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Racialized Issue Frames and Donald J. Trump: Examining the Discursive Framing of Immigration and Trade During the 2016 Presidential Campaign Open Access

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The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States prompted many to question the role of race in driving support for his candidacy. For decades, scholars have shown the powerful influence of race in influencing voter choice and public opinion, whether through explicit or, more recently, implicit appeals to race. A basic assumption of this literature is that explicit racial appeals long ago lost their effectiveness in the American political context, so what to make of a successful candidate who opened his campaign by painting an entire ethnic group with the brush of criminality? Through a content and textual analysis of 190 transcripts of predominantly campaign rallies and speeches, this study explores candidate Trump’s rhetorical framing of two issue areas — immigration and trade — in order to examine whether Trump’s messaging made use of explicit or implicit racial appeals in order to galvanize support for his candidacy and policy proposals. Finding that Trump extensively racialized both issue areas by way of symbolic association — attaching negative or positive attributes to the players in the drama (e.g., American workers versus foreign interests) running along a racialized axis and thus framing those areas in terms of a strict “us” versus “them” racial binary — this study sheds light on the discursive components essential to the racialization of these two areas, both central to Trump’s political platform. By juxtaposing Trump’s treatment of immigration (an issue area historically viewed as racialized) and trade (an area that is not), this study is able to clearly document a process by which voters are primed by candidates to activate their racial predispositions as the basis for analyzing a candidate or issue area, and challenges the assumption that explicit racial appeals disqualify candidates in the American political context.

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