The Moral Foundations of President Trump’s RNC Speech

Analysis of the Thursday night event.

Posted Aug 28, 2020

Writing “The Conservative Social Psychologist” blog at Psychology Today since 2016, I have provided timely, valuable analysis of several of President Trump’s speeches using interpretations from psychological models that have been supported by empirical research (see previous analyses: State of the Union 2018, A Message with Broad Appeal). These are important contributions as I am one of the only conservatives in academia or psychology (Abrams, 2016; Bonica et al., 2017; Crawford & Jussim, 2018; Duarte et al., 2015; Ibar & Lammers, 2012; Shields & Dunn, 2016) and there are no other such analyses of events by conservative psychological scientists. Here, I will analyze President Trump’s Thursday night address to the Republican National Convention using the psychological frameworks of Moral Foundations Theory and Explanatory Styles.

Moral Foundations. Jonathan Haidt has found evidence to support his Moral Foundation Theory. According to Haidt’s research, there are five moral foundations: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Liberals tend to analyze information through the lens of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity, while conservatives tend to analyze information through a lens that includes all five foundations. (Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009; Graham et al., 2011; Haidt, 2012; Koleva et al., 2012).

Explanatory style. Explanatory style has its roots in learned helplessness theory (Geen, 1995; Mazur, 2002; Seligman, 1990). The level of optimism in a speech has been shown to accurately predict the winning candidate of a Presidential election (Seligman, 1990). Explanatory style is characterized by permanence (Is the event explained as permanent or temporary?), pervasiveness (Is the event explained as universal or specific?), and personalization (Does the person blame themselves or others?). It can also predict success for life insurance salespeople and West Point recruits.

Scorecard. There was a degree of optimism as President Trump contrasted himself with Joe Biden. He consistently framed his own accomplishments as positive and Biden’s record as negative. He characterized the future under a Trump administration as bright and ambitious, and under a Biden administration as dark and stagnant.

For harm/care, there were 24 instances; for fairness/reciprocity, there were 62 instances; for ingroup/loyalty, there were 12 instances; for authority/respect, there were 10 instances; and for purity/sanctity, there were 9 instances. Clearly the President’s speechwriters focused on the two moral foundations that overlap between liberals and conservatives. While the speech appealed to conservatives and rallied the base, it did not dwell on the three foundations that are more uniquely conservative. It will be interesting to see if it had any impact on liberal, independent, and undecided voters or if they just skipped the speech.


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Koleva, S. P., Graham, J., Iyer, R., Ditto, P. H., & Haidt, J. (2012). Tracing the threads: How five moral concerns (especially Purity) help explain culture war attitudes. Journal of Research in Personality, 46, 184-194.

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