Ethnically charged impoliteness in Trump’s political rhetoric: How far was too far?

30 May 2024
Conference Room

Ethnically charged impoliteness in Trump’s political rhetoric: How far was too far?

Ethnically prejudiced/racist impoliteness by populist politicians in Western democracies has received increased attention in the past decade. Wodak (2020) links this to the rise of right-wing populists in Europe and the USA.  She claims that they contribute to a “widespread and growing normalisation of far-right policies, of formerly tabooed topics, wordings and impolite or shameless behaviour”– resulting in them becoming increasingly “mainstream” (Wodak, 2020:6). This paper addresses to what extent these boundaries of the ‘sayable’ have been shifted in the context of the United States during Donald Trump’s presidency.

Wodak et al. (2021: 387) argue that Trump’s non-polished straight talk projects that he is ‘authentic’, and ‘genuine’ to his base – who also enjoy his impolite macho antics. However, some of Trump’s verbal and Twitter impoliteness expressions caused controversy even among his supporters and Republican colleagues. When references to ethnicity were included in his impolite attacks against others, the response from conservatives could be mixed. Through three cases studies of highly publicized scandals involving ethnically charged impoliteness formulae (cf. Culpeper, 2011: 135f), this paper aims to identity how far is too far for some of Trump’s supporters and Republican colleagues. These cases studies analyze situations involving ethnically charged expressions of impoliteness against Senator Elizabeth Warren, Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib (aka the ‘Squad’), and then CNN news anchor, Chris Cuomo. Ultimately, they will show that his humorous referential personalized nicknames (cf. Tyrkkö and Frisk, 2020) that utilized ethnic stereotypes (cf. Croom, 2017) against individuals were more easily by accepted/excused by Trump’s supporters than broader and humorless impolite expressions against immigrants and/or Americans from immigrant families generally. Central to this distinction is that one’s lineage to an immigrant ethnic group(s) constitutes a core element of one’s claims to social group membership for most Americans – including European Americans (cf. Culpeper, 2019).


Culpeper, J. (2011). Impoliteness: Using language to cause offense. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Culpeper, J. (2019). Taboo language and impoliteness. In Allan, Keith (ed) The Oxford Handbook of Taboo Words and Language (pp. 28 – 40). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Croom A. M. (2017) Slurs and stereotypes for Italian Americans: A context-sensitive account of derogation and appropriation. Journal of Pragmatics 81 (1) 36-51.

Tyrkkö, J. & Frisk, I. (2020). Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted, and Failing New York Times: Nicknames in Donald Trump’s Tweets. In: Schneider, U. & Eitelmann, M. (eds.), Linguistic Inquiries into     Donald Trump’s Language: From ‘Fake News’ to ‘Tremendous Success’ (pp. 87 – 108). London/New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Wodak R. (2020). The Politics of Fear. The Shameless Normalization of Far-right Discourse. (2nd ed.). London: Sage.

Wodak, R., Culpeper, J. & Semino, E. (2021). Shameless normalization of impoliteness: Berlusconi’s and Trump’s press conferences. Discourse & Society 32 (3), 369 – 393.