The Deviant Campaign Style of Donald Trump Is Now a Topic of Academic Scrutiny

Donald Trump's surge to the front of the Republican primary contest isn't just a major theme across the media landscape—it's exploded into academia, triggering a new course of study for scholars and students: Trump studies.

Researchers from many fields of study—history, political science, psychology, sociology, rhetoric—are finding themselves hooked on Trump’s astonishing popularity and experimental candidacy, which is breaking the parameters of conventional wisdom about how American politics and society work. “It’s a gift of sorts,” said DePaul law professor Terry Smith, who uses Trump to bolster his research on a range of civil rights issues. “We weren’t going to get the same thing from Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton or any of the other presidential candidates.”

The thesis benefiting most professors is the anti-elitism message and detraction of political correctness, which seems somewhat ironic coming from a candidate like Trump. Though he holds a degree from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Trump's abrasive demagoguery and indifference to facts has made him perhaps the least popular candidate among the American professoriate.

But the GOP frontrunner's use of language and narcissistic approach have become a fascinating area of study. He once bragged he had the "best words," but a new analysis from Carnegie Mellon University suggests Trump’s campaign speeches are written at a much lower grade level than those of other leading presidential candidates. The speeches of Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton were rated at about an eighth-grade level, while Marco Rubio’s speeches were just under a 10th-grade level and Bernie Sanders’ just above that. But researchers are finding that much can be learned from someone who employs a low-level vocabulary.

“There are a lot of complicated lessons on the rise of Trump,” said statistician Nate Silver, editor and founder of FiveThirtyEight, who discussed Trump’s unprecedented rise at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. “A lot of things have to come together for something like this to happen, and they have.” Though pointing out some historical examples similar to Trump’s uprising, from elections during the 1960s, 1930s and 1890s, Silver notes that the Trump situation is unique. “It’s not that he just violates some academic theories—he violates precedent in so many ways,” Silver said.

Those violations have got academics fascinated—and baffled, so they’re dusting off research tools and analytical methods to try to figure out what it all means. A Yale philosopher and Rutgers education theory expert recently partnered on a paper analyzing how teachers can address Trump’s bombastic rhetoric in their classrooms. At Notre Dame, a historian has been researching where Trump fits into a Republican Party that was already facing deep divisions.

Racial issues are at the epicenter of Trump studies. Melvin L Rogers, the Scott Waugh Chair in the Division of the Social Sciences and associate professor of political science and African American studies at UCLA, weighed in on Trump's appeal to white supremacists:

That Trump has tapped into the anger of a certain segment of the population is an understatement. The issue for us to confront is not just that Trump supporters are angry, but the source of their anger. The affection for Trump emanates from a deep sense of fear by a segment of the white electorate who see in front of them the waning of their power. Confronted with the perceived decline of their supremacy, these white voters project their fears onto the rest of us—black, brown, Muslim, foreign born, and any other class deemed to be different.

Trump’s political rival, Marco Rubio, a part-time college politics lecturer, acknowledged the unique character of the 2016 race, and its importance to academia, after Trump Florida’s win in March: “It’s a very unusual year. People are going to write books about this year. There’s going to be a lot of political scholarship on what exactly is happening.”

Boston-based Michael Lissack, executive director of the nonprofit Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence, said Trump is driving such a diverse blend of study because “he’s deliberately acting outside the mold.” For mental health researchers, it's about trying to understand Trump’s behavior and its influence on voters. “The way you study psychology is by looking at deviants,” said Lissack. “You don’t look at normal people, you look at deviant people. And Trump is clearly a deviant politician.”

In terms of academics and research standards, Trump’s deviation from the political and social norm is fairly new, yet already significant. For political scientists, Trump’s primary and caucus victories challenge the reigning belief that a strong party institution is the ultimate key to electoral success. For rhetoricians, Trump's deceptively simple-minded speech tactics, political incorrectness and inclination to alienate large groups of people have questioned assumptions about what kills a presidential campaign.

But the deeply held political belief that Trump’s candidacy has really shattered is depicted in what may be the most influential book on electoral politics in the past decade: The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform, which argues that establishment insiders ultimately determine who wins a presidential nomination—despite the primary voting process. Co-author Martin Cohen, a political scientist at James Madison University, has been tangled in online debates questioning his thesis: “Certainly, he’s had an impact on the way we think about politics and how they are supposed to work,” acknowledged Cohen, who insists more study needs to be done to assess if Trump is truly an exception to his findings.

“For the next couple of years, all of the political science and political communications and similarly associated journals are going to be filled with everyone’s interesting take on Trump,” said Matthew MacWilliams, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, who is studying how Trump’s rhetoric exhibits strong authoritarian tendencies.

MacWilliams has built a psychological profile of individual voters characterized by a desire for order and a fear of outsiders. When these individuals feel threatened, they look for strong leaders who promise to take whatever action necessary to protect them from outsiders and prevent the changes they fear. He polled a large sample of likely voters, looking for correlations between support for Trump and views that align with authoritarianism. His findings indicate that a person's views on child-rearing, or parenting, predict their support for Trump more reliably than virtually any other indicator: The more authoritarian one's views, the more likely they are to support Trump.

As MacWilliams wrote, "[H]is doctrine isn’t populism, it is authoritarianism. The difference is quite important and may explain why Trump’s Teflon candidacy continues to exceed conventional expectations."

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Indeed, Trump has awakened an electoral base that is reacting to a perceived imminent change in the status quo. As the country becomes more diverse, many white Americans are confronting race in a way they never have before: The U.S. Census Bureau projects that current minorities will become the majority by 2045 as non-Hispanic white population declines. Seeing this social change as a threat, authoritarians flock to political leaders they believe will protect against the threat. 

Marc Hetherington from Vanderbilt University and Jonathan Weiler from the University of North Carolina published a book about this effect, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. In it, they conclude that the GOP, by positioning itself as the party of traditional values and law and order, had attracted a bipartisan population of Americans with authoritarian tendencies. Much of the polarization dividing American politics has exploded not just by money in politics or other issues, but by the somewhat silent yet large electoral group—authoritarians.

Struck by the unrest at Trump’s rallies, University of Missouri communication professor Ben Warner led a team of 17 faculty and students to Iowa earlier this year in an attempt to understand whether Americans would support violence as an alternative way to accomplish political goals. Spreading out to Trump, Cruz, Clinton and Sanders events held the night before and the day of the state’s caucuses, the group surveyed more than 250 attendees to gauge their support with a series of stark statements, such as, “The day is approaching when violent measures may need to be taken to protect the United States from itself” and “The tree of liberty needs to be nourished with the blood of revolution.”

Scholars acknowledge they’re witnessing history, so the sense of urgency brings tensions to the academic and media universes. They recognize the media’s hunger for these types of stories and the opportunities for self-promotion are abundant while Trump’s campaign is still at the center of the political world. And there are numerous outlets hungry for their kind of analysis. “I feel like a prostitute,” said international studies professor Hilde Eliassen Restad, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, who earlier this month wrote an essay for the London School of Economics’ websiteabout how American exceptionalism has returned with a force via the Trump candidacy. “If you put Trump in a title people will click on it.”

While awaiting the conclusion of the 2016 election, some are focused on what would be the click-baiting research gold: a Trump presidency, perhaps the strangest and least predictable political development in American history. And the main issue of this celebrity-fueled phenomenon is what makes scholars' research almost impossible to conclude: Trump is nothing but a steady and often shocking stream of surprises.

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