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A populist president in campaign: Donald Trump, or the management of the Covid-19 crisis

Un Président populiste en campagne : Donald Trump, ou la gestion de la crise de la Covid-19
Maria Saltykov
Cet article est une traduction de :
Un Président populiste en campagne : Donald Trump, ou la gestion de la crise de la Covid-19 [fr]


Cet article examine les procédures discursives et argumentatives teintées de populisme selon lesquelles Donald Trump, qui va à contre-courant de la politique sanitaire contre la Covid-19 adoptée par la plupart des pays démocratiques, tente de légitimer ses décisions et de les présenter comme conformes au souci du bien public. On analyse la façon dont, dans son allocution à la nation, le dirigeant des États-Unis s’attache à réaffirmer sa légitimité de Président sortant affaibli par des tentatives d’impeachment, et de renforcer l’autorité de sa personne en vue des élections proches. Dans cette perspective, on tente de déceler les stratégies discursives qui relèvent du national-populisme et les valeurs communes qui les sous-tendent, en examinant comment elles s’intègrent dans l’argumentation globale mise en œuvre pour parvenir aux fins persuasives du Président-candidat.

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1In 2015-2016, Donald Trump emerged on the political arena and quickly became an icon of populism. He is ranked among the populist leaders in many later scientific writings (Boucher 2020, Bonikowsky 2019, Weyland & Madrid 2019, among others), but also in the international media (CNN, NYT, Le Monde, Le Parisien, Télégramme and many other sources). The co-occurrence of the words “Trump” and “populism” appears in more than 7 million articles on Google (as of October 2020). These facts incited us to examine the discourse on Covid-19 of the 45th American president in its relation to populism, a framing that proved to be very enlightening to grasp the argumentative strategies of his speech.

2In the context of this research, we therefore propose to circumscribe, through the prism of populism, the arguments that the American president deploys in his first speech on the coronavirus and in particular, the way he legitimizes his very special attitude towards the health problem and reasserts his authority with his potential electorate.

  • 1 A few months later, we would already be talking about the right of citizens to dispose of their bod (...)

3This question calls for examining the inaugural speech of February 26, 2020, on the coronavirus on several levels. We will try, on the one hand, to situate it in the framework of Trump’s speeches as President (or even as presidential candidate), to point out its particularities or, on the contrary, to note a continuity of the Trumpian style and argumentation; and on the other hand, since the issue has transcended national borders, we will compare it to the first speeches on the coronavirus of other world leaders who face the same argumentative challenge.
Indeed, if we consider the speech in a contrasting way, in its relation to the speeches of other national leaders, we clearly see that it differs from the global “corona” rhetoric. Unlike the speeches delivered in democratic countries like France, Germany, Italy and many others, Trump's first official address contains almost no legitimation of anti-Covid measures which one might fear would violate citizens’ freedoms (notably the limitations on free movement or the requirement to wear masks or other protective
1). On the contrary, Trump’s goal is to explain to the public why there is no need to worry. The address intends to allay anxieties aroused by the rapid spread of Covid-19 in the affected countries and to promise a positive outcome of the case.

4On the methodological level, we operate within the field of discourse and argumentation analysis, which provide a series of valuable resources for studying the phenomenon of populism, the role of ethos—the image of self that is created/reinforced in the discourse, as developed by Amossy (2010), enunciative subjectivity (Kerbrat-Orecchioni 2002 [1980]), the classification of discursive tools of legitimation (van Leeuwen 2007, Charaudeau 2005, Beetham 2013). These analytical tools have been enriched by American studies of political discourse (Benoit 2007, Savage 2011), such as analyses of Trump’s speech (Bonikowski 2019, Sabato et al. 2017, Mercieca 2020), as well as studies of the American national doxa on which the leader builds his strategy of legitimation (see among others Bennett 2015, Kohut & Stokes 2006, Pyszczynski 2008, Rosenstiel 2006).

5Moreover, we pay special attention to the contextual dimension for understanding the effects produced by the leader on the nation. Thus, we are exploring media sources that provide direct and immediate reactions to the presidential speech and allow for in-depth contextualization of Trump’s addresses to the nation.

1. Explanation of the populist framework

  • 2 See Loraux 1979, Bredin 2001.

6The phenomenon of populism will be briefly defined here based on a synthesis from the theories of Taguieff (2007), Mueller (2016), Charaudeau (2011), Boucher (2020), Rosanvallon (2020). It should be noted that the works in our sample, although diverse, are not in contradiction; rather, the theories seem to complement each other conceptually. In general, they are not devoid of a critical aspect, even if the authors do not take a definite position and claim to relate the main aspects of the phenomenon analyzed, including its criticism. Most of the mentioned works state, on the one hand, the problematic relationship of the populists to “objective reality,” the “truth” (thus, the very title L'illusion populiste of Taguieff 2007 immediately evokes a manipulation of the consciousness of the masses by “demagogues” [ibid.] in power). On the other hand, these works question the correlation between populism and democratic principles: “Populism is not in itself democratic and even tends, without any doubt, to be anti-democratic” (Mueller 2016: 18, our translation); Rosanvallon (2020: 198) entitles one of the chapters of his book “Democratic Fiction” (our translation). We are interested in these two dimensions which are closely linked (a “transparent” interpretation of the facts being part of a democratic2 political “agenda”, opposed to populist public communication).

