Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Arts



First Advisor

Dr. Anna Popkova

Second Advisor

Dr. Charles Kurth

Third Advisor

Sue Ellen Christian


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

Access Setting

Masters Thesis-Open Access


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.