How Laclau’s logic of affect explains the emotional connection between populists and their supporters

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2019

16 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1.0 Introduction

2.0 Theory
2.1 Laclau’s conception of populism
2.2 The logic of affect

3.0 Tea Party and Trump
3.1 Glenn Beck and the Tea Party movement
3.2 Trump’s emotional campaign

4.0 Discussion

5.0 Conclusion


1.0 Introduction

Donald Trump’s election as US president in 2016 was a shock for establishments all over the world. Before, election forecasts predicted that his opponent Hilary Clinton would enormously win the election. (Katz, J., 2016) Afterwards, election analyses showed that the social background of Trump voters and their motivations to vote were very diverse and that there was not “the one” typical kind of voter. The research report by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group divided Trump voters into groups, with some interesting findings: 20 percent of the Trump voters – the group with the lowest income of all voters – claimed in surveys that the main reason for voting Trump was because of Trump as a person. Their economic interest was in fact contrary to Trumps aims and rather on the agenda of the Democrats. (Bowmann, K., 2017) So from a rational standpoint, it is not comprehensible why they voted for Trump. He wouldn’t better their economic situation – rather the opposite.

The way for Trumps victory was already paved about five years prior the election – with the rise of the Tea Party movement. Arlie Hochschild, an American sociologist, interviewed Tea Party supporters during this period – and accompanied them to Trump rallies. She wanted to understand their emotions and worldviews. The outcome of her study will serve as the basis for this essay. It will cover the research question how populists evoke emotions in their supporters. It hypothesizes that there is an emotional connection between populists and their supporters that can be explained by Laclau’s logic of affect.

To investigate this hypothesis, Ernesto Laclau’s conception of populism will serve as the basis for argumentation. Chapter 2 gives an overview of Laclau's populist logic that provides a definition of populism, including the aspect of affect.

Chapter 3 then applies the theoretical framework on the examples of the Tea Party movement and the election of Trump in the USA. Whilst chapter 3.1 explains how TV moderator Glenn Beck supported the Tea Party movement with his TV program on broadcaster Fox, chapter 3.2 describes what the motivation of Tea Party members were to support Trump, based on an explorative, interview-based study of sociologist Arlie Hochschild. The subsequent chapter 4 discusses the outcome and takes a critical look on the method. The Conclusion in chapter 5 summarizes the essay and gives an outlook on possible subsequent research questions.

2.0 Theory

2.1 Laclau’s conception of populism

Populism is the key term in this essay, therefore it is necessary to start with a definition of this term. There are several different concepts of populism in the political and social sciences. For this work, Ernesto Laclau’s conception of populism is suitable for the argumentation line. As the extent is limited, this summarization will be as short as possible.

The term “populism” is often mentioned when referring to right-wing politicians. One could assume that it is connected to a political ideology, but according to Laclau, it rather is a political logic. The political logic is related to the body of the social, and the social demands change. (Laclau, 2005, p. 109) This means that the characteristic of populism as a political logic is continuously in a change. As one can see, the term “social demand” is also central when it comes to populism. In a heterogene society there is a plurality of demands – so it is a legitimate question which demand Laclau is speaking of. He makes a differentiation between demands, speaking of democratic demands and popular demands. Democratic demands are individual and remain isolated, whereas popular demands are those of several people, but articulated in an equivalential way. (Laclau, 2005, p. 74)

As the term popular demand indicates, those demands are communicated by populists. In fact, populists (and populist movements) need to equivalate social demands – for Laclau, equivalences are a necessary condition for populism to even exist. (Laclau, 2005, p. 74) According to Laclau, populists need to articulate social demands in a so called "equivalential chain". This means that although the social demands of the individuals differ from another, they are communicated as one single social demand. This is part of the populist logic because communicated this way, it is easier to fulfill the demand. This means that in spite of the plurality of social demands, they need to be posed collectively, not individually, following ‘‘a logic of equivalence — i.e. one in which all the demands, in spite of their differential character, tend to aggregate themselves, forming what we will call an equivalential chain’’. (Laclau, 2005, p. 37)

