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.

Why do conservatives want the government to defund the arts?

Photo by Joep de Graaff/Flickr

Aaron D. Knochel | Assistant Professor of Art Education


Recent reports indicate that Trump administration officials have circulated plans to defund the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), putting this agency on the chopping block – again.

Conservatives have sought to eliminate the NEA since the Reagan administration. In the past, arguments were limited to the content of specific state-sponsored works that were deemed offensive or immoral – an offshoot of the culture wars.

Aaron D. Knochel

Now the cuts are largely driven by an ideology to shrink the federal government and decentralize power. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, argues that government should not use its “coercive power of taxation” to fund arts and humanities programs that are neither “necessary nor prudent.” The federal government, in other words, has no business supporting culture. Period.

But there are two major flaws in conservatives’ latest attack on the NEA: The aim to decentralize the government could end up dealing local communities a major blow, and it ignores the economic contribution of this tiny line item expense.

The relationship between government and the arts

Historically, the relationship between the state and culture is as fundamental as the idea of the state itself. The West, in particular, has witnessed an evolution from royal and religious patronage of the arts to a diverse range of arts funding that includes sales, private donors, foundations, corporations, endowments and the government.

Prior to the formation of the NEA in 1965, the federal government strategically funded cultural projects of national interest. For example, the Commerce Department subsidized the film industry in the 1920s and helped Walt Disney skirt bankruptcy during World War II. The same could be said for the broad range of New Deal economic relief programs, like the Public Works of Art Project and the Works Progress Administration, which employed artists and cultural workers. The CIA even joined in, funding Abstract Expressionist artists as a cultural counterweight to Soviet Realism during the Cold War.

The NEA came about during the Cold War. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy asserted the political and ideological importance of artists as critical thinkers, provocateurs and powerful contributors to the strength of a democratic society. His attitude was part of a broader bipartisan movement to form a national entity to promote American arts and culture at home and abroad. By 1965, President Johnson took up Kennedy’s legacy, signing the National Arts and Cultural Development Act of 1964 – which established the National Council on the Arts – and the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965, which established the NEA.

Since its inception, the NEA has weathered criticism from the left and right. The right generally argues state funding for culture shouldn’t be the government’s business, while some on the left have expressed concern about how the funding might come with constraints on creative freedoms. Despite complaints from both sides, the United States has never had a fully articulated, coherent national policy on culture, unless – as historian Michael Kammen suggests – deciding not to have one is, in fact, policy.

Flare-ups in the culture wars

Targeting of the NEA has had more to do with the kind of art the government funded than any discernible impact to the budget. The amount in question – roughly US$148 million – is a drop in the morass of a $3.9 trillion federal budget.

Instead, the arts were a focus of the culture wars that erupted in the 1980s, which often invoked legislative grandstanding for elimination of the NEA. Hot-button NEA-funded pieces included Andre Serrano’s “Immersion (Piss Christ)” (1987), Robert Mapplethorpe’s photo exhibit “The Perfect Moment” (1989) and the case of the “NEA Four,” which involved the rejection of NEA grant applicants by performance artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes.

In each case, conservative legislators isolated an artist’s work – connected to NEA funding – that was objectionable due to its sexual or controversial content, such as Serrano’s use of Christian iconography. These artists’ works, then, were used to stoke a public debate about normative values. Artists were the targets, but often museum staff and curators bore the brunt of these assaults. The NEA four were significant because the artists had grants unlawfully rejected based upon standards of decency that were eventually deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1998.

As recently as 2011, former Congressmen John Boehner and Eric Cantor targeted the inclusion of David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly, A Work in Progress” (1986-87) in a Smithsonian exhibition to renew calls to eliminate the NEA.

In all these cases, the NEA had funded artists who either brought attention to the AIDS crisis (Wojnarowicz), invoked religious freedoms (Serrano) or explored feminist and LGBTQ issues (Mapplethorpe and the four performance artists). Controversial artists push the boundaries of what art does, not just what art is; in these cases, the artists were able to powerfully communicate social and political issues that elicited the particular ire of conservatives.

A local impact

But today, it’s not about the art itself. It’s about limiting the scope and size of the federal government. And that ideological push presents real threats to our economy and our communities.

Organizations like the Heritage Foundation fail to take into account that eliminating the NEA actually causes the collapse of a vast network of regionally controlled, state-level arts agencies and local councils. In other words, they won’t simply be defunding a centralized bureaucracy that dictates elite culture from the sequestered halls of Washington, D.C. The NEA is required by law to distribute 40 percent of its budget to arts agencies in all 50 states and six U.S. jurisdictions.

Many communities – such as Princeton, New Jersey, which could lose funding to local cultural institutions like the McCarter Theatre – are anxious about how threats to the NEA will affect their community.

Therein lies the misguided logic of the argument for defunding: It targets the NEA but in effect threatens funding for programs like the Creede Repertory Theatre – which serves rural and underserved communities in states like Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Oklahoma and Arizona – and Appalshop, a community radio station and media center that creates public art installations and multimedia tours in Jenkins, Kentucky to celebrate Appalachian cultural identity.

While the present administration and the conservative movement claim they’re simply trying to save taxpayer dollars, they also ignore the significant economic impacts of the arts. The Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that the arts and culture industry generated $704.8 billion of economic activity in 2013 and employed nearly five million people. For every dollar of NEA funding, there are seven dollars of funding from other private and public funds. Elimination of the agency endangers this economic vitality.

Ultimately, the Trump administration needs to decide whether artistic and cultural work is important to a thriving economy and democracy.The Conversation

Aaron D. Knochel is an assistant professor of art education at Pennsylvania State University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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