Trump's testing out a new campaign strategy: horror politics

Trump is walking a tight line between using fear to mobilize MAGA and scaring them out of voting

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 17, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Jared Kushner (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Jared Kushner (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Donald Trump and his propagandists are masters of the politics of pain and horror. They intimately know the MAGA people and their pain points, anxieties, wants, and insecurities. In that way, Trump and his agents are like a real-life version of horror movie monsters. 

Contrary to what too many centrists and liberal progressives and orthodox leftist types fail to understand, politics and political decision-making are fundamentally about emotions. Rationality and purely material concerns are often secondary. Trump and his agents understand this dynamic as they use powerful emotional appeals to great effect to advance their reactionary and fascist movement to end multiracial pluralistic democracy. 

In my chronicling of Donald Trump’s fundraising emails and his larger media and communications strategy, I recently highlighted a series of emails from the aspiring dictator that used ghoulish and horrific language. In that essay, I observed that Trump and his propagandists had hit a new low. That new low has quickly gone even lower. In a series of fundraising emails sent last week, Trump wallowed further in the politics of pain, paranoia, and horror.

In a fundraising email about his hush-money trial in New York that was sent out last Wednesday, Trump announced: “THAT FILTHY JUDGE WANTS ME RIPPED TO SHREDS!”

Trump then continued with his conspiracism about liberal megadonor George Soros funding some vast plot against him, fantasies which are drawn from the antisemitic and white supremacist "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and the so-called great replacement theory:

The corrupt Soros-backed prosecutors just set our country on fire with their vicious lies!

The rest of Trump’s horrifically violent fundraising email reads:


If we don’t make a MASSIVE stand - right here, right now - America as we know it will CEASE TO EXIST.

So before I’m forced back into court tomorrow, I’m calling on EVERY TRUMP-LOVING PATRIOT to chip in and join me in calling for a MISTRIAL!

These depraved savages won't stop until my family is DESTROYED and the MAGA movement is RIPPED TO SHREDS.

But as long as I have YOU by my side, not even their weaponized courts can take me down!

No matter what they do to me, I would proudly sacrifice myself to Save America anyday.


In a fundraising email sent the next day, Trump invoked Patrick Henry and announced that he is facing death and has been robbed of his rights because he is finally being held somewhat accountable for his decades-long crime spree:




Friend, I’m fighting for my life in Biden’s corrupt court.

I’ve been stripped of my constitutional rights.

I’ve been forced to sit fully gagged while Biden’s cronies spread vicious lies.

I’ve even been threatened with JAIL if I don’t bow down to the AMERICA-HATING leftists.



I’m making my FINAL STAND right here, right now, and I need to know you’re with me.

Before the day ends, I need 1 MILLION PATRIOTS to take my Official Survey and send the radical left Democrats a powerful message that WE WILL NEVER SURRENDER!


Of course, these and other statements by Trump and his agents are lies and gross distortions of fact and reality.

The purpose of Trump’s emails and other incendiary language is to further radicalize his MAGA people into committing violence because they have been told that they are supposedly facing an existential threat from their imagined “enemies” in the Democratic Party. Moreover, Trump’s lies that he is being “ripped to shreds” and basically held hostage as he is “gagged” and that the “left” and “The Democrats” are “depraved savages” is a type of projection and promise of what he and his forces will do to his and their perceived enemies if he wins the 2024 election. His use of “depraved savages” is thinly veiled code for the Black prosecutors, like Fulton County DA Fani Willis and Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg,  who are trying to hold Trump accountable.

Donald Trump’s horror politics strategy is not erratic, random, or a sign of desperation. Trump and his agents would not be deploying such rhetoric if they did not possess data that suggests it is effective. In 2016, for example, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, successfully used viewership data about the hit TV show “The Walking Dead” to target political ads for maximum efficacy: 

Kushner's crew was able to tap into the Republican National Committee's data machine, and it hired targeting partners like Cambridge Analytica to map voter universes and identify which parts of the Trump platform mattered most: trade, immigration or change. Tools like Deep Root drove the scaled-back TV ad spending by identifying shows popular with specific voter blocks in specific regions—say, NCIS for anti-ObamaCare voters or The Walking Dead for people worried about immigration. Kushner built a custom geo-location tool that plotted the location density of about 20 voter types over a live Google Maps interface.