In sum, why are equivalences necessary? First, as mentioned above, it is more likely for equivalential articulated demands to be fulfilled, than it is for individual (in Laclaus term: democratic) demands. Secondly, the aggregation process of the democratic demands within a group leads to the construction of a “people”. This phenomenon ensures the social cohesion: “[...] 'the people' is not something of the nature of an ideological expression, but a real relation between social agents. It is, in other terms, one way of constituting the unity of the group.” (Laclau, 2005, p. 73)

But there is a problem with this aggregation process: It doesn’t just happen on its own. According to Laclau, "the people" don't foresee the development of an equivalential chain and they don't make an effort to develop it. They are heterogeneous, they have several different social demands, so this would be a high expectation for them to create a popular demand out of it. As Laclau points out: “This is the dimension of radical heterogeneity, because nothing in those demands, individually considered, announces a 'manifest destiny' by which they should tend to coalesce into any kind of unity - nothing in them anticipates that they should constitute a chain. This is what makes the homogenizing moment of the empty signifier necessary.” (Laclau, 2005, p. 144)

So what is this empty signifier that is necessary to develop an equivalential chain? The answer lies in the character of “the people”. The construction of a "we" needs the antagonistic "them". This "them" is part of the establishment and handled as an enemy. The enemy is articulated as an empty signifier because the empty signifier is imprecise enough to fulfill the pluralistic demands. For a better understanding, Mårdh and Tryggvason give an example on Laclau’s conception of the empty signifier: “An empty signifier such as ‘equality’ can, for instance, take on a variety of meanings, thereby making it possible for a number of otherwise disparate demands to subscribe their realization to it.” (Mårdh and Tryggvason, 2017, p. 606) This means that the empty signifier enables individuals to adapt their democratic demands to a popular demand like equality. The ambivalence of the empty signifier then ensures that the equivalence chain is represented fully.

In sum, the empty signifier is the basis for populism, because it constitutes the equivalential chain which is necessary for populism to emerge. Thus, the empty signifier is a necessary condition for populism as well.

2.2 The logic of affect

One further aspect of Laclau’s conception of populism is the logic of affect. As this aspect will be important for this essay, this chapter explains affect in relation to populism in the media. According to Jutel, affective media’s social logic is to produce a populism that relies on finding the truth about their enemy. Affective media producers fetishize their enemy and use radical discourses against him. (Jutel, 2017, p. 377) This evokes Laclau’s conception of populism with its description of the enemy as an antagonistic “them”, the empty signifier. But how does it cause affect?

Continuing with Laclau, one has to understand another term first: “investment”. Because Laclau links it to affect: “Affect is not something which exists on its own, independently of language; it constitutes itself only through the differential cathexes of a signifying chain. This is exactly what 'investment' means.” (Laclau 2005, p. 103) For a better understanding - ‘cathexis’ is a psychological term and explains “[t]he concentration of mental energy on one particular person, idea, or object (especially to an unhealthy degree)”. (“Cathexis. Definition of Cathexis in English by Oxford Dictionaries.”, n.d.) This “unhealthy degree” mentioned in the definition of cathexis not only explains the fetishization of the enemy, how Jutel describes affective media production above, but also underlines Laclau’s further descriptions on investment. Following these, objects of investment are radical emotions such as love and hate, and these kinds of investment necessarily are affective. (Laclau, 2005, p. 102) Relating to the definition of cathexis, this doesn’t mean that loving or hating someone or something is unhealthy in general though. It is simply, relating to the populism context, an explanation for the force with which populists and populist movements act. Examples for this force will follow in chapter 3.

