During his run for president, Donald Trump became known for his insulting and hateful comments against women, minority groups, immigrants, and public institutions. The blatant bigotry of this rhetoric has led many to fear how Trump will govern now that he has been elected. But over the past week, Trump’s rhetorical style has changed. He is no longer making ad hominem attacks, but is instead producing conciliatory statements toward groups he used to attack.
Is Trump’s rhetoric softening? It may appear that way right now, but don’t expect him to be consistent—many of his vitriolic remarks are likely to return, alongside the occasional soothing statement. He doesn’t appear to have any deliberate goals with his rhetorical mood swings; rather, they are knee-jerk responses to particular situations and audiences. While this may seem arbitrary, it could have damaging effects on the minority communities he targets in his tirades. And such rhetorical contradictions will continue to make it difficult for anyone to predict exactly how he will govern.
Trump’s nativist campaign rhetoric was not wholly new to American political discourse. The branding of particular minority groups as threats to the nation has been a mainstay of the Republican Party for the last several decades. However, the GOP has typically mobilized these arguments around policy at the state level. California’s Proposition 187 in 1994, Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 in 2010, and Alabama’s House Bill 56 in 2011 were each spurred to victory by constructing immigrants as thieves, criminals, and dangers to the American public. These immigrants therefore had to be managed through legislation that made their undocumented status a crime in and of itself.
Trump drew upon such rhetoric during his presidential campaign. He claimed that we need to build a border wall to keep out immigrants who commit crimes and steal American jobs. And he called for a ban on all Muslim immigration to the U.S. and for Muslims inside the U.S. to register with the government. Although these claims are not new, his repetition and vitriolic delivery has been a catalyst for increased violence against minority communities. Indeed, we have seen a large increase of reported incidents of violence against Muslims, Hispanics, blacks, ethnic minorities, and the LGBT community since the election last week. These minority groups are left vulnerable because Trump has sold them as road blocks to making America great again, and it appears that some of his supporters feel that they must be dealt with, one way or another.
But since being elected, Trump has seemingly attenuated his strident rhetoric. For example, in response to anti-Trump protests across the country over the past week, Trump first tweeted: “Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!” But less that 12 hours later he tweeted: “Love the fact that the small groups of protesters last night have passion for our great country. We will all come together and be proud!”
Some believe that this 180-degree shift shows that Trump recognizes the need to be the president for all Americans. But if we view his initial response, we see that it was much more in line with his rhetoric from the campaign trail, attacking his enemies’ demonstrations as “unfair” or “rigged.” His subsequent tweet could be read as an attempt to ameliorate his earlier post; he appears more presidential in saying that he appreciates the democratic right to protest and disagree. We can’t read one tweet without the other, because both represent Trump’s thinking. He both dislikes those who challenge his authority and he thinks that democracy is great. And because these viewpoints are seemingly at odds with one another, it’s difficult to read his rhetoric as anything other than fundamentally unstable.
And the contradictions are not just limited to his tweets. During his 60 Minutes interview Sunday, Trump looked directly into the camera and told his violent supporters committing hate crimes to “stop it.” But he also reiterated his pledge to build a wall on the America’s southern border and deport all immigrants with criminal records. His ability to both chastise his violent supporters while threatening immigrant criminals shows that Trump does not see these ideas as necessarily connected. And it is that disconnection between the intent and impact of Trump’s rhetoric that opens the door for his supporters to interpret his words as they see fit.
Presidential candidates are often accused of flip-flopping in their policy commitments while on the campaign trail, but Trump’s contradictory rhetoric is a different story. His words are harsh and loud, but they do not give a clear sense of purpose. It is not clear whether Trump recognizes that his rhetoric is confusing, but in a sense it does not matter. As long as he continues to produce contradictory statements, it will be difficult to evaluate his governing philosophy or direction. And that will fuel speculation and ultimately fear on both sides of the aisle.
Jennifer Wingard is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston.