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Comparing Morality: Clinton and Trump Tweets Head to Head

Morality in Hillz's and The Donald's tweets: The same but different.

Taking money from suspect foreign entities or taking money from unwitting students? Pick your presidential poison. This year’s crop of US presidential candidates seems to be knee deep in moral muck, at least in appearance. Have you seen poll results about how honest and trustworthy people think “Crooked” Hillary Clinton and Mr. “Art of the Deal” Donald Trump are…or are not?

//], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By DonkeyHotey (Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump - Caricatures) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Gandhi said, “Morality is the basis of things,” and morality is front and center in this year’s election.

Despite their less-than-stellar public images, Clinton and Trump, and most politicians for that matter, try to imbue their communications with the language of morality. But it turns out people have different ideas of what’s moral.

Do you torture a vicious bomber to find out the location of the hidden bomb with the hope of saving innocent lives, or does inflicting “pain upon captive and defenseless human beings,” regardless of the reason, violate basic humanity?


Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) captures different ideas people have about morality. It’s intended to offer a comprehensive, universal view of morality. So it’s derived from evolutionary and cross-cultural research and not limited to Western values, which typically focus on caring and fairness. In particular, MFT also captures conceptions of morality derived from religion and non-Western cultures.

MFT identifies five moral foundations (researchers are investigating a sixth foundation, but I’ll stick with the five widely tested ones). They are:

1. Care/Harm: Focuses on preventing and relieving harm to others. It’s related to our evolutionary ability to feel and dislike the suffering of others. This foundation captures virtues such as kindness and compassion and vices such as cruelty and aggression.

2. Fairness/Cheating: Concentrates on acting fairly and justly toward others. It’s related to reciprocal altruism and the evolutionary emotions that influence people to cooperate in groups. It captures virtues such as altruism and cooperation and vices such as greed and ingratitude.

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Source: By Paul Downey (Moral Compass) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via

3. Loyalty/Betrayal: Emphasizes making personal sacrifices for fellow group members. It’s evolutionarily related to survival instincts involving individual benefits from group strength. It captures virtues such as loyalty and patriotism and vices such as dissent and disloyalty.

4. Authority/Subversion: Focuses on respecting and yielding to society’s organizing structures (institutions and leaders). It’s evolutionarily related to hierarchical group structures where leaders enjoyed special privileges but also had special obligations to the group. It captures virtues such as duty and obedience and vices such as insubordination and insolence.

5. Sanctity/Degradation: Concerns striving to lead a more principled, less corporeal life. It’s evolutionarily related to disease avoidance through concerns about disgust and contamination. It captures virtues such as chastity and spirituality and vices such as gluttony and greed.

Further, research shows that in the political world perceptions of morality vary by political ideology. According to a number of researchers who investigate Moral Foundations Theory, political liberals tend to define morality more in terms of Foundations 1 and 2, while political conservatives define it more in terms of Foundations 3-5.

Understanding these political differences can be important. For instance, in “Could Disgust Make You an Environmentalist?” I talk about how framing climate change in terms of the conservative foundation of sanctity/degradation instead of the liberal foundation of care/harm, which is the frame most often found in the media, can increase conservatives’ concern about the environment to the point that differences in concern about climate change between conservatives and liberals is statistically eliminated.


Like most politicians, Clinton and Trump try to elevate their rhetoric with morality-laced language. Which candidate focuses more on morality? How?

I randomly selected 30 days between mid-June 2015, when Trump announced his candidacy, and the end of May 2016 and collected all available tweets from Clinton (@HillaryClinton) and Trump (@realDonaldTrump). This resulted in 226 tweets or 7.5 tweets per day for Clinton and 290 tweets or 9.7 tweets per day for Trump. Then I matched their tweets to a dictionary of words identifying each MFT foundation.


Which candidate focuses more on morality? Almost a third of Clinton’s substantive Twitter language uses morality-related words, while almost a quarter of Trump’s does the same. I’m not sure that’s a meaningful difference, but I suspect both surpass what typical tweeple (I like this term—much friendlier than “twerd” or “tweeter”) use. In the end, I guess whether it’s better to use more morality-laced language depends on if you think it’s authentic concern with morality or simply window dressing.

There are some clearer differences, though, regarding which moral foundation each invokes the most.

The following graph shows that Clinton focuses much more on the care/harm foundation than Trump: 14.5% of the substantive words in her tweets versus 5.6% for Trump. According to the MFT dictionary, the care/harm foundation includes words like safe, peace, hurt, and suffer. She also uses a bit more fairness language. So this is right in line with what we expect in terms of which language liberals focus on compared to conservatives.

Gregg R. Murray
Source: Gregg R. Murray

Trump, on the other hand, relies much more on the authority/subversion foundation than she does: 9.4% versus 3.8%. MFT words regarding authority/subversion include obey, duty, disrespect, and unfaithful. This too is in line with what MFT suggests should be happening ideologically.

But, and this is a big but, he doesn’t use conservative loyalty/betrayal or sanctity/degradation more than she does. And, most interestingly, the graph shows he uses liberally oriented care/harm and fairness/cheating words more than either of those two conservative orientations.

Many Republicans express ideological concerns about Trump. Maybe this is part of it. He talks too often like a liberal and not enough like a conservative.


Hillz and The Donald both season their Twitter rhetoric with morality-laced words. But Clinton is ideologically consistent in this regard, while Trump isn’t. Is their rhetoric enough to pull them out of the moral muck they find themselves in? Does aromatic seasoning counteract political poison?

- - - - - For more Moral Foundations Theory at “Caveman Politics” - - - - - - - - -

“Is Trump a Tyrant? What His Tweets Say”

"Which of the 5 Types of Political Moralizer are You?"

"Which of the 5 Political Moralizers are PT Blog Readers?"

"Could Disgust Make You an Environmentalist?"

"Are You Easily Disgusted? You May Be a Conservative"

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In addition to writing the "Caveman Politics" blog for Psychology Today, Gregg is the Executive Director of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University. You can find more information on Gregg at or follow him on Twitter at @GreggRMurray.

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