"Build That Wall!"–The Radicalizing Power of Slogans

How does messaging mobilize political movements?

Posted Jan 29, 2019

Remember George W. Bush’ presidential campaign slogan? Nobody does. Some slogans never catch on.

Others go viral.

Donald Trump's victorious presidential campaign popularized “Make America Great Again!” The abbreviation of the slogan, MAGA, turned into a symbol of Trump support displayed on hats, pins and bumper stickers. Another slogan, “Lock her up!” became a favorite chant at Trump rallies, affirming his supporters’ belief in Hillary Clinton’s criminal misconduct. Lately, Trump rallies have been using a different slogan, “Build that wall,” to support his agenda to fund a wall on the border with Mexico. In a tweet, Trump amended this shorter version by adding a rhyming second line: “Build the wall, and crime will fall.”

These slogans may sound ridiculous to Trump’s opponents, but they excite and mobilize his supporters. What is it about slogans that can excite crowds, and sometimes even foment a revolution? Let's take a brief history detour.

The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was not the first attempt to overthrow the czar. Friction describes a decade-long effort by Russian activists to persuade the peasants to rebel. Idealistic young people travelled the countryside convincing peasants that the cause of their miserable existence was the czar, and the cure was revolution. But the peasants refused to listen, often reporting the agitators to the police. This disappointment led some activists to turn to terrorism—"People’s Will" aimed to kill the czar and free the peasants to act on their grievances. They did kill the czar. They failed to move the peasants. 

The man who succeeded in moving the peasants shared the goals of People’s Will but not their idealism. Vladimir Lenin was a cynic. Instead of schlepping down dirt roads to schmooze with barbarians, Lenin lived in Europe off the rent he charged peasants to use his family's land. This while popularizing the slogan “All land to the peasants!” 

World War I took able men away from their farmlands. In 1915 and 1916 the czarist military routinely “requisitioned” grain and other food from the peasants—already weakened by the loss of breadwinners. Lenin’s slogan fell on fertile ground. He told the peasants what they yearned to hear. 

He told them a lie. In his political writing of 1915 and 1916 (writing that illiterate peasants would never read), Lenin advocated state ownership of the land. 

Lenin’s gift was his understanding of the Russian peasants’ mass identity. His slogans spoke to them in the simplest terms, appealing to deep-seated emotions instead of intellectual truths or moral convictions. “All land to the peasants” promised bread; circuses were promised in another of Lenin’s greatest hits: “Communism is Soviet government plus electrification of the whole country.” At a time when electricity seemed akin to magic, Lenin’s branding linked a future utopia with the Soviet government. 

Understanding the peasants’ mass identity didn’t mean Lenin cared about them. When the peasants rebelled against the Bolsheviks’ confiscation of bread, Lenin’s rolled out another slogan. “He who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat!” placed the responsibility for hunger on the peasants and justified the Red Army's atrocities against them. 

To fuel messaging, Lenin started a cultural revolution in the 1920s, sponsoring artists, especially writers and poets. Amidst the civil war and mass starvation, artists faced a choice: create propaganda or perish. Some immigrated, like Ivan Bunin. Others were arrested and executed, like Nikolai Gumilev. But many writers and poets threw their creative power behind the revolution. 

Lenin’s intuition to invest in talented poets to spread the Party’s message was on target. Research shows that rhymed messages are easier to remember, and more persuasive than unrhymed messages carrying the same idea

Slogans are the most basic expression of one side of a political issue. They appeal to widely shared emotions, creating a perception of unity in a crowd of strangers. They prescribe a (simple) course of action that stems from these shared emotions, mobilizing the crowd. 

“Make America Great Again” condenses complicated economic and political issues into two basic premises. (1) Things used to be great, but not anymore. With its wistful “great again,” the first premise elicits nostalgia. (2) They better give back our greatness. The second premise, conveyed through the imperative and indiscriminate “Make America” builds anger. Notice how the slogan eludes details: who is responsible for the not-greatness; what was the greatness that is no more; how to bring it back. Plenty of room for political maneuvering while the crowd, moved by nostalgia and fired up by anger, throws support behind the politician promising to satisfy these emotions.

“Build that wall, and crime will fall” adds the persuasive power of rhyming to the emotional appeal of crime (fear) and wall-building (safety and ownership).

Gifted messengers create slogans that speak to mass identity in the language it understands: simplified divisions and mobilizing emotions. “Us versus them,” where we are threatened and must fight for the glorious future we deserve is a timeless hit. The Great Wall of China and the remnants of the Berlin Wall testify to the historic appeal of walls–if not to their practicality.