7In light of the above-mentioned theories, populism can be interpreted as a specific mode of political representation, which offers the audience a dichotomous and conflicting view of the world, based on a clear distinction between good and bad, where the “good” is the prerogative of the “authentic, morally pure people” (Mueller 2016: 165, our translation), opposed to the implacable enemy who takes on various appearances, especially those of the “system” (defined according to the context in which the populist acts). This paradigm gives rise to a so-called authentic and quasi-heroic figure of the leader who claims the “monopoly of representation” of the people (Mueller 2016: 50; 85) taken as a homogeneous whole, whose needs he promises to satisfy, promising them “all the happiness in the world.” The populist discursive style is marked by a special expressiveness (pathos) and eloquence intended to stimulate the imagination of the audience—in other words, to make them “dream” (Boucher 2020: 56, our translation). The populist “worldview” is characterized by its ironclad persistence: populist discourse may resist the objective reality, and survives any criticism, constructive or not, by a simple rejection of its source. The combination of these traits in political discourse and positioning allows us to classify their bearer in the populist cohort.

8Let us add that during his first presidential campaign (2015-2016), Donald Trump began to promote the characteristic principles of national populism, advocating the global supremacy of the US, and winning over an impressive number of voters. National populism is understood here in the sense of Taguieff (2007 [2002]) and as taken up conceptually by other authors, such as Boucher (2020): it is the form of populism focused on “the national identity considered in both historical and ethnic terms” (Taguieff 2007 [2002]: 231, our translation). In the following, we will see that in support of this argument, the president seeks to touch and activate in his audience deeply rooted doxic convictions.

2. Donald Trump and the question of presidential legitimacy

  • 3 Recent studies confirm that oppositional populist forces (in France, but the tendency can be consid (...)

9What happens to populist discourse when the politician changes function and accedes to the authorized state power? Is a populist, once at the helm, obliged to review his tactics, oppositional3 by definition (“to be a populist is first of all to be ‘against’,” writes Taguieff [2007 [2002]: 219], our translation), in order to authorize himself to speak from the official platform? How, from this position, will he manage an unprecedented health crisis which, by its consequences, has become a humanitarian catastrophe in a country which wants to be “the best” (the greatest) (it has become so, unfortunately, in terms of the epidemic, counting more than 11 million cases, and 250,000 deaths up to the time of writing of this article, October 2020)?

  • 4 We will address this contextual aspect in the chapter that deals with the specificities of the “pop (...)

10The argumentative situation complexifies also due to the political conjuncture. At the time of his first official speech, delivered on February 26, 2020, Donald Trump was indeed in the middle of his second presidential campaign, which was to come to its logical conclusion on November 3, 2020. Moreover, shortly before the discussed events, Trump faced the first impeachment attempt, which certainly affected his strategic goals inciting him to focus on reaffirming his “presidential4” image. The U.S. House of Representatives has indeed passed two articles of impeachment against Trump: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The Senate acquitted Trump of these charges on February 5, 2020. These circumstances, however, placed the politician in a situation of possible delegitimization in legal sense, and a legitimacy deficit of his person and his actions as president (following the terminology of Beetham 2013). At the same time, he is forced to rebuild his authority as a powerful and competent politician, and to restore his credibility as a leader, as well as “the intimate conviction of the competence of the speaker, of the righteousness of his judgment as well as of the purity of his intentions” (Amossy 2022). Since he goes against the grain of the health policy decreed by most democratic countries, Trump must both legitimize ways of saying and doing that deviate from those of other leaders and reaffirm his authority as a leader whose word in breaking with the norm deserves complete trust.

11We will therefore try to see how the president deploys a populist discourse that must justify a reaction breaking with that of most democratic leaders and reaffirm his presidential legitimacy than is being put to the test. At the same time, we will examine how such a discourse on the health crisis, based on electoral considerations, is part of a political positioning. Based on this analysis, we will try to discern the specificities of the construction of legitimacy and political authority within the “populist” discourse.

3. The presidential positioning: a chronological and global perspective

12We notice right away that the “founding” speech on the coronavirus which dates February 26, 2020, is not an immediate reaction: the infection has already burst into the country and gradually spread from mid-January, the first victim died on February 6. By the end of January, the first cases of community transmission were identified, the hospitalizations were on rise (NYT, 15.05.2020).

