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The bizarrely aggressive rhetoric of Trump’s fundraising emails, explained

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Vox
Trump at the first presidential debate at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on September 29, 2020, in Cleveland, Ohio.  | Win McNamee/Getty Images

Rhetoric scholars explain why Trump’s campaign emails feel like someone is yelling at you.

“This email is FOR PATRIOTS ONLY” begins one of the fundraising emails sent this year from President Trump’s reelection campaign. It went out to thousands of recipients, including at least one noncitizen who lives outside the US and who hates Trump. And having established that the reader is an American patriot, the email goes on to offer membership in a very exclusive club: Trump Army.

“You’ve been identified as one of President Trump’s fiercest and most loyal defenders, and according to your donor file, you’d make an excellent addition to the Trump Army,” it reads. “When you become a member of the Trump Army today, we’ll give you access to get our never-before-seen, Limited Edition Camo Keep America Great Hat.” With that camo hat, it goes on to promise, Trump supporters will be able to let everyone know that they have Trump’s back “when it comes to fighting off the Liberal MOB.”

This particular email, which went out in May, made headlines for its bizarre implication that Trump was building his own private army. But when it comes to Trump’s fundraising emails, the Trump Army email is not an outlier. Like nearly every other email he sends, it flies out indiscriminately, and it starts with flattery, levels up by selling its readers membership in a special echelon of Trump fandom, and heavily implies that all Trump supporters are under literal martial attack from liberals.

All political fundraising emails are thirsty, and all of them cultivate a careful combination of flattery to their readers with dire warnings of what will happen if the opposition wins. But Trump emails are unusual in just how aggressive and bullying they are to their recipients, to the point that they’ve been called out as such by both the left and the right. There’s an entire Twitter account devoted to documenting their extravagancies, and scrolling through them is roughly analogous to the experience of having someone scream, “Why haven’t you paid the money yet, you jerk?” in your face at top volume for 10 minutes at a time.

“I want to know who stood with me when it mattered most, so I’ve asked my team to send me a list of EVERY AMERICAN PATRIOT who donates to this email,” warns one email signed by Trump that went out after the first presidential debate Tuesday night. “I need you right now. You stood by my side throughout the 2016 Election, and I need to know you’ll be by my side once again in November.”

“The President wants to know who stood by his side when the Radical Left came after him,” says another that went out on September 27, signed by Vice President Mike Pence. “He’s requested a list of every Patriot who donates to this email in the NEXT HOUR. Will he see your name?”

These emails are a mixed success. As the New York Times reported, Trump got an early start fundraising for his reelection, having filed his papers the day after his 2016 inauguration. When the general election began this spring, he had a $200 million advantage over Biden, and as of July, he’d raised $1.1 billion, in part through his email marketing.

As the general election has heated up, Biden has begun to close the fundraising gap, while Trump has found himself strapped for cash after heavy early spending. In August, Biden raised $291 million to Trump’s $129 million.

Still, Trump’s fundraising emails are effective enough that they’ve helped him raise $1.33 billion since 2016. Someone is responding to those furious emails by sending him money. But why?

To learn more about why these Trump fundraising emails are so intensely aggressive, I spoke to several rhetoric scholars who study Trump’s particular communication style. I wanted to know what makes these emails feel so much angrier than other fundraising emails — and why they work for Trump supporters.

The Trump Army idea, the rhetoricians told me, is completely consistent with Trump’s rhetoric in general, and with his fundraising in particular.

“The impression that we are in a war, that it’s a kill-or-be-killed, survival-of-the-fittest moment, that we are in a civil war,” says Casey Kelly, an associate professor of rhetoric and public culture at the University of Nebraska. “The sense of urgency that is associated with the aggressive tone is foundational.”

“The kinds of appeals that you would expect to be used if he were selling Trump Ties and Trump Steaks”

The first presidential candidate to truly harness the power of email fundraising was the young upstart candidate Barack Obama in 2008, says Mary Stuckey, a professor of communication at Penn State. Obama’s campaign unlocked the potential of precisely targeted fundraising.

“Obama’s campaign got all this credit, deservedly so, for all the ways they managed data,” says Stuckey. “They could tell if you opened an email. They could ask questions like, were women over 40 with blue eyes more likely to open emails that had their first names in the subject line?”

Recent reports reveal that Trump’s campaign has a similar ability to microtarget data but appears to be using that ability mostly to try to dissuade Black voters from heading to the ballot box. When it comes to his fundraising emails, Trump casts a wide net, to the point that people who actively despise him can still end up on his contact list and will still receive emails in which he informs him that he knows they are some of his most loyal supporters.

That wide net is one reason for the sense of aggression often associated with these fundraising emails: If you haven’t already bought into the Trump message, it can feel disconcerting to receive wounded-sounding missives with his name in the signature asking you why you haven’t given him your money yet.

