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Did Donald Trump win the U.S. presidency in 2016 because he was a master of character work – able to sum up opponents in...

Did Donald Trump win the U.S. presidency in 2016 because he was a master of character work – able to sum up opponents in pithy epithets that encourage the public to see them as weak or immoral? What is character work and how do characters with roots in ancient crease help us understand 21st-century politics? While many scholars of politics focus on plots, James M. Jasper, Michael P. Young and Elke Zuern encourage us to look at the characters – particularly the simplified packaging of the intentions, capacities, and actions of public figures.

In Public Characters: The Politics of Reputation and Blame (Oxford University Press, 2020), Jasper and his colleagues show how political figures often allocate praise and blame, identify social problems, cement identities and allegiances, develop policies, and articulate our moral intuitions. Democracies need to understand where characters — heroes, villains, victims, and minions – come from in order to keep their influence within proper bounds. Although part of a Western rhetorical tradition, character work is often done through dress, posters, facial expressions, statues, paintings, photos, and music.

In the podcast, Jasper discusses Trump’s conveying of ancient rhetorical symbols through Twitter, the gendered nature of “strength” or “heroism,” and the uncomfortable use of stereotypes that shape group “characters.”


Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Democracy, Intelligent Design, and Evolution: Science for Citizenship (Routledge, 2013).