01 February 2022

Despite their contradictory messages, there are actually great similarities between Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg. A new research article shows how both use populist rhetoric that presents simple solutions, portrays the speaker as a truth-teller, and draws black-and-white contrasts between the people and the elite.

Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg.
Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg.

Stressing urgency

In the article Populism as an act of storytelling: analyzing the climate change narratives of Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg as populist truth-tellers, Johan Nordensvärd and Markus Ketola examine Trump’s and Thunberg’s narratives of climate change. Their data comprises important speeches by both figures, as well as, for Trump, several interviews and a large amount of Twitter posts.

Donald Trump.Donald Trump.

The content of their respective narratives is, of course, completely different – denying or playing down climate change on the one hand; stressing its urgency and endorsing immediate countermeasures on the other. But their messages are formed in a very similar way.

Both Trump and Thunberg use populist rhetoric containing a clear narrative, heroes and enemies, clear differences of opinion and simple solutions to complex problems. Their speeches contain an overbearing feeling of crisis (for Trump, the USA’s economy and position in the world; for Thunberg, the climate), and both create a certain atmosphere and provoke certain feelings.

Neither bad nor good

Both are against the consensus that the climate crisis can be solved through technical innovation and political decisions. Trump denies that they are needed, while Thunberg demands more radical measures.

Greta Thunberg.Greta Thunberg. Photo credit Jennifer Jacquemart

“We’re not saying that Trump and Thunberg are populists. After all, they don't talk like this all the time. But they both use a populist narrative to spread their messages. It’s an important difference”, says Johan Nordensvärd.

“Populist narratives are neither bad nor good in and of themselves. They are an effective and powerful method that can be used for any kind of message.”

In the article, populism is defined as a particular kind of narrative with, among other aspects, a typical contrast drawn between the people and the elite. This is a new definition that departs from the common picture of populism as either a way of mobilising people against injustice or an “insubstantial” ideology that can be filled with any message.

Creates meaning

Furthermore, in common usage, “populism” often has negative connotations, which Nordensvärd and Ketola object to. With their definition, populism can be filled with many different kinds of content and messages.

“It’s a kind of rhetoric, but it’s also larger than rhetoric. Populist narratives, for those who believe them, also create a context and understanding of the world. Just look at all the followers that both Trump and Greta Thunberg have”, says Johan Nordensvärd.

Your research indicates similarities in messaging, but isn’t there a crucial difference too? Greta Thunberg builds her message on science, while Trump denies it.

“Yes and no – they obviously have different attitudes towards research. But if you look at Greta Thunberg’s speeches, she doesn’t actually talk much about science. She mostly tells a moral narrative about what we humans must do. Research is inaccessible, but populists’ messages are simple”, says Johan Nordensvärd.

“You could say that the more complicated and complex a question is, the greater the need is for simplification.”

Cultural capital

Much of Johan Nordensvärd’s research is about different perspectives on populism. How, for example, can multi-millionaire Donald Trump be seen as an underdog who speaks for the majority of people? The explanation, perhaps, is that Trump doesn't have the cultural capital necessary to be accepted as part of the traditional elite in the USA – as somebody said in an interview, despite his power and riches, Trump “still eats pizza”.

In this respect, he can be compared to Greta Thunberg. She is clearly also part of the grassroots – a young, female student, initially alone in her struggle. However, as the daughter of an actor and an opera singer, she is also somebody with large cultural capital. 

Examples of messages

Greta Thunberg: 

"You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And
yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire
ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all
you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How
dare you!"
(UN, New York, 2019)

"You say nothing in life is black or white. But that is a lie. A very dangerous lie.
Either we prevent 1.5C of warming or we don’t. Either we avoid setting off that
irreversible chain reaction beyond human control or we don’t."
(COP 25, Madrid, 2019)

Donald Trump:

"The United States, under the Trump administration, will continue to be the
cleanest and most environmentally friendly country on Earth. We’ll be the
cleanest. We’re going to have the cleanest air. We’re going to have the cleanest
water. We will be environmentally friendly, but we’re not going to put our
businesses out of work and we’re not going to lose our jobs. We’re going to
grow; we’re going to grow rapidly."
(Statement on the Paris climate accord, 2017)

"This agreement is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining
a financial advantage over the United States. The rest of the world applauded
when we signed the Paris Agreement—they went wild; they were so happy—for
the simple reason that it put our country, the United States of America, which
we all love, at a very, very big economic disadvantage."
(Statement on the Paris climate accord, 2017)


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