Furthermore, Laclau describes affect as something unbalanced - it goes along with extremes and discontinuity. This means that affect is not just about different feelings, it is a kind of method that needs people to obsessively concentrate their mental energy on something or someone - or rather perform the differential cathexis - especially on their self-chosen enemy. Laclau concludes: “Pure harmony would be incompatible with affect. [...] Affect, in that sense, means discontinuity between an object and the one next to it, and this d iscontinuity can be conceived only in terms of a differential cathexis.” (Laclau, 2005, p. 111)

3.0 Tea Party and Trump

3.1 Glenn Beck and the Tea Party movement

The Tea Party movement started in about 2009 and was strongly influenced by TV moderator Glenn Beck, who was at that time employed at Fox News. (Connolly, 2010) Beck moderated a TV program named after himself which was broadcasted on Fox from 2009 to 2011. He understood himself as an educator on politics and perceived his audience as a movement. (Jutel, 2017, p. 381) Later on, it was revealed that the Tea Party group paid Beck one million dollars so that he would speak positively about them in his program. (Reeve, 2013)

The content of his program is less important for this essay, but the way he communicated with his audience and how he strengthened the Tea Party movement is of interest here. It is about emotional connection: Beck managed to inspire his audience by sharing (often exaggerated) emotions and relating to political topics that concerned them. To get an impression of this experience, Jutel describes that Beck’s program “[...] ranged from deep apocalypticism to the warmth of a prayer meeting. […] Delivering 20-minute monologues about the global caliphate or communists in the academy, Beck manoeuvred between fear, anger, sarcasm, intellectualism and tranquillity, while gesticulating or crying.” (Jutel, 2017, p. 376) The populist strategy to appeal to the affective media perception of his audience is very obvious in the case of Beck.

Also, consistent with the populism concept by Laclau in chapter 2.1, Beck relates to an enemy of the establishment (in this case the former US president Obama) as an antagonism to his audience – or rather, us, “the people”. Obama is treated as a scapegoat, responsible for all misery of the American (non-establishment) society. It isn’t actually about concrete criticism on Obama, he just plays the role of an empty signifier, constituting the joy of watching the program: “[…] the enemy becomes an obsessive object of study, forever threatening the people’s jouissance through their own rapacious enjoyment.” (Jutel, 2017, p. 377) Furthermore, the Tea Party movement serves as an empty signifier, but on the side of “the people”. In Beck’s program and especially in the 9/12 movement, the Tea Party is illustrated as their salvation, “the good”, advocating for all their demands. So this is how Beck managed to build a community - in constructing an enemy that is the basis for the chain of equivalence and therefore constructs an antagonistic “people”. (Jutel, 2017, p. 376)

As mentioned above, Beck influenced the growth of the Tea Party movement. In the following chapter, a few examples will be given to explain the community building of Tea Party supporters, based on the research by American sociologist Arlie Hochschild. For her book “Strangers in their own land”, she accompanied and interviewed Tea Party supporters for a period of about five years, especially during the election campaign of Donald Trump.

3.2 Trump’s emotional campaign

Trump is a good example for a politician who in his election campaign didn’t stick to any rules and who didn’t behave like a politician of an established party. Kreiss et al. claim that Trump being elected “[…] was an outcome that was no less perplexing in light of four decades of research on political communication. To take one example, the president flouted many long-established norms of political discourse and behavior”. (Kreiss et al., 2017, p. 471) So, to evoke the research question, can this irrational decision be explained with Laclau’s conception of populism?

