The Trump 2020 election campaign has adopted the language of war. Not only is Trump accusing Biden and the Democrats of destroying America, but the campaign is also organizing itself as an army controlled by Trump's campaign team that goes by the name of Trump War Room on Twitter.
Presidential debates in a hybrid media system
Most commentators writing about the first debate between Trump and Biden looked at what happened on stage. And most of them saw an "alpha male" interrupting a well-mannered Biden who struggled to find his place in the battle on stage. Less attention has been directed to what happened online, as if that is a completely different sphere.
It is not. Research teaches us that people do not merely watch debates (Chadwick, O’Loughlin, & Vaccari, 2017). They also scroll through hashtags to make up their mind about the debate itself. "Dual screening" as it is called, has impact. Social media open up a window of opportunity for campaign teams to correct mistakes made by their candidate or to highlight those made by the opponent. Especially in a debate as chaotic as this one was, social media allow campaign managers to create coherence, to extract the good bits, and to cast their candidate in a new light.
Whereas the Trump team uses social media to create an image of Trump talking coherently on the issues and to release new campaign materials, Biden’s team tries to create a fluent Biden making a strong point. People who were dual screening during the first debate and followed the Twitter accounts of the two protagonists saw a different debate than the ones only looking at the debate itself.
Beefing up sleepy Joe
On Twitter, Biden’s campaign team tried to give their candidate's usual understatedness some extra panache. The Twitter posts that were released during the debate show a Biden that is attacking Trump. On Twitter, Biden is framing Trump as responsible for the many COVID-19 deaths in the US, as not distancing himself from white supremacists, as not willing to show his tax returns, as a president who breaks the law and creates disorder, and as a president willing to cut social security in times of a pandemic.
The Biden presented on Twitter is (a bit) better than the Biden we saw on stage. Biden’s slow talking, the way he loses himself in details, and his struggle to find the right words are somewhat beefed up online. His discourse is repackaged by his team. But in the end, they have to work with what is there. For instance, his meandering talk on Trump’s disastrous COVID-19 policies is remediatized. The result is not a short pointy clip of one-liners, but a 46-second meandering clip accompanied by one short status that frames Trump as an egoistic self-centered man who doesn’t care for his people. Not much new material is released and most of the Twitter content consists of extracts from the debate.
Even though Biden sounds and looks more to-the-point on Twitter, there is not so much of a discrepancy between studio Biden and Twitter Biden. Biden’s message is one of decency and knowledgeable and amiable boringness. He seems to know what he is talking about, but lacks charisma and a powerful and decisive appearence. At his best, Biden comes across as moderate, decent and somewhat presidential – especially compared to Trump – but also as slow, non-dynamic, and old. What is remarkable is that not one post on Biden’s page uses a hashtag and only one tweet tags Donald Trump. It is as if Team Joe doesn’t want to expand his reach to attract non-followers.
Biden and the radical left as the enemy within
Trump’s Twitter wall looked entirely different. His campaign was clearly prepared to boost Trump’s performance on stage. Most posts used the hashtag #debates2020 and supported or expanded his interventions on stage. His team not only posted excerpts of the debate but all kinds of videos that supported Trump's outrageous on-stage claims. Just like the debate continuously unfolding on stage, the stream of communication of the Trump team on Twitter was massive. "Fact checks" on Biden, campaign clips that framed Biden and his son as corrupt, and clips that showed how disastrous Biden would be for the economy were shared, alongside videos of Biden saying that we shouldn’t panic about the coronavirus and regular "Clinton voters" saying they do not trust Biden.
The Trump campaign has a strategy for the full hybrid media system (Chadwick, 2017) and uses the affordances of that system to their fullest extent. People looking at those clips while Biden grinned on stage at Trump making another hyperbolic claim, saw a different Biden: a Biden laughing away serious allegations.
Whereas Biden mostly talked about Trump, Trump combined negative messaging (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012) about Biden with new campaign clips that stress what he has accomplished. Just like in 2016 (Maly, 2016), Trump is presenting himself as the savior of "national greatness", as the one who has brought all the jobs back and created the "greatest economy the world has ever seen". "The reason they attack me", he says in a newly released campaign clip, "is because I fight for you". That is his brand.
Trump's message is about fighting the cosmopolitan elite that looks down on the regular people, that laughs at them. Trump literally presents himself not only as the guy fighting for the common man, but as the embodiment of America. Each smile or smirk by Biden when Trump was saying something outrageous re-enforced this image of the superior feeling of the elite looking down at the common man.
