Bully Or Protector In Chief? Fighting For The American Voter

Meliana Trump set off a Twitter firestorm as a result of a speech she gave this week announcing her concern over cyber-bullying.[1] Observers were quick to pounce on the irony, given the intimidating and disrespectful statements her husband has made through the years, and throughout the campaign.[2]

Yet are there voters who are looking for a bully—who is on their side? Who will fight for them? Some voters have argued that both candidates, as well as their surrogates, have gained points with voters through using language that is disrespectful in describing their adversary. Employing a strategy that many consider counterintuitive, in the War of Words, Trump may have finally met his match.

From the Locker Room to the Situation Room: Name Calling all the Way to the Oval Office

The road to the White House is paved with words—many of them unpleasant; some of them downright “nasty.” Whomever you support, it is hard to deny that the current race for the presidency has elevated the art of name calling to new heights.

Donald Trump has, in the past, used self-described “locker room” language we cannot print. During the presidential campaign, both candidates have used choice language to describe each other. Hillary Clinton has famously proclaimed that "A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”[3] In her speech at the Democratic national convention, she described Trump as a "little" man "moved by fear and pride," among other zingers.[4]

Trump, on his part, has run an entire campaign of verbal insults directed at his adversaries, as well as their surrogates. Who can forget his Tweet calling Clinton surrogate Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” and “goofy”—statements that quickly made headlines.[5] Although so did the impetus for the tweet—Senator Warren´s vicious no holds barred verbal assault on Trump at the American Constitution Society, where she called him a “thin-skinned racist” and "a loud, nasty thin-skinned fraud who has never risked anything for anyone and who serves no one but himself.”[6]

And that is just a sampling of the cadre of zingers Warren has hurled at the Republican nominee. Her attacks on Trump have included venomous tweets as far back as March, calling him a "loser" whose "insecurities are on parade: petty bullying, attacks on women, cheap racism, flagrant narcissism." [7] Yet many applauded Warren´s firestorm of insults and believe it helped Clinton´s campaign.

Trump, on his part, capitalized on name calling throughout the primary election. We all remember “Little Marco,” “Lyin´ Ted,” and of course, once he had cleared the Republican field, “Crooked Hilary.” Why would voters approve of such antics, which are arguably unbecoming of any elected official, particularly one running for the office of President? Don´t such displays of disrespect undermine the integrity of the race?

The Competent Bully

The answer is complicated. As a general rule, in politics, disrespect decreases electability. Research indicates that in general, voters are less likely to vote for a disrespectful candidate, or even for the candidate´s political party.[8] But there are several important caveats.

Disrespectful politicians influence voters through portraying varying degrees of warmth and competence. Politicians who are disrespectful may be viewed as less personable but more self-confident[9]--which can increase perceived competence. The attractiveness of disrespectful politicians is potentially enhanced further among voters with low moral identity.[10]

An interesting twist, relevant to our current political climate, is that in times of conflict or crisis, researchers speculate that disrespectful politicians might be viewed favorably because they portray themselves as assertive, active, and self-confident—traits necessary for effective action.[11] Under crisis conditions, voters might be more likely to forgive a disrespectful candidate´s interpersonal failings.[12]

What does this mean in the current presidential election? Donald Trump might appeal to voters who perceive America in a time of crisis and vulnerability, despite all of the bluster, hostility, and Twitter rants. Clinton´s fiery rhetoric might benefit her in the same way.

Respect Does Not Always Produce Results

Some voters are asking, can´t we all just get along? Shouldn´t political candidates follow Meliana Trump´s advice, and just treat each other with respect? Believe it or not, research indicates that political candidates who are overly respectful might actually decrease their electability among low moral identity voters by decreasing their level of perceived self-confidence.[13]

Trump is unlikely to be considered overly respectful. But what about his sixteen opponents in the primary election? We all remember Marco Rubio apologizing for the comments he made about Trumps hands.[14] Some believe that demonstrations of deference hurt Trump´s rivals in the primary election by decreasing their perceived strength.

The Verbal Compromise

Successful politicians need more than strong words. They need to project both warmth and competence, because both on and off line, approachability plus credibility equals electability.

Which candidate has come the closest to mastering this winning combination in the general election? Tuesday will tell.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Christina Molders, Niels Van Quaquebeke, and Maria Paola Paladino, ”Consequences of Politicians´Disrespectful Communication Depend on Social Judgment Dimensions and Voters´ Moral Identity,” Political Psychology, Vol. Xx, No. Xx (2015): 1-17 (13); doi: 10.1111/pops.12311.

[9] See generally, Molders et al. The psychological terms of art for these concepts are communion and agency, respectively. Ibid.

[10] Molders et. al., 14.

[11] Molders et. al., 14.

[12] Molders et. al., 14.

[13] Molders et. al., 14.