“He’s Like a Coach in a Locker Room Talking S__t”: How Donald Trump Uses Trash Talk for Political Gain

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Former president and likely Republican nominee Donald Trump is many things: a fair-weather friend to previous political affiliations, virology, and tax authorities; a failed purveyor of steaks, professional football, and higher education; a Ghostbusters soundtrack aficionado. 

He is also, without question, the trash-talking-est politician in recent American history, a man whose epic love affair with the sound of his own voice reaches its apex when said voice is issuing a putdown. Trump has unkind words for other pols and federal judges and entire countries and Rosie O’Donnell alike; he often seems happiest, or maybe just most alive, when verbally shanking someone else in the ribs.

Trump’s fondness for smack has arguably made US politics coarser and meaner. It also arguably has contributed to his political success—Republican voters continue to support him, and he’s a strong contender to return to the Oval Office. To better understand how Trump uses trash talk and how that fits into American political history, Washingtonian spoke with Rafi Kohan, author of the recently published Trash Talk: The Only Book About Destroying Your Rivals That Isn’t Total Garbage.

It’s impossible to write or speak or even think about trash talk in politics without mentioning Donald Trump. And we’ll get to him! But as you point out in your book, impolite speech in American politics goes all the way back to the beginning with something called “public toasts.” What were those, exactly?

They’re kind of exactly what they sound like—a gathering among like-minded political folk where people would give these scripted, carefully-crafted one-liners that either said something uplifting about yourself, or put down your opponent. And then everybody would take a shot of booze. It was a way to increase the energy among your political base.

Sounds like!

Look, you have four or five toasts, you’re going to be feeling it, right? It’s safe to say you’d leave a public toasting venue fairly wasted. And while people might not remember the exact language they heard, word for word, what they took with them in terms of sentiment would last well beyond the toast.

What other kinds of political smack talk were early American politicians engaging in?

The interesting thing is that it wasn’t actually the candidates themselves who would talk trash—at the time, it was seen as uncouth. So they’d have others do it for them. 

Like modern-day surrogates in the spin room or on cable news.


And what did they say?

It could get ugly. The 1828 election between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams stands out. Today, we think about Trump calling Ted Cruz’s wife ugly—and going after your opponents’ family members in general—as this incredibly line-crossing thing. And it is. But in that 1828 election, Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel, was a regular target for invective on the campaign trail, ridiculed as short, fat, and adulterous. People went after her hard, and she died shortly after the election. Is it accurate to say that trash talk killed her? She already had been sick, and her condition worsened. But Andrew Jackson went to his grave believing that the people who attacked her on the campaign trail were responsible, and basically vowed revenge against them as a result. 

In the early 1900s, there’s a deliberate reform movement aimed at cooling off the trash talk in American politics. What drove that movement, and how successful was it?

So politics here have always been uncivil—there’s pamphleteering and partisan newspapers and public toasts, and meanwhile there’s the canings and fistfights and duels in Congress that are often instigated by trash talk of one form or another. That happens up to the Civil War, and even afterward, you have a rowdy, bare-knuckle politics of party bosses and public rivalries and intimidation and violence. Election days themselves are rowdy affairs: everyone goes to vote together, and there’s intimidation at the ballot box.

So this movement for civility comes out of that as a reaction. And it transforms our political traditions, like Election Day voting, which becomes something you do in complete privacy, and it’s impolite to even ask other people who they voted for. It gets the violence and intimidation out of politics, which is a good thing.

What does this movement mean for political trash talk?

Trash talk is linguistically violent. There’s an implied threat. The whole point is to be antagonistic, to be attacking. There’s a kind of violation happening. But there also tend to be unwritten rules around it, norms that act as protective mechanisms. In Ancient Rome, there was a rule that politicians were allowed to insult each other but never the public. 

In Congress, what you see is all of this formal language of civility: “My esteemed colleague, my dear fellow,” stuff that sounds polite and collegial—and then you can say something very disparaging and insulting. 

But the thing about these unwritten rules is that they’re fragile. They’re only as strong as people’s willingness to abide by them. It only takes one person to cross the line. And if voters or others aren’t wiling to enforce those rules against that person, then the norm changes. You know, so much of this is dancing around Trump— 

So let’s talk about him. What political advantages is he gaining by talking so much trash?

Well, as a society, I think we dismiss trash talk as frivolous, or else write it off as deviant and immoral—in the competitive environment of sports, it has often been radicalized as this bad thing that Black athletes do.