With her study, Arlie Hochschild wanted to understand the worldview and the emotions of the political right. Her book is an investigation of what she calls "deep stories" - the happenings in the personal lives of Tea Party supporters that formed their opinion and feelings about politics. (Hochschild, 2016, p. 12) These deep stories will give a better understanding on how the Tea Party supporters built a community which to a certain extend finally led to the presidency of Trump. Hochschild found out that the deep story of the Tea Party supporters is about race and the frustration of not achieving the ‘American Dream’. The American Dream is a kind of identity, constituted by “the belief that everyone in the US has the chance to be successful and happy if they work hard”. („The American dream. Bedeutung im Cambridge Englisch Wörterbuch.“, n.d.) The detailed reasons why people feel they are being held back from achieving this dream are diverse and depend on individual experiences, but what all interviewed people unites, is that they are angry at and feel betrayed by the government. (Hochschild, 2016, p. 153) With Obamas social reforms, some people felt disregarded. The Tea Party supporters explained in Hochschild’s interviews that they are afraid that poor people were “jumping the line” on their way to achieving the American Dream, or rather that they’d get preferential treatment. They are angry at the (liberal) government that tells them to take part and show social commitment: “Liberals were asking them to feel compassion for the downtrodden in the back of the line, the “slaves” of society. They [the Tea Party supporters interviewed by Hochschild] didn’t want to; they felt downtrodden themselves […] the right wanted to aim their indignation down at the poor slackers, some of whom were jumping the line.” (Hochschild, 2016, p. 220)

The answer lies, as before in the case of Beck and the Tea Party movement, again in the logic of affect – the actual program of Trumps election campaign was rather irrelevant to his supporters. Jutel explains that Trump used emotions to give his audience a feeling of jouissance, that means the enjoyment of hating “the other” – in his case especially minorities, women and his opponents (Hilary Clinton) or rather his former opponents (Barack Obama). (Jutel, 2017, p. 380) Trump chooses an emotion-driven language, provokes emotions in his supporters and even presents this emotionality as a factor of success. In context of her investigation, Hochschild describes Trumps election campaign as follows: “He derides his rivals in both parties for their inability to inspire enthusiasm. “They lack energy.” Not only does Trump evoke emotion, he makes an object of it, presenting it back to his fans as a sign of collective success.” (Hochschild, 2016, p. 227) But he would not just degrade “the other”, at the same time he would call his supporters a “movement”, unifying their goals and giving them a feeling of community. For Hochschild, Trump supporters were unified over the parameters “white” and “evangelical”, and over their feeling of being, finally, the strong majority versus the “other” – in general, people of the bottom of society who would “jump the line” (see 3.1). Hochschild claims that for Trump supporters, his election campaign worked as the promise “[…] to be lifted up from bitterness, despair, depression.” And further on: “[…] what he [Trump] gives participants, emotionally speaking, is an ecstatic high.“ (Hochschild 2016, p. 227)

Obviously, Trump fulfilled some emotional needs of his supporters. But are these specific, namable needs? Hochschild explains that the elation that Trump gave his supporters was the main reason why people stayed completely positively about him although he often was (and still is) criticized. The emotional self-interest would be stronger than any other, e.g. economical interest. As an example, Hochschild describes a situation she had in one of her interviews: “One woman with whom I spent six hours talked about Trump continually, countering possible criticisms, leaving no interstitial moments when skepticism might emerge. It occurred to me that the reason for this shield of talk was to protect her elation.” (Hochschild, 2016, p. 230) So one could assume that people like her are afraid of losing this feeling of joy. This raises the question, what they would face when losing this feeling – what is their underlying fear?

Hochschild’s interviews give an answer to that. As her book title indicates, Trump supporters feel like strangers in their own land. The “American Dream” mentioned in 3.1 before, seems to be an important expectation of Tea Party and Trump supporters. For various reasons, they feel excluded or held back from living this idea. They blame the government for their misfortune. And they can do this especially because others claim to know better: The Tea Party and Trump give the attractive promise to release them from all misery. Simple phrases like Trump’s “Make America great again” work as an empty signifier, promising everything they wish for, but nothing concrete at the same time. Additionally to the fact that Trump supporters felt their deep story about not being able to achieve the American Dream is true, comes another factor. The (liberal) establishment – in their perspective – wouldn’t take their feelings seriously. They were angry at the people of the bottom layer who they think get preferential treatment, but at the same time ”[…] they felt that liberals were saying it was not true, and that they themselves were not feeling the right feelings.” (Hochschild, 2016, p. 229) This is another reason to hate the establishment. In an interview, a man told Hochschild that he doesn’t feel understood: “People think we’re not good people if we don’t feel sorry for blacks and immigrants and Syrian refugees […] But I am a good person and I don’t feel sorry for them.”” (Hochschild, 2016, p. 229) Hochschild found out that people like him feel observed by a so called “Political correctness police” – as if they were criminals, hounded by the liberals. They feel judged and misunderstood.

