When Trump’s tweets are angry, the mood of his followers darkens

President Donald Trump has 25.4 million followers on Twitter. (Image: Screenshot from Twitter.com)

By Michael Berkman | McCourtney Institute for Democracy Director


President Donald Trump has shown a unique ability to use Twitter as a way to connect directly with his followers. His tweets show his supporters what he is thinking, directly and unvarnished.

Less well appreciated, but apparent in our research based on new polling, is how Trump’s anger and its targets are quickly adopted and internalized by large numbers of his followers. What he says, they say. What he believes, they believe.

How is it that Donald Trump’s tweets have this kind of power? I contend that much of the explanation is in the power of memes.

Leaping from brain to brain

A meme is an idea, a catchphrase – “read my lips” – or even a tune or image that has grown into a cultural phenomenon. Richard Dawkins in “The Selfish Gene” called a meme “a new kind of replicator” which leaps from “brain to brain” with a speed that we humans have not seen before. Dawkins recognized that in the new millennium, within the “nutrient-rich culture” of the internet, memes spread virally.

The internet allows all kinds of misinformation to spread. There was, for example, the widely publicized story that a Jewish couple in Pennsylvania had to pull their child from school because they were blamed for the cancellation of the school’s holiday play.

Memes are not restricted to liberals or conservatives. But they can, I contend, help us understand the connection between Trump and his supporters. They explain the way falsehoods develop through conservative media, are amplified through his tweets and are replicated in the words and thoughts of his followers.

Intuitively, you may have suspected that this had been happening. But a unique type of poll from Penn State’s McCourtney Institute for Democracy allowed us to begin tracking the development and transmission of these memes.

How the poll works

Along with Eric Plutzer, the poll director and a professor of political science and sociology, I have been working for many years on the link between public opinion and public policy. The new McCourtney Institute’s Mood of the Nation Poll is a scientific internet-based survey conducted for us by YouGov that poses a series of open-ended questions to a representative sample of 1,000 Americans.

Rather than selecting from a predetermined set of answers, half of the sample was asked to tell us in their own words what in politics made them angry or proud. The other half was asked about what in the news made them angry or proud. Answers to both prompts are combined in this analysis. All respondents were also asked what, looking ahead, made them hopeful and worried. Their responses give us a unique opportunity to witness the ways in which the public is imitating Trump.

The most recent poll took place one week after Election Day in November 2016. This was in the immediate aftermath of protests that erupted after the election and which continued for several days at colleges, universities and major cities across the country. In response, just two days after his election, Trump tweeted:

The accusation that protesters were professional – in other words, paid – was false. As The New York Times reported less than two weeks after Election Day, the charge likely started with a single fake news tweet about protesters being bused into Austin, Texas.

Russia Today, which has been linked to Russian interference in the election, also falsely reported that post-election protesters were paid by Democratic-supporting billionaire George Soros. These reports went viral among conservative websites and were repeated on television by Kellyanne Conway and Rudy Giuliani.

Our poll shows these claims were also picked up by and spontaneously repeated by Trump’s supporters.

When we asked Trump supporters to tell us – without being prompted – what made them angry, one-third mentioned these protests. Another 11 percent mentioned the media. It is possible that the same people mentioned both; each response receives up to three codes.

That means that over 40 percent of Trump supporters were angry about exactly the issues raised in Donald Trump’s tweet. And the sources of their anger differs quite dramatically from that of Hillary Clinton’s supporters, who were overwhelmingly angry at Donald Trump, not at all angry at protesters and in only a very few cases (less than 2 percent) angry at the media.

Another difference is that Trump supporters weren’t just angry; they were very angry. Seventy-three percent of Trump supporters answering “the media” said they were extremely angry, as did 58 percent of those who said the protesters made them angry. Indeed, the protests consumed Trump supporters. Another 15 percent gave answers about groups and individuals who sounded an awful lot like those who were protesting, even if the protesters themselves were not explicitly mentioned. For example, a 27-year-old Trump supporter wrote that he was angry about “my idiot generation being sore losers.”