But even when the emails appear in a context that makes sense, like when they go to a staunch Republican or a Trump supporter, they are unnervingly intense. “This email imparts the feeling I am being evicted from the Republican party by a slumlord,” tweeted American Greatness editor Pedro L. Gonzalez of an email in which Trump’s son Eric offers the reader their “FINAL NOTICE” to join the “prestigious group” of the “Trump Presidential Honor Roll.” The emails don’t just feel aggressive because they go out to everyone whose email address Trump can capture; they also feel aggressive because of what they are saying.

Another reason for the emails’ aggressive feel is the relentless slickness of their approach, which feels uncomfortably reminiscent of someone trying very hard to convince you to buy something. Denise Bostdorff, a professor of communications at the College of Wooster, says it reminds her “of infomercials, the hard sell.”

“They use the kinds of appeals that you would expect to be used if he were selling Trump Ties and Trump Steaks,” says Bostdorff. “This language of, ‘This is exclusive! You don’t want to miss this! This offer’s only going to be here a little while!’”

According to a Daily Beast deep dive, Trump’s team actually seems to be using the sales playbook developed for Trump University, Trump’s multilevel marketing scheme posing as a college. There, recruiters were instructed to create a sense of exclusivity in the university by always substituting congratulations for thanks to their recruits: Instead of “Thanks for coming,” say, “Congratulations on making it,” the playbook advises.

The playbook also advises creating a sense of intimacy by telling recruits that they have been noticed. At Trump U, that took the form of recruiters saying things like, “I noticed you took a lot of notes during the results portion of the panel. Is that particularly important to you?” In fundraising emails, it takes the form of Trump informing people that he’s noticed they’re not on the latest list of donors.

“Trump supporters are in some ways in an abusive relationship with him”

I noticed is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to establishing intimacy between Trump and his email recipients. Every rhetorician I spoke to for this story says that with his emails, Trump is attempting to construct a personal relationship with his audience. And it’s a very specific, very emotionally charged relationship.

Bostdorff argues that by building a sense of exclusivity around his donor list — join the Trump Army, join the patriots, join me — Trump is flattering his supporters, letting them into a secret elite. This flattery toward Trump supporters is matched by intense vitriol directed at all those who stand against Trump. And because Trump supporters are now in the club with Trump, they are also now against everyone he is against.

“He doesn’t have opponents, he has enemies,” says Bostdorff. “These are not people for his supporters to disagree with. They are enemies that have to be stopped at all costs.”

“There’s an implied personal relationship,” says Stuckey. “Which is a thing for Trump voters.” She points to the prevalence of fundraising emails signed by Eric Trump and Don Jr. with variations on the line “my father needs you.”

“It’s really weird for a president to express need,” Stuckey notes. The classic idea of a US president is that he is so strong and so capable that he offers his emotional support to the country, as someone we can rely on a time of crisis. For that reason, he might sometimes ask for our help, as valued members of his team, but he’ll never be in a position of such weakness that he would need us. But Trump, while insisting on his own strength, also continues to put his own emotional needs at the center of his relationship with his supporters.

“There’s that contradiction there in general, with Trump’s communication. It’s assertive and aggressive on the one hand, and super needy and emotional on the other,” says Stuckey. “These emails fit that pattern. They imply this relationship whereI already believe you to be strong, so it’s okay to cry in front of me.’”

But just as Trump brings his supporters in close enough to express his need to them, he’s also threatening to take that intimacy away. We won’t extend this opportunity again, his emails warn as every fundraising deadline nears.

“You won’t offer me the opportunity to give you money again? What?” says Stuckey. “There’s this implied threat the relationship will go away.You better keep giving or my dad’s gonna bail on you.’”

If you think that pull-’em-close-push-’em away dynamic sounds weirdly like the description of an emotionally abusive romance, well … you’re not alone.

“Trump supporters are in some ways in an abusive relationship with him,” says Kelly. “He humiliates them; he tells them about their latest defeats and failure to mobilize to action. He positions his audience as passive.”

“But,” Kelly adds, “the idea is that they’re passive in the presence of a strong, great leader. I think that’s a lot of the appeal.”

The theoretical relationship embedded in this rhetoric is one in which Trump, who dares to be vulnerable to us, is letting us in close, even though we are weak and idle failures. And since Trump is strong and virile and we are not, we owe him something for that intimacy.

So just as often as Trump is the leader of a passive army of supporters who are then ennobled through his strength, he’s also the victim of their failure to mobilize.

“These emails tell people they’re not doing their piece of this,” says Stuckey. “He’s willing to pull you in, but you’re not doing your part. And your part is always giving Trump money.”

That trade-off of giving money for access to Trump’s strength and intimacy, says Bostdorff, is “the authoritarian dynamic.”

“Authoritarianism is rooted in the idea that you hand over your power to me and I’ll take care of things,” she says. “But therefore, there are certain demands I can make of you.”

So when we don’t turn over our money to Trump as soon as he asks for it, he has the right to feel wounded and disappointed, to tell us he noticed our names weren’t on that list of patriots, to demand to know where we were and when we’ll be back.

That, in the end, is the rhetorical idea embedded in the center of his fundraising emails. “You’re victimized, and the way you can feel special is to defer to him,” says Bostdorff. “You can be part of history. You can get a flag. He set aside a doormat just for you.”


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