13To be precise, the measures introduced at the time of the speech consisted essentially of the organization of medical services, the stocking of protective equipment, the evacuation of Americans from “contaminated” areas and the ban on travel to these countries, limiting the entry into US territory of migrants and non-migrants from countries with many infected people (China, Iran, South Korea, Italy). There were yet no “internal” restrictions affecting the comfort of daily life. The CDC (US Center for Disease Control and Prevention) launched its first social distancing instructions two weeks later (March 15, 2020); the introduction of other measures was left to the discretion of local authorities. Let us just add, taking advantage of the privilege of retrospective commentary, that six weeks later, the country has crossed the line of one million infections.

14It is worth noting that the national state of emergency, accompanied by “unpopular” measures will only be decreed two weeks later (March 13, 2020) in a much more alarming tone, characterized by a “belligerent” lexicon, in the wake of the other world leaders, for example, French President Emmanuel Macron who has used it extensively (“we’re taking in our very vigilant effort to combat and ultimately defeat the coronavirus,” says Trump), which signals a change in the presidential rhetoric and a more serious perception of the problem.

  • 5 In the same context, by characterizing Trump’s discourse on Covid-19.

15However, the president cannot be accused of negligence. What we see here is a deliberate negation or an attitude that Boucher defines as a “denial of the reality5” (2020: 135, our translation) often imputed to populist politicians who substitute their own interpretation to the objective state of things, according to their political interests. The international media spread this point of view in the public space (they reformulate it or use the same expression) so that it becomes almost a new commonplace: “From denial to delirium,” comments Télegramme (05.06.2020) the fluctuations of presidential rhetoric; “Six months of Trump’s Covid denials” (The Guardian, 29.07.2020); “the president has gone from downplaying the pandemic to its denial” (The Atlantic, 31.10.2020); “Donald Trump has denied the second surge of the Coronavirus pandemic” (Independent, 03.11.2020), and other sources (CNN, 31.05.2020, Le Monde, 06.05.2020, Le Parisien, 09.04.2020, etc.) who share this view. Even at the press conference where the speech in question took place, a journalist, when asking his question, declared: “Tonight, you’re minimizing the risk of danger of the virus.”

16Indeed, Donald Trump’s first address to the nation, as well as a series of comments that precede it, based on the value of hope (“Hopefully, everything’s going to be great”, campaign rally in Iowa, 01.30.2020; “the weather starts to warm and the virus hopefully becomes weaker, and then gone”, Twitter, 07.02.2020), clearly show his desire to avoid reporting unpleasant facts coming from “outside” the country: disturbing statistics, imminent limitations, dangers of a “novel” infection. On the contrary, he repeatedly conveys optimistic prognoses, the argumentative foundations of which we attempt to expose here.

17Subsequently, such an attitude (a marked over-optimism) will be qualified by the media as culpable recklessness (for example, by NYT, but also by international papers, such as Le Figaro and others). However, total control of a threatening situation contributes to the image that Trump builds as outgoing president, and which must prove his efficiency in his functions, thus reaffirming his presidential authority.

18This positioning can at the same time be interpreted as a process of legitimation of his policy insofar as he presents it as working for the common good by rejecting any panic: the president spreads serene optimism and tries to establish confidence in the happy outcome of a problematic situation. Legitimation is considered here as an attempt to make an attitude appear not only legal, but also consistent with the moral values of the given community, and serving the general interest. In support of his theses, President Trump exploits a series of “cultural factors” (Amossy 2022) that make his words appear “fair” for the given audience.

4. Populist discursive strategies

19Trump certainly intends to reinforce his legitimacy by highlighting the undeniable priority (value) granted to the American people—to their health and safety—in all his motivations: “And the number one priority from our standpoint is the health and safety of the American people.” It should be noted that this aspect is present in all the speeches of heads of state on the epidemic; it is therefore part of a specific “corona” rhetoric. But Trump puts it at the service of a different health policy that would need justification. However, part of Trump’s construction of legitimacy and authority does not include any process of rational justification; it rather recurs, on the formal level, to stylistic specificities rooted in deeply ideological and cultural aspects, which relate to populist discourse.

4.1. The declarative and hyperbolic register

20The leitmotif of the analyzed address consists of strong declarative assertions such as:
“we’re doing really well;” “we are totally prepared;” “very well under control,” etc. They are often reinforced by subjectivity markers which, if we take the aforementioned examples, carry out an evaluative function of the “good/bad type” (Kerbrat-Orecchioni 2009 [1980]: 113, our translation) such as “totally,”
“very well,” as well as of the “true/false type” (ibid.), like “really;” or (double) negations that lead to the same preponderant idea: “Well, I don’t think it’s inevitable.”

  • 6 The appeal to the authority of experts will be discussed in the following parts, here we will limit (...)

21This correlates with a conspicuous feature of Trump’s discursive style, namely the heavy use of superlatives that amplify his ideas. To do this, he uses “evaluatives” (Kerbrat-Orecchioni 2009 [1980]: 89) which highlight his own achievements, but also the expertise of those in charge of the American medicine6 in general: “Very, tremendously (talented);” “great;” “incredible;” “extraordinary,” etc. and can be included in “comparative structures” (ibid.: 99): “We have the best prepared people;” “the best people in the world;” “most talented people in the world;” “The United States is rated number one most prepared.” This affirmative force and strong amplification aim to impress and to confer on the speaker his credibility by short-circuiting the good reasons which he should allege to inspire confidence.

