Date of Award

7-1-2020

Degree Name

Master of Arts

Department

Communication

First Advisor

Dr. Anna Popkova

Second Advisor

Dr. Charles Kurth

Third Advisor

Sue Ellen Christian

Keywords

Performance of populism, Donald Trump, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, social media, immigration rhetoric

Access Setting

Masters Thesis-Campus Only

Restricted to Campus until

3-31-2021

Abstract

This thesis examines the performance of populism by a right- and left-wing politician in the digital sphere during the peak of the immigration crisis in 2019 using the lens of Moffitt’s populism as performance theory (performer, stage, and audience) and Baldwin-Philippi’s four methods of ‘centering the people.’ My findings show that Trump and Ocasio-Cortez’s performances of populism condemn the degradation of the U.S. and portray themselves as immigration warriors. Trump uses exclusionary rhetoric to advocate putting “America First,” and Ocasio-Cortez expresses inclusionary rhetoric to develop an “America for All,” in a way that informs their performances of conservative and democratic-socialist populism to center ‘the people.’ Specifically, Trump and Ocasio-Cortez’s performance centers ‘the people’ by: speaking to them using retweets of their own messaging, utilizing data-driven facts, and using Spanish (in Ocasio-Cortez’s case); engaging them by visually showing engagement through photos and videos (only Ocasio-Cortez used this tactic); styling oneself on them through both moral outrage and compassion, and Ocasio-Cortez voicing support for an inclusive U.S., while Trump argued for a protected U.S.; and finally highlighting their voices through retweeting verified users to showcase support for not only themselves, but their policy positions as well. These findings demonstrate that populism is a form of strategic communication, a tool for populist politicians to use to not only traditionally unite ‘the people’ against an enemy, but also for a cause. These findings also expand on left-wing populism to show how formerly excluded out-group immigrants may be invited to become part of ‘the people’ through inclusionary rhetoric.

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