (31): “cruel, sensual, luxury-loving” (32).
– History seen as the “consequences of someone’s will” (32).
– Imitation of the enemy (in terms of apparatus of scholarship). (32)
– Recurring trope = figure of renegade who leaves the group to expose it. (34)
– Use of facts to argue point. (35)
– Begins with kernel of truth. (36)
– Hyper-coherent. (36)
– Not wholly rational but rationalistic. (36)
– “the curious leap of imagination that is always made at some critical point in the recital of events.” (37)
– An international phenomenon.

More Notable Quotes and/or Tweets:
MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ July 24 2015:

  • T: “I don’t think the 11 million — which is a number you have been hearing for many many years, I’ve been hearing that number for five years — I don’t think that is an accurate number anymore, I am now hearing it’s 30 million, it could be 34 million, which is a much bigger problem.”
  • Joe Scarborough: “Who are you hearing that from?”
  • T: “I am hearing it from other people, and I have seen it written in various newspapers. The truth is the government has no idea how many illegals are here.”

CNN’s Larry King Live, April 28, 2010

  • KING: So you’re in favor of profiling?
  • TRUMP: I’m in favor of — if people are coming in illegally, I am favoring you have to have laws. Nobody knows what the law is. People are streaming across the border. Sometimes, it’s drug dealers. What’s happening there, the drug dealers are coming in and that’s a big deal. They’re coming in and they’re killing.

@realDonaldTrump, Jan 27: ‘Mexico has taken advantage of the U.S. for long enough. Massive trade deficits & little help on the very weak border must change, NOW!’

@realDonaldTrump, Jan 20: ‘We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth- and we will bring back our dreams!’

@realDonald Trump, 30 Aug 2016: ‘From day one I said that I was going to build a great wall on the SOUTHERN BORDER, and much more. Stop illegal immigration. Watch Wednesday!’

@realDonaldTrump, 27 Aug 2016: ‘Heroin overdoses are taking over our children and others in the MIDWEST. Coming in from our southern border. We need strong border & WALL!’


  • While much of Trump’s discourse fits in with the anti-establishment paranoid style as described by Serazio, it seems he is largely exempted by his most loyal supporters from his display of wealth and luxury. This could likely be due to his previous celebrity status and image of American ‘success’
  • It would be interesting to compare Ada’s Mexican immigration statistics with Trump’s statements and claims
  • I am also going to briefly contrast Trump’s statements on the border and Mexican immigration with some past Presidents including Obama and George W Bush
  • I am also going to look into some fact-checking in terms of drug passage via the border, and terrorists coming in (there has been some reports of terrorist organisation-affiliated people entering or attempting to enter via the southern border but whether this is actually a cause for alarm seems to be dubious)
  • It would maybe also be worth mentioning the wider global situations that would affect support and the rise of this ‘peak’ of populist, anti-immigration sentiments i.e. the refugee crisis and increase of terrorist or terrorist-inspired attacks in the West
  • — BUT, it should definitely be pointed out that, while this general sentiment is most likely a factor, it is not directly related to the main concerns around the US-Mexico border


One thought on “Trump: The Media Spectacle and the Paranoid Spokesman

  1. Your point about D.T.’s pre-2015 tweets no longer being accessible is very telling. I wonder how this tendency to erase and backtrack fits into your research on his rhetorical traits? It appears that this unstable, flexible attitude towards even his own views is a common trait of the global anti-immigration populism you mention at the end.

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