Since the beginning of 2018, I have received more than 2,000 emails from the Trump campaign and have read every... single... one. At first, I found the breathless hyperbole amusing in a darkly comedic kind of way. After a while, though, I realized the target audience took things more seriously, and I started thinking about the impact of this messaging being mainlined into the inboxes of millions of voters. The seething vitriol of phrases like “Radical Democrats HATE me and they HATE YOU” gets thrown around all the time like it’s totally normal. Yet after digging around, I was surprised to find that no one seemed to be keeping track of how much phrases like that get thrown around.
So I did something dumb. I started @trumpemail to log this rhetoric into the public record. When I was getting one or two emails a day, it seemed like a good idea. Now that I’m up to nine per day, I have some regrets. As someone once said, it is what it is.
This type of hobby fit well with my skill set: I am a former reporter and loved the idea of digging into a story that I believed was being underreported. I didn’t want this pet project to interfere with the totally unrelated work from my day job, though. I work for a nonprofit that does some state-level advocacy. Our biggest priorities are non-partisan and I have good working relationships with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, hence the anonymous Twitter handle.
Recently, some of my followers requested a deeper dive into the various grifting techniques the Trump campaign uses with its emails. It’s not unfair to say the most egregiously insulting ones assume the campaign’s supporters are just plain stupid. They also appear to be incredibly effective.
The emails tend to break down into seven general categories (in no particular order):
5️⃣ Trump knows who you are
This isn’t to say that any one email belongs in any single category; many of these messages pull from multiple categories at the same time. I’ll discuss each category and provide examples with actual emails I’ve received. Trust me when I say there are plenty more where these came from. And I left a few techniques on the cutting-room floor (sweepstakes, for example).
I reached out to Jennifer Mercieca, associate professor in the Department of Communication at Texas A&M University and the author of Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump, to get her perspective on why the campaign communicates like this. She says it mostly boils down to some of the more manipulative techniques of a hard sell.
“I’ve been struck by how his fundraising techniques match his Trump U playbooks,” she said. “It's all about activating outrage to motivate sales (donations), which is typical of his Twitter feed.”
A quick scan of the Trump University 2010 playbook (source: Politico) shows some obvious parallels, which I’ll get into at times below, that suggest Mercieca is correct.
OK, let’s dig in.
This is a major theme throughout the emails: the idea that YOU can be one of just a handful of Trump supporters to get something special. They almost always ask for money but want it to seem like you are the one coming out ahead.
“CONGRATULATIONS! YOU ARE THE TRUMP PATRIOT OF THE WEEK!”
Sounds exciting, right?! But keep reading, and…
“President Trump was SO impressed by your dedication to our movement that he unlocked an EXCLUSIVE 500%-MATCH just for YOU.”
This would seem to be pulled directly from the Trump U playbook, which reads:
The dumbest of the “Exclusivity” emails (aka my absolute favorite) is the Trump 100 Club. The premise is that YOU have been picked specifically by President Trump as one of only 100 “Patriots” in the entire country who have been invited to join a super-secret club.
All you have to do is donate ANY amount. Like, five bucks gets you into this club:
This is obviously a lie. And what’s fascinating is how easily proven that is. Dozens of people across the country have announced they were invited to this EXTREMELY exclusive club, which doesn’t exactly square with the idea that only 100 people have been invited:
Also, the campaign itself remarkably tweeted out a mass invite—and as Judd Legum reported, bought ads on Facebook—neither of which make any sense considering the basic premise of the program.
But I digress.
There are a ton of other noteworthy examples from the “Exclusivity” bucket:
“the first 100 Patriots who contribute to this email to have their name added to the Presidential Donor List that we are printing and framing for his office.”
“We sorted through our very BEST Trump supporters who we wanted to invite to this exclusive event, and YOU were one of them. Incredible.”
“This survey is strictly confidential and is meant for your eyes only. It should go without saying, but please, do NOT forward this to anyone.”
Another one of the campaign’s most common tactics is to warn readers that if you don’t do this NOW, you may NEVER have another chance. It’s almost always crying wolf. Again, from the Trump U playbook: “Urgency is proportional to pain. Problems are like health. The more a problem hurts now, the more the need for a solution now.”
“This one-time offer is only available until 11:59 PM TONIGHT. After that, your invitation to join will permanently EXPIRE.”
I first got this ultimatum for the Trump Executive Membership on May 23. Since then, I have received 12 more emails asking me to join, including 3 saying it was my “FINAL NOTICE.”
Scarcity is the Don Jr. to TIME-SENSITIVITY’s Eric. But instead of running out in one hour, they want you to believe that a national campaign with millions of supporters only has a handful of merch items back in the storage closet.
“I liked this item so much that I asked my team to rush order 50 NEW MATS for top supporters only.