That means we don’t understand the actual mechanisms of how trash talk works, or how it can be applied for gain. Trump is in some ways like a professional wrestler. He’s cutting promos, he’s generating heat, he’s the carnival barker taking people into the arena to come see the show—and he’s getting voters who never turn out to show up. At one of his rallies, he’s also like a coach in a locker room talking s__t before a game. Can you believe what those guys are doing over there? Can you believe what they’re saying about us? 

This can be very motivating for his voters. There’s a study out of Georgetown [University] looking at trash talk in the workplace that found that it didn’t necessarily make people more motivated to win, but did make them more motivated to see their opponents lose. That speaks to a kind of pettiness—but also to increased effort.

What about during debates?

So, in competitive situations and performance situations, we have zones of optimal functioning—like, literally now much arousal and anxiety we need in our body to be able to perform our best, or maintain our focus on the task at hand. There’s a real science of attention to this. 

Trash talk can steal that focus. You can push someone into a threat state by saying something that raises their anxiety levels, forces them into a fight, flight, or freeze mode, creates an overwhelming stress response. And if I can make someone feel distracted or threatened, maybe by attacking their pride or ego, then I can get them to say the thing they don’t want to say on the debate stage—or engage on my terms instead of their own. 

Are there any other political reasons to talk trash?

One of the things trash talk does, from a leadership perspective, from a group dynamics perspective, is that it can increase the in-group identity of those within a particular circle. This happens in two ways. First, when you trash talk people on the outside, that’s a way of increasing the self-esteem of people on the inside. Second, if your trash talk leads to people on the outside talking trash back to you and your group, that also increases in-group identity.

When Trump talks down not just to his opponents but whole groups of American citizens, that plays into his hands. When Hillary Clinton talked about baskets of deplorables, that played into his hands, too. Politically, Trump’s trash talk tactics built up a very strong sense among his followers of this is who we are. And when people so strongly identify that way, when they so strongly identify with their leader, it becomes really hard to enforce any ideas of shame and more likely that you’ll reinforce shamelessness—because if you cast Trump out, it’s like casting yourself out.

So it’s like sports—I’m a Dallas Cowboys fan, and I’m talking trash about the Commanders, and that makes me feel more bonded to the team and other Cowboys fans, and then when Commanders fans talk back, I feel even more bonded. And it’s this self-reinforcing cycle that a politician like Trump can really take advantage of.

It can be. But this stuff is also double-edged.

How so?

When you talk trash in this way, when you say things that are so line-crossing, you make yourself very unappealing to people on the outside. 

You write about a Harvard psychologist who researches moral judgment and decision-making, and he calls Trump’s trash talk the verbal equivalent of getting a gang tattoo.

That’s exactly what I’m talking about. The psychological term is “costly signal deployment.” You’re signaling to your supporters, your base, that I will never betray you because nobody else will accept me. But it’s a costly signal, because the reason nobody else will accept you is that they find you morally reprehensible!

And you see this with Trump, right? His approval ratings are low, but they’re also consistent. They’re never going to go very far up, but they also have a high floor. And when you look at the way the electoral college and map are, and the Republican Party having the ability to lose the popular vote but win the presidency, would this same kind of trash talking work for a Democrat? Probably not, because they can’t win with the same lower percentage of the total vote.

Are there other downsides?

The broader political cost is that you’re driving a wedge into civil and civil society. You’re asking people to see each other as enemies, you’re increasing the bad faith that exists among Americans, you’re increasing the grievances, you’re increasing the sense that what the other side wants is existentially different from what you want. None of that is good.

Also, one of the other findings of the study that looked at trash talk is that generally, when we conceptualize of ourselves in being in a rivalry relationship, we are more likely to behave unethically—to cheat to win. Especially if we have amped up grievance and feel like we’re being treated unfairly. That someone’s getting away with something they shouldn’t. 

That sounds familiar!

Yeah. You talk about everything that’s happened since 2020, with Trump refusing to admit that he’s lost and claiming that there’s all kinds of rampant cheating and fraud that’s taking place—what is that trash talk unleashing in terms of behavior? 

This is all very dark. But you write in you book that trash talk doesn’t have to be negative or destructive. That it can elevate competition and performance. How?

The Latin root of the word competition is together, we strive. There’s this idea that rivals are not meant to be seen as enemies. They’re meant to be the facilitators of greatness. That they’re pushing each other to be their best. There’s an old sports psychology experiment that showed a person can run faster on a track when someone is running next to them than by themselves. When trash talk is at its best, that is what we’re doing.

But that’s not what Trump is doing.

Absolutely not.

Patrick Hruby

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