4.2. Positive thinking

22Trump’s attitude to the problem, transmitted by the use of these “technical” means, can be valid in the cultural field in which the speaker acts, insofar as he invokes the values of his community, and the underlying system in which they participate, supposed to manifest his legitimacy (Amossy 2022), including an “ideology of optimism” (Bennett 2015) or “positive thinking” (Meyer 1965) that govern behavioral ethics and generally permeate North American culture, where institutions propagate optimism and hope (Bennett 2015).

23Therefore, the cult of “positivity” (as opposed to “negativity” or even “realism” in the representation of facts) is characteristic of American society. Indeed, this tendency is very strong in the speeches of Trump’s predecessors such as Barack Obama. The question then is not just whether it is relevant in the given context, but also how typical it is of Trump himself. If it is anchored in the culture of the country, why should we emphasize it in the present analysis?

  • 7 The one running for office for the first time and literally “attacking” the industry.
  • 8 The one who has already occupied the high position, and who often stands for the second term.
  • 9 We will discuss later the elements of the “politicization” of his speech in question.
  • 10 A criticism of the opponents’ activity is a “logical” strategy of a challenger. However, acerbic ne (...)

24In fact, this feature is very functional in Trump’s rhetoric when examined as a component of his (pre)election speech. It attracts our attention due to a double vector of the discursive behavior of the former American president. If we consider the speech in relation to his electoral speeches (2015-2016), as well as the presidential ones (2016-2020), we notice that the handling of his ethos (in the sense of Amossy 2010: 209, our translation): “the presentation of self in its verbal dimension,” varies according to the formal circumstances in which the politician acts. It changes depending on his status as a “challenger7” or an “incumbent8” (terminology of Benoit 2007)—at a given political moment. This perspective calls for clarification: in 2015-2016, Trump was a challenger —formally and strategically; already in 2020, we classify him as incumbent: president in office, he nevertheless transgresses presidential neutrality to introduce the elements of electoral struggle into his speech9. Putting these two roles into perspective reveals a clear trend that affects the construction of the speaker's ethos and the preponderant tone of his message: a manifest “negativity” in Trump-challenger’s speech (which struck the whole world in 2015) regarding the country and its prospects10, gives way to an ecstatic “positivity” of the future candidate, who is glorifying his achievements as president. We can thus assume that the present address is an integral part of the Trumpian speech as an incumbent. The relevance of this manifestly optimistic attitude towards the hardly known virus is another question.

4.3. American exceptionalism and national populism

25A local over-optimism, looming over the background of the humanitarian drama unfolding in the rest of the world, invokes another doxic dimension: the spirit of U.S. supremacy on a global scale, an “American exceptionalism” amplified by the maxims of national populism. We can even, following van Leeuwen’s classification, namely his category of the “role model” (2007: 95), assume that Trump creates (in order to use it in his argumentation) an imaginary “role-model country” which excels in all spheres and far exceeds all the others. The country is even charged with a “mission” in relation to other “ordinary” nations: “We have the greatest experts in the world—really, in the world, right here—people that are called upon by other countries when things like this happen;” “Parts of the world are asking us, in a very nice way, can [we] partake and help them;” “the best team anywhere in the world,” and so on.

26The president thus highlights the undisputed superiority of the North American society. Evoking the “topoi of a given community”, offering them a discursive form that can serve “as a norm and guarantee for the behavior of a community” (Maingueneau & Cossuta 1995: 113, our translation), the president establishes with his listeners a bond of mutual understanding, an agreement on common values.

  • 11 The notion was originally conceptualized by Tocqueville in 1835.
  • 12 The term is used without any evaluative nuance, only to mark the analyzed phenomenon.

27In this perspective, the massive use of superlatives, together with the call for a “greatness” on a planetary scale, appear as both linguistic and cultural aspects of Trump’s discourse. In this regard, a special term—“American Exceptionalism”11, based on a set of traits, such as republican values ​​reinforced by the spirit of entrepreneurship and a powerful vitality—circulates in the scientific field. Thus, Kohut and Stokes (2006) explore the phenomenon in terms of “disconnection of images”: the discrepancy between the nation’s image in its own eyes and the image it projects to other nations (“in many domains, Americans view themselves in a more positive and benevolent way than they are viewed by others,” Pyszczynski 2008, referring to Kohut and Stokes 2006). This mass “narcissism”12 goes as far as the interpellation of spiritual superiority translated in the formula “America, the Blessed Nation” (Rosenstiel with a reference to Kohut and Stokes 2006).