These voters had a remarkably similar take on these protests, using words that reflect directly on Trump’s tweets. Many respondents mimicked the idea that the protests were not spontaneous, but rather the result of professional organizing and a complicit media.

A 33-year-old Pennsylvania Democrat who voted for Trump vented his anger at the “The anti Trump protests! This makes me sick because I have seen proof that they are PAID probably by the Clinton admin or Obama. I’m sure not all of them but a good amount…”

Indeed, some of the Trump supporters who were angry at the protesters explicitly blamed financier George Soros. One 71-year-old woman from Texas brought many of these ideas together when she said she was angry at “the continual spin about the ‘protesters’ being ‘afraid.’ Many of them are PAID agitators from the DNC or SOROS orgs.”

It is worth noting that within a day Trump sent out another tweet that was far more magnanimous, praising the protesters for their “passion” and predicting that “we will all come together and be proud.”

We looked for evidence that this sentiment too was resonating in Trump supporters, but our poll shows no evidence that any of his supporters picked up on this theme. Perhaps Trump supporters are looking for validation of their anger, and are therefore more likely to incubate and spread memes that do so.

It is early in the Trump administration. We do not know if he will continue to tweet as frequently, nor if his tweets will continue to convey such anger. But if they do, we are confident that his followers are likely to stay angry too. And therefore we are unlikely to see movements toward national unity that were more in evidence after other presidential elections.The Conversation

Michael Berkman is a professor of political science and director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Experts available to media for presidential inauguration analysis

Screenshot of the Presidential Inauguration Committee website (58pic2017.org).

As Donald Trump prepares to be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, Penn State experts will be watching along with the rest of the nation, and they’ll be available to give their analysis to media.

Penn State experts are available to comment on the inauguration are listed by topical expertise:

— Robert Speel, associate professor of political science, can speak generally about politics, elections, the inauguration and political transition. His research interests include elections and voting behavior, state and urban politics, Congress and the Presidency, and public policy. Contact: rws15@psu.edu


— Nichola Gutgold, professor of communication arts and sciences, is an expert on women in politics. She is in Washington, D.C. observing inauguration activities with a group of students. She can speak about past female political candidates and barriers women face today. She is the author of “Madam President: Five Women Who Paved the Way” and the forthcoming expanded edition of the book: “Paving The Way for Madam President.” Contact: ngutgold@psu.edu

Lee Ann Banaszak, Penn State professor and political science department head, is an expert on women in politics and political protests. She will be in Washington, D.C. at the Women’s March on Washington. She recently conducted a survey study of protesters at the 2016 Democratic and Republican conventions. Contact: lab14@psu.edu


Shannon Monnat, assistant professor of rural sociology, demography and sociology, can speak to the demographic information of presidential election voters. Her recent analysis of data from the Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that Donald Trump found significantly more support in areas with high drug, alcohol and suicide mortality rates during the 2016 Presidential election. Contact: smm67@psu.edu


Mark Major is a senior lecturer in the department and the author of “The Unilateral Presidency and the News Media: The Politics of Framing Executive Power.” He specializes in the American presidency and political communication. He recently wrote an article for The Conversation about President Obama’s use of unilateral powers compared to other presidents. Contact: mgm26@psu.edu


Matthew Jordan, associate professor of media studies, teaches media studies, cultural studies, film studies and critical theory. He can speak to the media coverage of the presidential election, the ongoing coverage of government and politics and the proliferation of “fake news.” Contact: mfj3@psu.edu


— Dennis Jett, professor of international affairs, can speak to the topics of securing America and international relations. He is a former American ambassador who joined the Penn State School of International Affairs after a career in the U.S. Foreign Service that spanned 28 years and three continents. His research focuses on American foreign policy, ambassadorial appointments, the impact of domestic politics on foreign policy and peacekeeping. Contact: dcj10@psu.edu


For more information or direct phone numbers for the experts, please contact News and Media Relations at 814-865-7517 or hrobbins@psu.edu.

