Framing Covid-19: Constitutional Versus Demagogic Rhetoric in Presidential Messaging

January 6, 2022


When Donald Trump was a candidate for president in 2016, his campaign rhetoric caused commentators to use a term they rarely applied to viable challengers for the country’s highest office: “demagoguery.” Unlike rhetoric studies, communication scholarship in general has not taken up demagoguery as a concept. “Populism” is used instead, with little attention to definitional distinctions. President Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity to propose a relationship between the two terms and develop a formal, operationalized approach to gauging demagoguery in a leader’s communications. This article presents a content analysis study of Trump’s speeches, statements, and social media posts to examine just how demagogic he was in the early months of the pandemic. The measure we developed shows promise. The findings are counterintuitive. Trump’s demagoguery varies over time and between communication channels—his tweets versus his formal speeches in traditional venues.

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