Into this critical situation walks Trump. He speaks out against minorities and the establishment - apparently fearless of any public condemnation - and actually denies sticking to any political correctness rules. (“Donald Trump on Political Correctness”, 2015) Political correctness (hereafter called “PC”) stands for the behavior of very carefully avoiding to offense of any group of discriminated people in society (“Definition Von Political Correctness”, n.d.) By not following political correctness rules, Trump therefore respects the feelings of those people who think they aren’t allowed to express their feelings, he seems to be one of them, the “people”. Following the descriptions of Hochschild, Trump can be pictured as their liberator: “So it was with joyous relief that many heard a Donald Trump who seemed to be wildly, omnipotently, magically free of all PC constraint. He generalized about all Muslims, all Mexicans, all women […]” (Hochschild, 2016, p. 229) This explains how Trump, in their situation, acts as a celebrated star.

4.0 Discussion

So far, the last two chapters have exemplified the theoretical framework that this essay is based on. The central outcome of the theory is that Laclau’s populist logic is constituted by the equivalence of popular demands, by the need of an empty signifier and by using a differential cathexis. Applied to the examples of TV moderator Glenn Beck, the Tea Party movement and US president Donald Trump in chapter 3, the mechanisms of Laclau’s conception of populism could be confirmed.

To sum up, both Beck and Trump create an enemy who they can blame for any problem and who serves as an empty signifier, so that the diverse social demands can be stated equivalently. This creates a unified “people” out of Becks and Trumps audience, making it easy for the individuals to identify with and support them. Furthermore, both populists show overdone emotions, on the one side expressed in crying or shouting, on the other side in jouissance – the joy of being hateful towards the enemy. This represents, how Laclau would describe it, the differential cathexis, the extremity that is necessary for affect. So, in conclusion, Beck and Trump are affective media producers who connect with their audience and gain supporters - not with specific content, but by showing extreme emotions.

Following these explanations, one could raise the question whether the Tea Party supporters are aware that the motivation of belonging to the movement is an emotional one, rather than content-related. But the outcome of Hochschild’s interviews confirms that the supporters don’t want to argue about facts, they aren’t really interested in the content of e.g. Trumps election campaign. They are craving for the feeling of being understood. The (left) establishment would force them to feel sympathy with the bottom layer of society, including e.g. refugees. But the Tea Party supporters interviewed by Hochschild don’t want to, they feel downtrodden themselves and fear that those bottom class people would receive preferential treatment. Due to their “deep story”, how Hochschild names the emotional motivation of Tea Party supporters, they feel held back from achieving the “American Dream”. Whether this is a fact or not, it is to be emphasized that they are led by the possibility to express their "PC Police"-restricted emotions. With Beck and Trump, they’ve got idols who don’t stick to political correctness rules and who allow them to speak out their (negative) feelings towards their enemy. At the same time, relating to the election campaign of Trump, empty signifiers such as the slogan “Make America Great Again” give his supporters hope. It is their indefinable feeling of being betrayed by the government and being held back from achieving the American Dream that is reassured by this equivalent demand.

The research question is therefore answered as follows: Populists like TV moderator Beck and US president Trump use an emotion-driven rhetoric and construct enemies that work as empty signifiers. On the side of their audience, the emotion-driven rhetoric that often doesn’t follow political correctness rules makes it easier to connect emotionally and vocalizes their own feelings. The construction of and focus on an enemy helps them to identify with a unified “people". In conclusion, the here introduced aspects of Laclau’s conception of populism, including affect, can be exemplified with the Beck, Trump and the Tea Party supporters.

