The Science of Slogans, with Donald J. Trump

In 2016, Donald Trump masterfully wielded campaign slogans from at least four different emotional “genres,” each telling or implying a different story about who we are and where we’re headed. Can he repeat this performance in 2020? Will a sizeable share of the voting public find him as inspiring this time as they did before he took office?

Stories matter. Every political candidate – indeed, every social movement and every institution – has at its core a collective story about the group it hopes to serve and inspire. Of course, our emotional reactions to the candidates include our feelings about their personalities and characters, and our impressions of what we know of them physically (their looks, their voice, their mannerisms). But alongside these responses to who we think they are, we are also very much interested in who they think we are – and who we could be, under their leadership. And their “stories about us,” their “meta-narratives,” are a critical part of their efforts to get us excited about voting for them.

If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll know that I researched these meta-narratives extensively in grad school, and I’ve shared what I learned in my earlier posts. In fact, I’ve been studying the psychology of these stories-about-us since the 1980s, hoping to understand how they work and how recognizing their effects can make us better citizens. I’m writing a book about it now, actually, and I hope to be able to share it with you in the next year or so.

But today I’d like to stop and look at Donald Trump. Everyone knows MAGA, “Make America Great Again.” We know that it didn’t originate with Trump – Reagan used the slogan, and Bill Clinton briefly did too – but Trump made it his own. (Literally – he trademarked it!) MAGA belongs to the Restoration genre of meta-narratives. Simply put, we used to be great, apparently we aren’t now, but if we elect this guy as president, we will be again. The story can be jazzed up with looming threats, like terrorism and unchecked immigration, bringing us to a dramatic crossroads between success and disaster, and Trump did that too. And by being so vague about what makes us not-so-great in the present, he let the voting public fill in the blanks for themselves. Maybe it was all those high-paying manufacturing jobs going overseas, leaving working-class communities unemployed and vulnerable. Maybe it was having a black president. Maybe it was losing our superpower status, which must have happened if any random group of terrorists can bring us to panic. Whatever your diagnosis, Trump implied he’d be able to fix it.

But there was more. Trump also had plans to renovate our infrastructure, which is a Progress story. Moderate Democrats and Republicans both like Progress, the process of making incremental improvements toward our collective goals. The parties have often differed on defining those goals, but they both believe in setting them and using due process to steer us toward meeting them. Improving our national infrastructure definitely qualifies as Progress.

Trump also offered a few Transformation storylines, implied by “Drain the Swamp” and “Lock Her Up!.” A Transformation is an exciting jump, a “great leap forward,” where we envision some better future and dedicate ourselves to getting there, even if we don’t know precisely what steps we’ll need. In a way, it’s the opposite of the steady-gains, business-as-usual Stability that usually underlies Progress. “Drain the Swamp” is obviously opposed to business-as-usual, and “Lock Her Up!” also suggests sidestepping due process. (Some of Bernie Sanders’ fans think in these terms, too, if they envision that electing Sanders would somehow let us dispense with the tiresome political give-and-take that usually characterizes change. Of course, many Sanders fans simply hoped to have a fresh, improved agenda while still expecting he’d need to use the usual methods to realize their goals.)

Finally, Trump didn’t run as a third-party candidate; he chose to compete as a Republican. By giving him their nomination, the GOP leadership granted Trump a Stability storyline, telling the voting public he’s okay, he’s one of us. With that affirmation, anyone loyal to the party would be seriously encouraged to vote for Trump regardless of whatever concerns they had about him.

So, Trump used four stories: Restoration, Progress, Transformation, and Stability. Each has its own emotional impact. Stability is reassuring, of course, and satisfying, while Transformation is thrilling – or unsettling, depending on your perspective. (Many conservatives were so jarred by the Transformation of seeing a black man in the White House that they even questioned his citizenship and religion.) Progress is gratifying and affirms our hope.

Restoration is a compound story, full of elements that sometimes appear on their own, and each of those elements has its own emotions. We can be proud of the idealized past that we’d like to return to, and unhappy that things are no longer as wonderful as they once were. Depending on the reasons for our collective fall, we might feel guilty or ashamed, if it was our own group’s fault, or angry if another group is to blame. We feel anxious, stressed, or maybe even outraged about the crossroads at which we find ourselves, and thrilled and grateful that we can hope for a brighter outcome.

Finally, every one of these stories seeks to give us a way to understand our present circumstances. They let us put a name to our problems, and they can even give meaning to whatever sacrifices we might be asked to make. I’m not certain if there’s a specific emotion that goes with having the world make more sense, but surely it leads to greater confidence and contentment.

Of course, no voter has to like all of these stories. But if any part of what Trump said resonated with someone, hit the right emotional chord, that person would be more likely to vote for him than they would have otherwise.