28In the specific case of Trump, the implementation of shared cultural codes is reinforced by populist rhetoric, where the exceptionality/righteousness of a “real people” is absolutized. Indeed the national populist pathos is dichotomous (we have already mentioned it: if you are good, you are the best; the same if you are bad), maximalist, megalomaniac. It aims to awaken and cultivate in the national audience patriotic feelings of pride, of superiority, and bring it to a catharsis, engendering as a result a blind confidence in the words and actions of the nation’s leader. In other words, Trump mobilizes here the “attitudinal variables” of national populism, indicated by Bonikowski (2019) who studies its “Trumpian” variant, including the “Pride in the nation and state” and the “Sense of national superiority” (Bonikowski 2019: 117).

5. A populist use of argumentative strategies

5.1. The modalities of the appeal to experts

29When we examine the argumentative strategies used by Trump, we see that it is based on the authority of experts (van Leeuwen 2007: 94): medical, scientific, administrative. He addresses citizens during the press conference next to Vice President Mike Pence and surrounded by a whole group of experts: members of the coronavirus task force (Health and Human Services Secretary, Alex Azar; the Deputy Director of the CDC, Dr. Anne Schuchat; the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci).

30This argument from authority is almost a commonplace in the speeches of world leaders. But it is striking in Donald Trump’s speech because of the extreme personalization to which he subjects all situations. Specialists confirm: “reductio ad Trumpum,” comments the essayist and historian M. Tandonnet, speaking about the “outrageous personalization” of his speech “to the detriment of the debate of ideas and the common good” (our translation). American historian and scholar C. Sellin characterizes Trump’s communication as “the extreme personalization of American diplomacy.”13 The appeal to expert authority can thus be interpreted as a certain concession in the face of the magnitude of the Covid-19 threat and, consequently, can serve as an indirect, veiled, contextual recognition of the risk of imminent catastrophe (despite the optimistic tone we have discussed at length).

31And indeed, in this speech, President Trump prefers to share the responsibility with the members of a “brilliant team,” made up of “professionals, doctors.” He therefore includes his person in a collective “We” in phrases such as “pretty good job we’ve done,” a modality rarely used in his speech. What role does he attribute to himself in this “atypical” case of collective ethos (Amossy 2010: 156)? Where is his own authority as a “strong” and powerful leader? Has this case, which has no precedent in either the near or distant past, pushed him to overcome a populist discursive “egocentrism” that does not tolerate intermediaries between the leader and “his” people? Or has the health crisis suddenly transformed him into a “team player”—a posture he has always rejected (since the GOP primaries, where it was logical to represent, in a way, a common ideology)?

32The answer to this last question, negative, lies in the nuance: despite a massive use of the plural pronoun “we”, Trump does not present himself as equal to the members of the “brilliant” team: he puts himself at its head, as we can see in utterances using the first person singular pronoun separating him from the others, such as: “I spent a lot of time with the team over the last couple of weeks, but they’re totally brilliant, and we're doing really well;” “I just left a group of 45 people that are the most talented people in the world,” and so on.

33The success of the team of experts (in the field of medicine, as well as in politics, here his administration represented by Mike Pence) is therefore the product of the effective actions of the president, who managed to gather the best people. He delegates responsibilities to them and receives their reports: “I’m having them report to Mike. Mike will report to me. … They’ll also be reporting, in some cases, to both. I’ll be going to meetings quite a bit depending on what they want to do and what message we want to get out.” But it is the president who makes the decisions (“I made a decision,” he says on the evacuation of Americans from China and the “travel ban” decreed for this area). Thus, he remains the ultimate authority as regards the management of the crisis.

34Trump thus constructs a subordination, a hierarchy, where his institutional and personal authority predominates over specialized knowledge (academic or administrative); he absorbs it and puts himself at the head of its representatives. In a larger perspective, such insistence on the role of supreme guarantor of political decisions, within a democracy where decisions are discussed by a set of political actors, refers to the idea of the essential conflict between the democratic order and the populist vision.

35As for the argumentative function of the appeal to expertise, it must be clearly understood that Trump, unlike other heads of state, mobilizes this argument not to justify restrictive measures, but conversely to prove that the cause does not deserve the disproportionate attention given to it and that its scope is grossly overstated. Thus, he alleges his conversation with Dr. Fauci and compares the new virus to the annual flu which statistically takes many more lives, but causes much less of a stir:

I want you to understand something that shocked me when I saw it that—and I spoke with Dr. Fauci on this, and I was really amazed, and I think most people are amazed to hear it: The flu, in our country, kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year.  That was shocking to me.

And, so far, if you look at what we have with the 15 people and their recovery, one is—one is pretty sick but hopefully will recover, but the others are in great shape.  But think of that: 25,000 to 69,000.

5.2. The rationalization of threat

36The appeal to expert authority is combined in this last example with a process of rationalization (van Leeuwen 2007: 100) through the analogy drawn between two diseases which are both contagious and fatal, but are treated differently, which invokes the argument of “double standards”. “I mean, view this the same as the flu”, declares the president in another utterance.