Poll: Americans hopeful/hopeless post-election

By Michael Berkman | director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy


In an interview with Oprah Winfrey last month, First Lady Michelle Obama somberly reflected on the country in the aftermath of the presidential election.  Winfrey was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the current president who built his campaign on hope. “Now,” the First Lady told her, “we’re feeling what not having hope feels like.”

But is America really feeling hopeless? The Penn State McCourtney Institute for Democracy “Mood of the Nation Poll” allows ordinary citizens to tell us what is on their minds. In particular, the poll allows us to ask 1,000 Americans what it is that they are hopeful about.

Michael Berkman

Michael Berkman

Before the election, in September, Americans were not particularly hopeful. Only 34 percent indicated that they felt very or extremely hopeful. And 40 percent said “nothing” made them hopeful. In contrast, 77 percent of Americans felt very or extremely angry and 81 percent felt very or extremely worried. In sum, before the election, Americans felt very little hope, lots of anger and considerable concern.

Elections have a way of making people feel better about politics. Even those who voted for the losing candidate tend to feel a greater sense of political efficacy, a belief that their concerns are understood and can influence political affairs. Further, the end of the long campaign brings the tumult and the uncertainty to an end. Along with the peaceful transfer of power, this normally improves Americans attitudes about politics.

This was not a normal election: With its intensely negative tone, unpopular candidates and foreign interference, one might expect that things are different this year. But that is not the case. Rather, the end of this election, too, has made the overall mood of the public somewhat more positive.

The overall sense of anger and worry has decreased, while the percentage of people who were either very or extremely hopeful has increased from 34 percent to 44 percent. At the same time, the total percentage of people who said there was “nothing” they were hopeful about decreased to 28 percent.

However, the numbers also support the notion of a divided nation. Just like the First Lady, those who supported Hillary Clinton do not feel better. In fact, they have lost hope.

The figure below breaks down the percentage of people who said “nothing” makes me hopeful by the candidate they supported. Hope increased among those who supported third party candidates, Trump supporters and even those who did not vote. Only among Clinton supporters has there been a noticeable drop in hope.

For them, the percentage saying “nothing” made them hopeful increased by more than 10 percentage points. Nearly half of Clinton supporters are not hopeful about anything in our politics today.

But Trump supporters are hopeful that things are going to get better, and in particular that the economy will get better. Here are some quotes directly from Trump supporters about why they are hopeful:

– A 36-year-old white female homemaker from Texas with a high school degree said, “HOPEFULLY, America will go back to the way it was intended to be. There must be something good about it……there must be a REASON why so many people are scrambling to come here.”

– A 58-year-old white female in West Virginia working part-time emphasized the President-elect’s promises to bring back jobs, saying, “Trump is already keeping jobs here such as Ford and is going to be so good for the economy that the nation’s kids will have a choice of great jobs.”

– A retired 61-year-old white man in Massachusetts emphasized the change that he sees coming is “a bright new future with new ideas. President Trump will change the way things are done in Washington.”

– A 33-year-old African-American man with a high school degree living in Mississippi put it most succinctly: “Mr. Trump gives me hope beyond hope!!”

While the Penn State McCourtney Mood of the Nation Poll was not around in 2008, these words by Trump supporters do appear to echo feelings expressed by Obama supporters when he was first elected in 2008. In the liminal time between the election and inauguration day, so close to the exultation of triumph, when all is possibility, hope is easy to come by. Of course, once the hard slogging of governing kicks in, hopes are likely to modify, as they did for Obama’s supporters.

For now, hope is indeed in the air. But while the supporters of the presidential loser never feel good, the hopelessness for Clinton’s supporters, including that of the First Lady, does not have any clear referent.  Will their despair dissipate as Trump moves into the day-to-day world of governing? Or will his decisions as president cause their feelings of hopelessness to continue? This is an important question for our nation going forward — one that we will be watching closely.

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