What is most remarkable is how Biden’s Sleepy Joe image that Trump has created is now presented in a very different context. Biden is presented as a full-blown dangerous enemy of the American people. Sleepy Joe is now framed as an extremely dangerous man because of his weakness. The soft-speaking man, the man searching for his words and his nuances, the man caring for Americans' health and following the virologists' advice is now recreated into a man ready to surrender, not willing to fight. Surrendering to Black Lives Matter, Antifa, the radical left, comrades Sanders and AOC, COVID-19, and China.
The dominant frame in the debate and on Trump’s Twitter wall is that of Trump as a true "alpha male" fighting for America with everything he has. In contrast, Biden is the weak "beta male" who will destroy the great America that Trump has built. Biden is presented as an enemy within. In two freshly released Twitter videos, Biden supporters are framed as rioters and Biden is framed as kneeling for them. The tone and images of the videos are threatening: they show an apocalyptic America full of violence, fire, burned buildings, and harassment and violence against the police. They show a world of anarchy and the approval and surrender of Biden. Biden’s message is turned into a dystopia.
Trump’s War Room
Biden tries to come across as moderate and presidential. He tries to present himself as the decent alternative to Trump. The harshest thing he said about Trump during the debate was that he was a clown. Of course, Biden’s position is supported by four years of negative mainstream media coverage about Trump and the many different Republicans against Trump ads, which have done the negative messaging about Trump for him. Biden builds on a large consensus; the question is how many republicans who voted for Trump in 2016 share this opinion in 2020.
Trump speaks a different language, the language of war. He plays in a different field. His campaign team creates a clear dichotomy: Trump stands for an America of hope. A strong Amercia with a thriving economy full of happy people. This America is under threat. COVID-19, China, Antifa, and the liberal mob are said to be destroying this great nation and Biden’s weak stance will only help them in destroying it. This may all be seen as completely out of proportion, but that would be to underestimate the feeling of despair that is now present in the American air.
Trump’s grassroots movement is organized under the banner of an "army" that is controlled by Trump’s War Room.
COVID-19 not only generates fear for a collapse and an economic disaster or for the falling apart of the great American empire, but it also quarantines people. Many now see the world anno 2020 in the US through their (digital) media. On their screens and in their wallets, that world looks grim. Especially so if you look through the eyes of FOX news, Trump’s influence network, or even worse, through the eyes of QAnon, as many of his supporters do. Then you believe in an America under siege, in a deep state trying to stop the president. And that was exactly what Trump said during the debate. "There was never a peaceful transition of power when I won the election", he said, and he added:
"If you look at crooked Hillary Clinton, if you look at all the different people. There was no transition, because they came after me trying to do a coup. They came after me spying on my campaign. They started from the day I won and even before I won. From the day I came down the escalator with our first lady. They were a disaster, a disgrace to our country. And we have caught them, we have caught them all. We have it all on tape." (CNN, video 7: 2:00 – 3:16)
In such quotes, the name of Trump’s campaign team on Twitter - Trump’s War Room - gets an extra meaning. Whereas Biden’s campaign is run by the amiable Team Joe on Twitter, the Trump campaign sees itself as in the midst of a war. The contrast couldn’t be bigger. This war metaphor is not only visible here; it is at the heart of his campaign. Trump is not campaigning, he is a president fighting a war. A war against the liberal elites and, behind them, the radical left. They are seen and portrayed as the ones willing to bend the law to get Trump out of the White House, as the ones staging a coup, and as the ones willing to defund the police, open up the borders, and allow the rioting and thus the crumbling of America.
Enlist today in the Army for Trump
The idea of a rigged election was a key topic in Trump’s 2016 campaign and it has an even more central place in his 2020 narrative. The idea of a rigged election of course ties into the idea that "the left" is destroying the voice of US democracy: Trump. It also ties in very well with the QAnon rethoric of the deep state controlling everything and fighting a harsh battle against Trump. During the debate, when Trump mentioned rigged elections, a tweet appeared on his account asking the people to become a "Trump Election Poll Watcher" with a link to the website armyfortrump.com.
What is most interesting about this site is the fact that Trump’s grassroots movement is organized under the banner of an "army" that is controlled by Trump’s War Room. The image that accompanies the Twitter post asks volunteers to "fight for president Trump". When potential volunteers click on the link, they enter a site that wants them to "enlist today". This military language is used metaphorically. People are not asked to actually fight, but to become digital or algorithmic activists, to engage in phone banking, and start knocking on doors and helping people to vote.