37Ridiculing the threat through recommendations simplistic to the point of absurdity (“wash your hands, stay clean”), reinforces this effect of trivialization of the virus and its lowering to the status of annual familiar flu. Here is how Trump answers the reporter’s question about the need for changes in people’s behavior due to the epidemic:

I think you have to always—look, I do it a lot anyway, as you’ve probably heard.  Wash your hands, stay clean.  (Laughter.)  You don’t have to necessarily grab every handrail unless you have to.  You know, you do certain things that you do when you have the flu.

  • 14 Just a reminder: work with infected people, limitation of tourist flows from the “contaminated” zon (...)

38“[W]e’ve had tremendous success,” says Trump to reassure and encourage the audience when he talks about the measures14 he and the “anti-corona team” have already taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The argument in this case takes on a double meaning: that which emerges from the text itself (justifying the measures and thus establishing their legitimacy) and a broader meaning, considered in the perspective of the upcoming electoral campaign, which joins the overall argumentative aim of Donald Trump (to build and maintain a good self-image and ensure his authority as a presidential candidate). Let’s take the following passage as an example:

Had I not made … had I not made a decision very early on not to take people from a certain area, we wouldn’t be talking this way.  We’d be talking about many more people would’ve been infected. … It turned out to be a good decision. … And we really gave it an early start.  We gave it a very early start.

39At first glance, we see that Trump resorts to “instrumental rationalization” by justifying “the practice” (the evacuation of people) by its “effect” (van Leeuwen 2007: 101), which he expresses by the argument from consequence (“had I not made a decision… many more people would’ve been infected”) and by the priority given to the health of the people (of the evacuees, but especially of those whose health is “preserved” thanks to the governmental action). The positive consequence (fewer people infected) serves as justification. However, it should not be forgotten that in this case, these are measures that can be considered “minor” or preliminary in terms of their impact on the personal freedoms of the population, especially in the light of those that will be introduced two weeks later (we have already mentioned the dynamics of the deployment of anti-corona measures in the country). Therefore, they do not yet require a developed justification, but rather serve to highlight the “good initiatives” and the competence of the outgoing president (“...had I not made a decision”) in establishing control of the spread of the virus: “It turned out to be a good decision”.

40Another dimension that appears here, particularly valued by Donald Trump, is the dynamism of his reaction to world events (the epidemic invading more and more countries): “And we really gave it an early start. We gave it a very early start,” he says. On his own scale of values, speed is paramount, right next to political competence and efficiency (perhaps this is due to his experience in entrepreneurship and business). In the present context, the time dimension takes on a new value because of the rapid spread of the virus, which can therefore be “defeated” thanks to reactions that outrun it.

41It should be noted that the introduction of the very notion of “control” (mentioned several times above) serves Trump as an argument to counter the anxiety triggered by the confrontation with a new, and therefore unknown, virus. The unknown, the invisible always arouses subconscious, unexpressed fears, and can trigger deep anxieties, while the total control, the “mastery” of the situation, can “dispel the vagueness”. From a vague threat, the problem turns into something tangible, firmly “enclosed in the box”: “there’s no reason to be panicked about it,” the president repeats.

6. The “presidentiability” of the outgoing president: Covid-19 as an electoral issue

  • 15 (...)

42We see that ostentatious optimism becomes almost obsessive in the context of the electoral campaign. Trump goes beyond the framework of the health problem, which leads to a “politicization” of the coronavirus. The tone of the first speech resembles populist pre-election propaganda, interspersed with projections of the common good and immersions in the past and future accomplishments of the incumbent-type candidate (Benoit 2007). The message is skillfully presented in the framework of the political struggle, and even appears in the list of Trump’s achievements as head of state. His personal website outlines the actions against the virus. The title of the page declares: “While Democrats play politics, the Trump Administration is working tirelessly to combat the Coronavirus and provide economic relief to affected Americans.” 15

43We observe the same tendency in the analyzed speech, when Trump disapprovingly mentions his political opponents who allegedly obstruct him in the fight against the epidemic. Thus, in the context of the interdiscourse with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (member of the Democratic Party and President of the House of Representatives), he said: “all they’re trying to do is get a political advantage. This isn’t about political advantage. We’re all trying to do the right thing.” At the same time, he represents himself as a unifying figure who, with his team of “most talented people,” only cares about the well-being of the people, beyond political games:

And I’m just saying, we should all be working together. She [Pelosi] is trying to create a panic, and there’s no reason to panic because we have done so good.  These professionals behind me and over here, and over there, and back here, and in some conference rooms—I just left a group of 45 people that are the most talented people in the world.  Parts of the world are asking us, in a very nice way, can they partake and help them.

44In the context of the political interdiscourse on his discriminatory or even racist policies, Trump speaks up to justify himself. The already mentioned “travel ban” imposed on Chinese tourists at the start of the epidemic was severely criticized in the local and international media, but also within the political interdiscourse. From a broader perspective, he seizes on the opportunity to challenge the label of “racist” that has haunted him for a long time:

I took a lot of heat.  I mean, some people called me racist because I made a decision so early.  And we had never done that as a country before, let alone early.  So it was a, you know, bold decision.  It turned out to be a good decision.