Of course, these findings don’t necessarily apply to all populists worldwide and all populist supporters. Hochschilds study used qualitative methods, she interviewed about 40 Tea Party members over a period of five years, and only six interviewed people are mentioned in the book. (Hochschild, 2016, p. 302) As the complexity of this matter exceeds the limits of this essay, the main conclusion of this essay is to point out the emotional connection between populists and their supporters, a quantitative approach wouldn’t be purposeful anyway. Overall, the interviews of these six Tea Party supporters suffice to prove that Laclau’s conception of populism can be applied to explain the phenomenon of emotional connection between populists and their supporters.

5.0 Conclusion

This essay dealed with the research question how populists connect emotionally with their audience to get their support. It investigated the hypothesis that populist supporters share an emotional motivation and that this motivation is produced by populist leaders. With applying Laclau’s conception of populism, including the logic of affect, on the examples of Glenn Beck, the Tea Party movement and Trump, the hypothesis could be confirmed.

Chapter 2 provided the theoretical framework and introduced central aspects of Laclau’s conception of populism. Furthermore, the hostile media effect was explained, also relating to its aspect ego-involvement. In chapter 3, examples could show that Beck and Trump both create enemies that work as empty signifiers. This enables the articulation of equivalent popular demands such as “Make America Great Again” and unites their supporters to a “people”. Furthermore, Beck and Trump use overdone emotions to connect with their audience and express their hate against the self-chosen enemy as something joyful. This “jouissance” (the joy of hating), combined with the denial of political correctness rules, is a relief for populist supporters – they are now “allowed” to express their feelings towards minorities. Feelings which in their opinion are suppressed by the (left) establishment. Arlie Hochschild’s interviews of Tea Party supporters showed that their hate towards the establishment builds on the feeling of being held back to achieve the American Dream. Minorities, on the other hand, would get preferential treatment. The interviewees feel it is harder for them to achieve the American Dream, since the minorities also get a chance or even get preferential treatment. Within the Tea Party movement or relating to Trump, they can finally express their anger at the government and minorities. Hochschild claims that this relief causes this feeling of elation that people try to protect – by denying any criticism on their opinion.

Of course, these theses don’t necessarily apply to all populists worldwide and all of their supporters. As this essay has limited space, a quantitative analysis wouldn’t have been possible. Also, there can probably be found more distinguishable feelings, especially on the side of the supporters. The American Dream won’t be the only explanation for their emotions. At the same time, the American Dream seems to be a complex cultural value in the USA so that this essay couldn’t study it in all facets. Also, the argumentation line in this essay could have made the impression that all Tea Party supporters were Trump supporters as well, but this is not proven. On the other side, there are several different groups of Trump voters (as mentioned in the introduction) who may have other motivations for voting Trump – the emotional connection might not be as relevant for their vote as in the case of Tea Party supporters. As this essay couldn’t discuss these aspects, they might be research subjects for more comprehensive studies.

Further research could also include the analysis of hate speech, especially in social media. With the findings of this essay concerning affect, one could investigate with which words the mistrust and anger at the establishment is expressed. This offers the possibility for a more comprehensive approach, e.g. with a content analysis of twitter tweets and their replies. Furthermore, it would be interesting to do research on community building of populist movements in social media. For example, one could hypothesize that social media increases the probability for activists to join and persist in a movement – and investigate whether this applies e.g. to the Tea Party movement.


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How Laclau’s logic of affect explains the emotional connection between populists and their supporters
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Populism, Trump, emotional voting, laclau, affect, Tea Party
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Kim Mensing (Author), 2019, How Laclau’s logic of affect explains the emotional connection between populists and their supporters, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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