Soon the data operation dictated every campaign decision: travel, fundraising, advertising, rally locations—even the topics of the speeches. "He put all the different pieces together," Parscale says. "And what's funny is the outside world was so obsessed about this little piece or that, they didn't pick up that it was all being orchestrated so well."

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The consultants and strategists who are using fear and horror to mobilize and engage Donald Trump’s followers (and to demobilize and exhaust those Americans who oppose the corrupt ex-president and the fascist MAGA movement) appear to possess an expert understanding of human psychology. In a 2023 interview with the American Psychological Association, behavioral scientist Coltan Scrivner shared these insights about the psychology of fear and morbid curiosity:

[I]n some of the studies I’ve done, we found that people will actually suppress their fear if they get too scared. So they’ll cover their eyes, they’ll imagine that it’s not real, they’ll sort of avert their attention to something else or cover their ears. They’ll do things to kind of dull the sensations. And if they’re not scared enough, they’ll do things to actually heighten the sensations. They’ll immerse themselves a bit more. They’ll look at the scare actors in a haunted house, or they will let themselves scream when they’re feeling afraid. And so people do kind of regulate their arousal and regulate their immersion to hit this kind of sweet spot when they’re watching horror movies and going through haunted houses and even listening to true crime podcasts.

The challenge for the 2024 Trump presidential campaign will 1) be how to sustain and calibrate an optimal amount of discomfort, fear, and horror among their MAGA base and then 2) how to use that strategy and energy to win over more voters in what early polls show will be a very tight election.

In a preview of the horribleness that is to come in the 2024 election, at a rally last Saturday in New Jersey, Donald Trump demonstrated his horror politics by comparing non-white immigrants, migrants, and refugees and the “border crisis” to the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter.

 USA Today reports:

“Has anyone ever seen ‘The Silence of the Lambs?’” Trump asked the crowd of supporters at the rally. “The late, great Hannibal Lecter. He’s a wonderful man.”

The psychotic serial killer is known for eating his victims in the Oscar-winning film.

Trump continued, “He often times would have a friend for dinner. Remember the last scene? ‘Excuse me, I’m about to have a friend for dinner,’ as this poor doctor walks by. ‘I’m about to have a friend for dinner.’ But Hannibal Lecter. Congratulations, the late, great Hannibal Lecter…”

In the same breath, Trump went on to make familiar attacks on migrants, saying, “We have people that are being released into our country that we don’t want in our country….”

It’s unclear what line of thinking made Trump invoke the fictional mass murderer – or whether he was encouraging his followers to act like Hannibal Lecter or referencing some flesh-eating bogeyman from south of the border. 

Donald Trump has repeatedly referenced Hannibal Lecter and used other language and imagery of depraved and inhuman savagery to describe non-white migrants, immigrants, and refugees. In combination with his repeated channeling of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis with his threats and promises to purify the blood of the nation by purging the human “vermin," Donald Trump is encouraging eliminationism and genocide against those human beings he and the American neofascists and the broader right-wing have targeted.

In a new essay here at Salon, Bob Hennelly offered the following warning about Trump’s rally in New Jersey and the horror politics and bacchanal of hatred the dictator in waiting is offering to his MAGA faithful and other followers:

Some Democrats and the corporate news media continue to underestimate the power of former President Donald Trump’s racist and anti-immigrant messaging. Tens of thousands of his supporters showed up at his rally in Wildwood, New Jersey over the weekend, the Associated Press reported. During Trump’s criminal trial in Manhattan, MSNBC hosts have repeatedly used the lack of the physical presence of pro-Trump demonstrators as evidence that our MAGA fever has broken. Wildwood indicates it’s still very much with us.

The Democrats, members of the news media who practice pro-democracy journalism, responsible members of the political class, and other opinion leaders who believe in the country’s democratic culture and institutions must directly confront Donald Trump and his agent’s sadism and horror politics strategy if they are to defeat Trumpism and neofascism not just in the 2024 election but in the years beyond. Ignoring Trump and his agents' increasingly violent and fascist threats and promises or mocking their horror politics as something just “weird” and “creepy” is to normalize and therefore empower such a strategy.

Human monsters are very real. Donald Trump and his propagandists and other agents know that frightened and terrified people are capable of doing very horrible things – and they are willing to do everything in their power to encourage such an outcome here.  

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Commentary Democracy Crisis Donald Trump Elections Fascism Horror Law Psychology Trump Trial