The Army for Trump shows how Trump’s campaign is combining small organizing - that is, a campaign that focuses on big data and micro-targeting - with big organizing (Bond & Exley, 2016). Big organizing was made prominent by Bernie Sanders, who wanted to build a mass movement by using digital media to recruit people for big systemic change. This big organizing approach was not only developed to compensate for the lack of big funding, it was part of an ideological approach to politics. An approach that can best be seen as a digital version of the old pillars of social democratic parties in Europe, where people organized themselves in movements to have political leverage.
In the case of Trump, this big organizing approach is integrated in a very different discourse, set of practices, and ideological tradition. With his anti-Enlightenment nationalism, Trump has always appealed to the right side of the political spectrum. In 2016, his campaign focused on micro-targeting and on fusing different niches together in one movement to get Trump elected (Maly, 2018). To a large extent this was based on his persona and his discourse about cleaning up the Swamp and fighting for the regular people in combination with his many dog whistles to the extreme right. This not only generated a traditional political campaign, but it was also supported by a networked movement of digital activists. MAGA-trolls and influencers, Milo Yiannopoulos and Breitbart were fused with the so-called alt-right in giving Trump an edgy image and in silencing criticism by setting up intimidating troll campaigns.
Trump's big organizing is starting to resemble the history of ultranationalist squadrons of the 20th century more and more.
In 2020, we see how the campaign needs to organize its own movement. This can be seen as a direct result of the lack of spontaneous support for this campaign and its financial problems. Trump has no other choice than to structure and organize his movement. In order to achieve this, Trump uses the full potential of the hybrid media system. During the debate he asked people to enlist to become poll watchers and his campaign repeated that on his Twitter account. They also use data about donors to his campaign to personally address them and ask them to enlist in Trump's army (see the letter Washington Post journalist Aaron Blake tweeted). At the same time, Trump's campaign needs to create a sense of urgency. This is where the military language and the war metaphors come in.
The power of military metaphors
The use of such metaphors is not without consequences. "Metaphors can kill", wrote Lakoff in his seminal essay on the discourse on the war in Iraq. Trump’s recruitment and organization of volunteers in combination with his discourse about Biden and the threat that he and his supporters pose for the US as well as his story about "rigged elections" all create a very powerful and potentially dangerous mobilization discourse.
That is especially the case when the Trump campaign asks his army to also make sure that the elections are not rigged by enlisting for the "election day operations". Volunteers will be allocated shifts at the election offices to make sure that they can stop the Democrats who "will be up to their old dirty tricks on Election day to make sure that President Trump doesn’t win". This is a very thinly veiled call for intimidation and the veil becomes even thinner when we connect it with Trump's "order" to the Proud boys to "stand back and stand by" and his support for the MAGA activists who drove into Portland to combat Black Lives Matters firing paintballs. A substantial group of these MAGA protestors were actually Proud Boys aiming to drive the left out of the city.
Trump's big organizing is starting to resemble the history of ultranationalist squadrons of the 20th century more and more. He is not building a classic political movement, he is enlisting people in his personal army to commit to the president’s personal operations. Metaphors matter. The metaphor turns real when those volunteers start to imagine themselves as part of Trump’s personal army. This imagination is explicitly pushed in the letter to his "patriots", which states that they will be rewarded with a "never-before-seen limited Camo Keep America Great Hat" that allows "the exclusive members of Trump's army" to identify themselves with it.
This membership in Trump's Army is a very powerful identity, especially in combination with Trump's discourse of war. Trump does not hesitate to point out who the enemy is: "the Liberal MOB". Next to the symbol of a common enemy, a prince of evil, the all-powerful leader is one of the strongest unifying instruments. Trump is not only shaping strong ties among his political base, he is giving them reasons to fight for him. He tells them that the future of the US is at stake.
Whatever happens on the 3rd of November, we should realize that Trump’s army will not magically disappear. And that is something to worry about.
Bond, B. & Exley, Z. (2016). Rules for revolutionaries. How Big Organizing can change everything. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.
Chadwick, A. (2017). The Hybrid Media System: Politics and Power. Oxford University.
Chawick, A., O’Loughlin, B. and Vaccari, C. (2017). Why People Dual Screen Political Debates and Why It Matters for Democratic Engagement. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 61(2), 2017, pp. 220–239
Lempert, M. & Silverstein, M. (2012). Creatures of politics. Media, message and the American Presidency. Indiana University Press.
Maly, I. (2018). Nieuw Rechts. Epo: Berchem.