So, can Trump repeat his narrative performance in 2020?

First of all, his original storylines about Restoration, Progress, and Transformation can’t be repeated just as they were. Presumably he’s had three years to make America “great,” repair our roads and bridges, “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption, and imprison Hillary Clinton, so if he repeated his plans to do those things, he wouldn’t have a lot of credibility. And although he never campaigned explicitly for the Stability message, any Republican who puts their party affiliation over their own lived experience of stability (or lack thereof) will probably still give him their vote. Meanwhile, here’s his opportunity to sell us a new story about ourselves. What’s he offering?

As soon as he took office, Trump announced his re-election slogan, “Keep America Great.” Consistent with Trump’s relative gift with meta-narratives (compared with, ahem, Hillary Clinton), the Triumph genre could make good sense. Any time we think we’ve collectively achieved something, we value that closure. On the other hand, the way a Triumph usually works is that it’s something we want to take for granted, not something we have to work not to lose. If Trump tells us we still have to do something to retain our greatness, it could backfire on him.

(You’ll notice, of course, that I’m not even addressing whether today’s supposed greatness is objectively so – stories don’t work that way. They can help us make sense of our experiences, like Trump’s earlier assertion that America was no longer “great,” but once we’ve accepted a story as meaningful, contrary facts are often just ignored – unless, of course, they’re key to an even more meaningful story that reflects how times have changed.)

However, it sounds like Trump’s changed his mind anyway. Now his campaign slogan is… “Transition to Greatness.” I assume that what he’s telling us is that the MAGA process is taking longer than he expected, and he’s going to need some more time to get us there. But this slogan has a few problems. First, it doesn’t mention America or Americans at all; we’re just supposed to assume that’s what he’s talking about. Second, the word “transition” is not exactly slogan-worthy. It’s ten letters long and sounds like corporate-speak; it doesn’t have the nice Anglo-Saxon ring of “make” or even “keep.” Third, there’s no call to action, nothing for the voter to do – just sit back and enjoy the ride? Fourth, of course, he’s admitting that the “greatness” hasn’t happened yet, and it isn’t all that clear which emotions he’s trying for. I’m assuming Trump is telling us that we’re still on the upswing part of the originally promised Restoration, but structurally it’s pretty weak.

And finally, anyone with any familiarity with presidential elections will know that in this context, the word “transition” is used to describe the period when the incumbent leaves office and their heir or rival takes over. In other words, if we’re making a transition, that means Trump has lost the election. The “Greatness” would refer to Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Can’t you just picture the Biden staff laughing behind the scenes over Trump’s accidental endorsement of their candidate?

There’s still plenty of time for Trump to add some more effective slogans; the election’s still five months away. Next time we’ll see what Biden’s come up with.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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11 Responses to The Science of Slogans, with Donald J. Trump

  1. jelsmith says:

    It seems like he really dug a hole for himself by starting with MAGA. No one could possibly say that this (gestures vaguely at everything around us) is great. So it has to be a work in progress, but that’s not very chant-worthy 😉

  2. Tara Sloan says:

    I find the observation that the new slogan has no call to action very interesting, and perhaps, telling. It goes along with his “I alone” comment from the first campaign. If we have no role or responsibility there is no we, and this is not the American spirit. It is interesting to me that many of the people who embrace this idea also see themselves as dedicated patriots. Nice work, Laura!

    • Great observation! It does fit well with “leave it to me, I’ll take care of it,” doesn’t it? If it’s just a story we’re watching unfold, would that make it easier for the public to one day wash their hands of him and the things he’s done?

  3. Holly Larsen says:

    Good analysis, and well presented and written. I’ll be looking at campaign slogans differently in the coming months. I love the everyday language–so rare from an academic!

  4. Jonathan says:

    I’ve been seeing “Keep America Great” used recently. Although most people might agree that there are currently problems in this country, it could be intended to work as a Stability narrative to counter the Transformation narratives of the protesters?

    • Absolutely! And good point – that’s what makes a Triumph narrative so powerful. They combine the positive arc of an achievement with a Stability narrative that insists that’s how things are from now on. In other words, it’s a “happily ever after” story.

      Of course, history doesn’t really work like that. There’s always some new episode coming along to stir things up. And it’s traditionally the role of conservatives to tell us “No, we don’t need that, everything’s already just fine” – which is what Trump and his followers may be doing right now, trying to keep the closure they believe they’ve already earned.

  5. Zoe Brady says:

    Thank you for this very thoughtful and interesting description of the process. I will be sharing this on my FB and other pages.

  6. Pingback: George Packer’s four warring visions | The Meta-Narrator

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