It was a premonition and the polls already suggested it: the rise of Donald Trump has caused a clear deterioration of the political discourse in the United States. Researchers now have the data to prove that.
By collecting and analyzing almost a quarter of a billion quotes from politicians from millions of articles published over more than a decade, Swiss researchers have identified a clear trend.
In June 2015, the month Donald Trump launched his first presidential campaign, the data showed “a sharp increase in negativity, and after that the negativity remained high,” says the study’s lead researcher, Robert West.
The real estate magnate campaigned by attacking Muslims, mocking a disabled journalist and describing the media as enemies of the people. He also made disparaging comments about women and suggested that political violence was acceptable and even desirable.
That rhetoric became commonplace and has since been normalized, partly because Donald Trump’s four years as president have not prompted him to change his tone.
Robert West, assistant professor at the Laboratory of Data Sciences of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, was fascinated by the polls about an increasingly negative political discourse, which Donald Trump – in the White House from 2016 to 2020 and candidate for a new term in 2024 – pinpoint as the main culprit.
Robert West, however, was not satisfied with intuition. “We are data scientists, so we wondered: can we check whether the data actually says the same thing?”
To answer that question, West and his team first had to build a gigantic database, the Quotebank. It contains a corpus of 235 million unique quotes from 127 million online press articles published between 2008 and 2020, allowing the researchers to conduct a detailed analysis of the tone of American politicians’ public language.
Trump, the great scapegoat
According to West, during Barack Obama’s term in office, from 2009 to 2016, the frequency of words conveying negative emotions in political discourse steadily declined. But in June 2015, when Trump launched his campaign, negativity rose 8 percent from the baseline of the previous seven years.
“That is actually a huge leap,” notes the researcher. “And that happened the month that Trump started his campaign, so it’s a sign that Trump could be a major factor in this.”
There is another indicator that Trump himself is “one of the main culprits behind this negativity,” West said. “If you remove the Donald Trump quotes, the size of the jump decreases by 40 percent,” he says.
But even without Donald Trump’s quotes, the political discourse remains clearly more negative. “The entire system has become fundamentally more negative,” the researcher explains. According to West, it is interesting that negativity did not only increase when Donald Trump was campaigning. “That first increase was not just the result of a toxic (election) campaign,” he emphasizes. “It actually lasted four years, (…) his entire presidency.”
There was also a further increase in negativity from mid-2019, at the end of the race for the White House between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
American democracy in trouble
West’s team, which has had no new data since 2020, is looking for new partners such as Google or news agencies to fill its Quotebank with fresh data.
But even without that data, West believes the results of his study could show that American democracy is in trouble. “You have to know the symptoms to cure the disease.”
WATCH ALSO. Donald Trump compares himself to Nelson Mandela
ANALYSIS. Forget the Capitol storming. The real coup in the US is now being planned (+)
ANALYSIS. Trump’s comeback as president seems more likely by the day: what should the Democrats do now? (+)
Free unlimited access to Showbytes? Which can!
Log in or create an account and never miss anything from the stars.