Trump Backers in Congress Use ‘Devil Terms’ for Polarization

Trump’s Backers in Congress Use ‘Devil Terms’ to Polarize Voters

New York Times. October 23, 2022

In vilifying tweets and speeches, G.O.P. lawmakers who contested the election have far outpaced other Republicans and Democrats in fueling polarization.

By Jennifer Valentino-DeVries and Steve Eder

As Representative Mary Miller embarked on her first congressional campaign, she described herself in salt-of-the-earth, all-American terms: a mother, grandmother and farmer who embodied the “Midwestern values of faith, family and freedom.”

“Hard work, using God-given talents, and loving each other well,” a voice declared over video clips of Ms. Miller, a 63-year-old Illinois Republican, embracing her family, praying and walking on her farm in an ad in early 2020.

“In the world today,” the ad continued, “we could use a lot more of this.”

But there is another side to Ms. Miller’s wholesome image. Since entering Congress, she has routinely vilified Democrats and liberals, calling them “evil” communists beholden to China who want to “destroy” America and its culture. And President Biden’s plan, she seethed on Twitter this spring, is to “flood our country with terrorists, fentanyl, child traffickers, and MS-13 gang members.”

Ms. Miller’s inflammatory words underscore the extent to which polarizing rhetoric is now entrenched among Republicans in the House of Representatives, especially among those like Ms. Miller who voted against certifying the Biden victory, according to an examination by The New York Times of partisan language over the past 10 years.

The analysis of tweets, Facebook ads, newsletters and congressional speeches — more than 3.7 million items in all — relied largely on natural language processing, a technique that uses software to extract information from large amounts of text. The Times tallied words that were linked in academic research to divisive political content, as well as those identified by linguists and computer scientists to be used in polarizing ways — “fascist” and “socialist,” for example, “far right” and “far left.”

Republican representatives have ratcheted up such rhetoric since former President Donald J. Trump took office, the analysis found. In the year and a half after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Republicans on average used divisive words and phrases more than twice as often as Democrats in tweets, and six times as often in emails to constituents.

At the forefront of this polarization are Republicans who voted to reject the Electoral College results that cemented Mr. Trump’s defeat last year. A recent Times investigation revealed how those lawmakers helped engrave the myth of a stolen election in party orthodoxy. Now, a Times analysis shows that the language of the 139 objecting members is markedly more hostile than that of other Republicans and Democrats. In their telling, those who oppose them not only are wrong about certain policies but also hate their country.

The Times found that in the current Congress, representatives who fought certifying the election used polarizing language on Twitter about 55 percent more often than other Republicans, and nearly triple the rate of Democrats. Objectors referred to their opponents as “socialist” in more than 1,800 tweets, more than twice as often as other Republicans. Democrats called the other side “fascist” about 80 times.

While provocateurs like Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado have etched out combative personas, the analysis found that dozens of rank-and-file members, such as Ms. Miller, also joined the drumbeat of polarization. Ms. Miller, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment, is squarely among the dozens of objectors using the most negative language.

The Times examined Democrats as well as Republicans. In the first years of the Trump presidency, Democrats on average spoke in a more outraged way than Republicans on Twitter and in constituent emails. A few Democrats, including Representative Bill Pascrell of New Jersey, were among those lawmakers who most frequently used demonizing speech on Twitter, even into the current congressional term.

But Republicans have otherwise eclipsed Democrats, the analysis revealed. Republicans have more than quadrupled their use of divisive rhetoric since the early 2010s in the Congressional Record, which is dominated by stately and tedious speeches from the House floor.

Among other things, the algorithmic techniques used by The Times compared statements with one another and with examples of known incendiary language. Similar tools are used in spam filters and by companies tracking discussions about their products on social media. (One complexity is that this technique cannot always distinguish between incendiary rhetoric and factual descriptions of antidemocratic behavior.)

Political scientists at New York University reviewed and corroborated The Times’s findings and said the results underscored a broad shift in Republican rhetoric. “We are clearly living in a time in politics where this kind of aversion is increasing, and also where we are seeing the emergence of an extreme faction in the Republican Party,” said Joshua Tucker, a politics professor and co-director at the university’s Center for Social Media and Politics.

Polarization on the Rise

Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader and an objector, doubled down on combative language after advocating civility. Credit: Tom Brenner for The New York Times

Five days after the Capitol riot, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader, implored members of his party to tone down their speech.

“We all must acknowledge how our words have contributed to the discord in America,” he said, according to a recording included in the audio version of “This Will Not Pass,” a book by Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, who covered the 2020 election for The Times.

Mr. McCarthy added, “No more name calling, us versus them.”

But this spirit of reconciliation did not last. In dozens of tweets since then, Mr. McCarthy has referred to Democrats as “radical” leftists, said they prefer China to the United States and accused them of ruining America.

Mr. McCarthy’s rhetoric is in line with that of other Republicans who objected to the election.

“They are using what are called ‘devil terms’ — things that are so unquestionably bad that you can’t have a debate about them,” said Jennifer Mercieca, a professor at Texas A&M University who studies the history of political rhetoric.

Although a demonizing communication style has been in use for years among media personalities and the occasional firebrand lawmaker, Mr. Trump popularized it among elite politicians. “His party has adopted these strategies as well, because they work,” said Dr. Mercieca, who reviewed The Times’s findings.

The rise of polarization is not limited to Republicans, though their rhetoric tends to be more combative. One of the legislators who has most often lashed out is Mr. Pascrell of New Jersey, who tweets almost daily about