But I was criticized by the Democrats.  They called me a racist because I made that decision, if you can believe that one.

We have to all work together.  We can’t say bad things, and especially when we have the best team anywhere in the world.  And we really gave it an early start.  We gave it a very early start.

45This resonates with another element of populist discourse that Trump has exploited extensively throughout his political career, as well as in the address in question. It is the confrontational posture of the outsider acting alone: “one against all” (and in the interests of the people, of course). Despite his institutional status at the time of speaking out on the coronavirus (being himself “the face of the system”), he finds opportunities from time to time to adopt this posture, which he apparently finds very comfortable. In particular, he refers to preliminary measures (such as the restriction of air traffic with contaminated regions) as “decisions that were actually ridiculed at the beginning … A lot of people thought we shouldn’t have done it that early, and we did, and it turned out to be a very good thing … […] we’ve had tremendous success— tremendous success—beyond what people would have thought”. Here, again, he turns a “potential” vindication into a reaffirmation of his effectiveness as a leader.

46On the other hand, an apparent understatement of the pandemic may signal the attempt to divert attention to other causes, more beneficial to the incumbent president. For example, when asked about the impact of the pandemic on the stock markets, he does not miss an opportunity to “campaign” and once again highlight his achievements:

But I think the stock market will recover.  The economy is very strong.  The consumer is the strongest it’s ever been.  Our consumers are incredible. They’re incredible.  That’s why we’re doing well and other countries have not, even before the virus.  We’re doing great.  Other countries have not been doing great.  Our consumer is very, very strong and very powerful economically.

47as well as to evoke sarcastically (and in a “politically incorrect” way, which is an integral part of his style and ethos in general) his opponents in the 2020 presidential election:  “I think the financial markets are very upset when they look at the Democrat candidates standing on that stage making fools out of themselves.” 

7. Reflection on the specificities of the (re)construction of legitimacy and authority within the populist paradigm

48The case of Donald Trump shows that the search for the legitimacy of his actions, the explanation of the validity of his attitude, as well as the discursive construction of his authority, take on certain specificities that can be qualified as manifestations of populism.

49Thus, the (re)construction of personal authority, linked to a “politicization” of the theme of the coronavirus, takes precedence. In other words, “all roads lead to Rome”: all arguments (including those justifying actions/positioning) lead to the reaffirmation of his effectiveness/superiority (a reductio ad Trumpum, as phrase coined by one of the analysts cited above), the over-individualization of power being one of the features of contemporary populism. A strong personalization is, likewise, correlated with the construction of the ethos of the providential hero-savior.

50Another aspect is the fact that President Trump builds his speech within the framework characteristic of the populist worldview: even if it is not an open conflict, it always supposes a state of tension, a contradiction with an agent (a political adversary) or with a more abstract instance (a conflicting point of view). We have seen in the analysis one of the recurring motives of Trump's ethos: he is one against all. We can even suppose that he resorts to a constant delegitimization, or at least to a challenging of the legitimacy (moral or even legal) of the adversary or of the opposing opinion. Even the over-optimism that permeates his speech, taken in a global context, can be interpreted as a counter-speech that opposes the alarming messages of other leaders. As for the direct political counter-discourse, expressed in the explicit attacks (the interpellation of the Democrats, of the Speaker Nancy Pelosi, etc.), it is part of the enterprise of delegitimizing the adversary and serves as “background” to all Trumpian speeches. This corresponds, according to Mueller, to the “intrinsic logic of populism [in power]”, according to which “they and they alone represent the real people; consequently, there can be no legitimate opposition in their eyes” (2016: 165). According to Mueller, populists “seek to discredit any opposition” (ibid.; for all these quotations, our translation). We can see it even in this health issue context. This is what we call the politicization of the problem.

51These features are related to Trump’s way of constructing a discursive image of legitimacy and political authority on the base of a dichotomization: the denunciation (which falls into the category of populism) of other actors in the political sphere underlines his own positive traits and achievements. This revaluation is even more necessary, as we have said, since after the aforementioned impeachment attempt, his reputation is indeed threatened by acts of delegitimization from his opponents.

52Another specificity of populist discourse in the given context is the choice of the argumentative foundations, namely the constellation of social norms and values to which the leader leans in attempts to discursively legitimize his attitude, and which, according to experts, constitute the “pillars” of national populism: the exacerbation of the feeling of national superiority and the trait of nationalism as a policy openly promoted by Donald Trump (“Americanism”).

