Love, Fear, Anger: The Emotional Arc of Populist Rhetoric

Matthew Levinger

Abstract

Why, at the present historical moment, are divisive nationalist narratives more powerful than inclusive ones seeking to advance transnational integration? This essay examines four case studies of “nationalist storytelling”: the rhetoric of Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) during the Leave campaign leading up to the Brexit referendum of June 2016 in the United Kingdom, the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump in the United States, the 2017 campaign of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands, and the 2017 campaign of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France. In each of these countries, populist leaders have deployed rhetoric that traces a three-stage emotional arc, emphasizing love for the homeland, fear of the foreigner, and righteous anger against corrupt elites who have endangered the nation’s well-being. The powerful emotional response aroused by this rhetoric has been a key factor in these movements’ recent electoral success.

Keywords

Populism; nationalism; narrative; political rhetoric; Brexit; Donald Trump; Nigel Farage; Marine Le Pen; Geert Wilders.

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