BIG NEWS: YOU’VE BEEN SELECTED TO RECEIVE 1 OF THE 50”
“We’ve only been authorized to release 75 of these iconic replica pens. We’ll hold yours for the NEXT HOUR, but after that we’ll be forced to release it to the next Patriot.”
“We have less than 800 of these iconic hats left, and once we run out we cannot guarantee they’ll be restocked.”
I’ve gotten at least 150 emails saying Trump or the campaign was disappointed in me, 109 saying “don’t let me down” and 89 saying “don’t let him [Trump] down.” But don’t worry—there’s always a chance to redeem myself!
“I’m counting on YOU to keep our strong lead over Sleepy Joe. I’ve asked my team to let me know the moment you step up. Don’t let me down.”
“The President will be receiving an updated Donor List soon and I know he’ll be looking for your name. I know you won’t let him down.”
5️⃣ TRUMP KNOWS WHO YOU ARE
I’ve never donated, never filled out a poll or survey, never signed a petition, never entered a contest... but President Trump knows exactly who I am and is sure that I deserve something spectacular for my unwavering support.
I’ve received 65 emails saying “I noticed,” and 43 emails saying, about Trump, “he noticed,” that I had not yet taken some sort of specific action. That is another Trump University tactic: “The words ‘I noticed’ have a powerful subconscious effect on people”
“The President REALLY wants to give you this 2020 Make America Great Again Hat that he HAND-SIGNED, but he was disappointed when he noticed you hadn’t entered to win yet.”
“You’ve been one of my father’s FIERCEST supporters from the beginning, so when he told me of his plan to give this UNIQUE hat to a lucky Patriot, we both agreed that it shouldn’t go to anyone else."
“I’m monitoring the membership roster and President Trump has asked me to know the moment you activate yours.”
“The President said that you’re one of his strongest allies. I always trust what he thinks, so I only have one question for you: are you ready to fight alongside me and CRUSH Joe Biden on Election Day?”
This isn’t unique to Trump by any stretch of the imagination: the idea that you’re a part of something bigger. You belong. It’s us vs. them and here’s your official Little Orphan Annie decoder ring.
“Official 2020 Trump Executive Members will be a select group made up of only my MOST LOYAL supporters, and I’m inviting YOU to be a part of it.”
“Normally, this group is reserved for just my top 500 supporters. This could be your one and only chance to join."
Not only was this not the “FIRST time” they’d offered it to me (it was the eighth), but they told me just three weeks earlier “We’re about to launch our Official 2020 Trump Platinum Membership Program” and even solicited my help in designing it.
There are even some noteworthy crossovers: the Executive Membership got its start as the first of the Trump membership card offers I received (followed by the Impeachment Defense Card, the Gold Card, and finally—for now—the Platinum Card).
It could probably go without saying, but none of these cards seem to offer people any discernible benefit. I’ve received nearly 100 of these solicitations.
Having a group of donors agree to offer matching donations is a tried-and-true technique for tons of nonprofits. It’s probably BS when it comes to presidential campaigns, though, and the Trump emails take it to preposterous levels.
As I routinely point out, it's more likely than not that nobody is matching anything, due to campaign finance laws and contribution limits. That hasn’t stopped the Trump campaign from raising the stakes to dizzying heights. I get dozens of matching offers each month, gradually moving from 200 percent to 300 percent and so on and so forth. As of this writing, they are up to 700 percent.
At a certain point, if not already, this kind of strategy becomes counterproductive.
Michael Whitney, a former fundraiser for the Bernie Sanders campaign, tells me, “I bet they've backed themselves into a corner where they can't fundraise without a match, and they can't say the match is below y%.”
Maybe, I thought, this was commonplace for all campaign emails? I don’t receive fundraising pitches from anyone other than my local elected officials. I asked Aimin of But Their Emails!, a blog that originally focused exclusively on the Democratic primary messaging, if this was how everyone talked. Apparently not.
“The meanest Democratic email is candy and rainbows next to the meanest Trump email. Everything with Trump is hyperbolic and exaggerated,” she said. “Biden's money pleas are much more likely to be ‘I know you hate this and I hate this, but I really need some money.’”
The level of disdain the Trump campaign shows for its own supporters is almost shocking for those who aren’t used to reading these emails. And it has had repercussions: some of Trump’s prominent supporters have been vocal about having their intelligence insulted.
Many of these supporter/critics pinned the blame on former campaign manager Brad Parscale, but the techniques have not changed since he was replaced by Bill Stepien. As the emails per day have hit double-digits and continue to climb, I am not going to hold my breath for any major deviations.
If you find this analysis valuable, follow me on Twitter. I’ll be looking for your name. Don’t let me down.
@TrumpEmail is the anonymous Twitter account that tracks Trump campaign fundraising appeals.