53Thus, the (re)construction of a positive image is obviously a priority in Trump’s strategy and it replaces a more objective and careful communication of the current disturbing events. This explains the “denial of reality” (an already quoted phrase of Boucher 2020) concerning the threat of the pandemic, despite the statements valorizing people’s lives and the moral side but resulting into constant self-praise of the “efficient” president and of his previous actions. Trump seems to be confusing personal interest (the image of the presidential candidate, the fight for this image challenged by the opponents) and what we can call “public interest” regarding empirical events (the spread of the virus, increasing mortality). “To be justified, power […] must be seen to serve a recognizably general interest, rather than simply the interests of the powerful”, according to Beetham (2013: 17). Can we then speak of a premeditated distortion of information that could have harmful consequences for citizens? Of a prioritization of the construction of the authority of the politician (“work to rule”, ibid.: 29) to the detriment of the common interest, which is an integral part of the legitimacy of power? Finally, can we evoke a flagrant discursive “egocentrism” as one of the signs of populism?


54We have seen that President Trump’s first address to the nation stands out for its very particular character, when compared to the speeches of other democratic leaders; but it fits logically into the outgoing president’s electoral discourse. Using a range of discursive and argumentative strategies (of which we have identified the most frequent), anchored in the values of national populism and in American culture, the speech of the head of state justifies an optimistic perception of a situation that seems quite paradoxical as we are dealing with an epidemic invading the whole world.

55Trump models a dichotomous scenography that falls under the populist paradigm: he plays on nationalist feelings by representing the country as invulnerable to the threat, thanks to the skills of its providential leader who knows no failures and acts despite the intrigues of his political opponents who want to divide society. Thus, he “politicizes” the health issue by instrumentalizing it to achieve his strategic goals.

56A manifest attenuation of, or even reluctance to conjure up a disturbing reality (to the detriment of the empirical situation) suggests that the populist president fears that the epidemic, as well as the restrictive measures that fall under it, will attach in the public consciousness to his mandate, and will be seen as one of his failures as the nation’s leader, thus undermining his authority in the eyes of the potential electorate. He prevents this eventuality to the point sometimes instrumentalizing the threat to reaffirm his efficiency and authority instead of warning about the dangers of the pandemic. The mantra running through the text is: “we have it so well under control … I mean, we really have done a very good job.” The president, who is forging an ethos of “strong leadership,” does not want to become the messenger of bad news, especially right before the new elections.

57The American elections held in November 2020 showed that Trump’s apprehensions were not insignificant: the coronavirus crisis and the presidential tactics of its management, have become the stumbling block of the campaign he failed to win. This fact is noted by the media as well as by experts and scientists. For example, already in August (three months before the final vote), Harb and Serhan attest that “With the rise in the spate of deaths in America and the failure of Trump in containing Coronavirus pandemic, the president is losing his hopes of winning the coming presidential election.” (Harb & Serhan 2020). Or: “If he does lose, he will lose because of COVID more than any other issue” (G. Valliere for DFP, 31.10.2020), estimated in October, the day before the election, the chief strategist of the investment company AGF Investments. The Washington Post confirms that the pandemic and its management have become the central issue of the election: “In closing days, Trump and Biden push opposing pandemic strategies” (29.10.2020).

58The “denial of reality” and the reshaping of facts according to the political goals failed when challenged by the Covid-19 crisis. “Populist leaders had the opportunity […] to manifest their proclaimed superiority over the traditional ‘elites.’ The failure is obvious and should serve as a lesson”, concludes Le Monde (06.05.2020, our translation).

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1 A few months later, we would already be talking about the right of citizens to dispose of their bodies and their health, “contested” by the compulsory vaccination programs of the population.

2 See Loraux 1979, Bredin 2001.

3 Recent studies confirm that oppositional populist forces (in France, but the tendency can be considered at the global level) tend to dramatize and “over-dramatize” the situation managed by the power in force in order to “devalue the executive” (Favart 2021: 11-12, our translation).

4 We will address this contextual aspect in the chapter that deals with the specificities of the “populist” strategy of the discursive construction of authority and legitimacy.

5 In the same context, by characterizing Trump’s discourse on Covid-19.

6 The appeal to the authority of experts will be discussed in the following parts, here we will limit ourselves to the stylistic and ideological aspect.

7 The one running for office for the first time and literally “attacking” the industry.

8 The one who has already occupied the high position, and who often stands for the second term.

9 We will discuss later the elements of the “politicization” of his speech in question.

10 A criticism of the opponents’ activity is a “logical” strategy of a challenger. However, acerbic negativism stems rather from the populist worldview.

11 The notion was originally conceptualized by Tocqueville in 1835.

12 The term is used without any evaluative nuance, only to mark the analyzed phenomenon.


14 Just a reminder: work with infected people, limitation of tourist flows from the “contaminated” zones, evacuation of Americans from dangerous regions, storage of protective equipment.


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Maria Saltykov, « A populist president in campaign: Donald Trump, or the management of the Covid-19 crisis »Argumentation et Analyse du Discours [En ligne], 28 | 2022, mis en ligne le 25 avril 2022, consulté le 21 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Maria Saltykov

Tel Aviv University, ADARR

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