American Journal of Cultural Sociology

, Volume 5, Issue 3, pp 392–408 | Cite as

Deep stories, nostalgia narratives, and fake news: Storytelling in the Trump era

  • Francesca Polletta
  • Jessica Callahan
Original Article


Characterizing Trump supporters either as “duped” by Fox News or as speaking from their lived experience misses the fact that both are true. We draw on scholarship on narrative and on the media to trace the ways in which elite-produced stories simultaneously reflect and forge a political common sense. We argue that narrative’s allusiveness (the fact that stories work by calling up other stories) helps to explain why stories produced by media elites come to feel as if they reflect people’s experience. The fact that people often share stories as a way of building collective identity, for its part, helps to explain why stories’ plausibility may be relatively unimportant to those people. Both features of storytelling are intrinsic to the form, but their political effects have been sharpened by two significant changes in the media landscape: the rise of right-wing media outlets and the profusion of user-shared digital news. We trace these developments as a way to make sense of Trump’s electoral support.


politics narrative media public opinion 



Our thanks to the editors, two anonymous reviews, Edwin Amenta, Colin Bernatsky, Tania DoCarmo, Shela Duong, and Kelly Ward for their valuable advice on revising the article. Polletta also thanks her fellow members of the Successful Societies Program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Study for helping her to develop some of the ideas in the article.


  1. Alexander, J.C. (2004) Cultural pragmatics: social performance between ritual and strategy. Sociological Theory 22(4): 527–573.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Berry, J.M. and Sobieraj, S. (2014) The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Bonilla-Silva, E., Lewis, A. and Embrick, D.G. (2004) ‘I did not get that job because of a black man…’: The story lines and testimonies of color-blind racism. Sociological Forum 19(4): 555–81.Google Scholar
  4. Bump, P. (2016) How Fox News fans keep Donald Trump afloat. The Washington Post., accessed 24 January 2017.
  5. Byers, D. (2014) Savage dominates Hannity in key markets. Politico., accessed 26 January 2017.
  6. Campion-Vincent, V. (2005) Organ Theft Legends. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.Google Scholar
  7. CNN. (2017) President Trump reads ‘The snake.’, accessed 9 May 2017.
  8. Conover, P.J., Searing, D.D. and Crewe, I.M. (2002) The deliberative potential of political discussion. British Journal of Political Science. 32(1): 21–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cramer, K.J. (2016a) For years, I’ve been watching anti-elite fury build in Wisconsin. Then came Trump. Vox., accessed 24 January 2017.
  10. Cramer, K.J. (2016b) The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the rise of Scott Walker. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Davies, D. (2016) Fake news expert on how false stories spread and why people believe them. NPR: Fresh Air., accessed 26 January 2017.
  12. De Fina, A. (2003) Identity in Narrative: A Study of Immigrant Discourse. Vol. 3. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing.Google Scholar
  13. Ellison, S. (2014) God and man at a Southern Appalachian community college: Cognitive dissonance and the cultural logics of conservative news talk radio Programming. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 36(2): 90–108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Feldman, L., Maibach, E.W., Roser-Renouf, C. and Leiserowitz, A. (2012) Climate on cable: the nature and impact of global warming coverage on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. The International Journal of Press/Politics 17(1): 3–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Fine, G.A. (2007) Rumor, trust and civil society: collective memory and cultures of judgment. Diogenes 54 (1): 5–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Golshan, T. (2016) Trump’s fake controversy about Clinton’s emails getting an Iranian scientist killed, explained. Vox., accessed 26 January 2017.
  17. Guo, J. (2016) Donald Trump didn’t ‘hoodwink’ his voters, says professor who has spent nearly a decade researching them. Washington Post., accessed 26 January 2017.
  18. Haltom, W. and McCann, M.W. (2004) Distorting the Law: Politics, Media, and the Litigation Crisis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hochschild, A.R. (2016) Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: New Press.Google Scholar
  20. Jamieson, K. and Cappella, J. (2008) Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Johnson, E. (2017) How Trump blew up the conservative media. Politico, May/June., accessed 9 May.
  22. Kapferer, J.-N. (2013) Rumors: Uses, Interpretations, and Images. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.Google Scholar
  23. Maly, M., Dalmage, H. and Michaels, N. (2012) The end of an idyllic world: nostalgia narratives, race, and the construction of white powerlessness. Critical Sociology 39(5): 757–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Meirick, P.C. (2013) Motivated misperception? party, education, partisan news, and belief in ‘death panels.’ Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 90: 39–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Moyer-Gusé, E., Chung, A.H. and Jain, P. (2011) Identification with characters and discussion of taboo topics after exposure to an entertainment narrative about sexual health. Journal of Communication 61(3): 387–406.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Mutz, D.C. (2006) Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative Versus Participatory Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Myers, T.A., Maibach, E.W., Roser-Renouf, C. and Leiserowitz, A.A. (2013) The relationship between personal experience and belief in the reality of global warming. Nature Climate Change 3(4): 343–347.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Norton, M. (2011) A structural hermeneutics of The O’Reilly Factor. Theory and Society 40(3): 315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Pew Research Center. (2016) News use across social media platforms 2016. 26 May 2016., accessed 26 January 2017.
  30. Polletta, F. (2006) It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Polletta, F. (2015) Characters in politics. Storytelling, Self, Society 11(1): 34–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Polletta, F., Chen, P.C.B., Gardner, B.G. and Motes, A. (2011) The sociology of storytelling. Annual Review of Sociology 37(1):109–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Prins, J., van Stekelenburg, J., Polletta, F. and Klandermans, B. (2013) Telling the collective story? Moroccan-Dutch young adults’ negotiation of a collective identity through storytelling. Qualitative Sociology 36(1): 81–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Roche, S.P., Pickett, J.T. and Gertz, M. (2016) The scary world of online news? internet news exposure and public attitudes toward crime and justice. Journal of Quantitative Criminology 32(2): 215–236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Serwer, A. (2011) Fox news’ paranoid alternate universe. Mother Jones., accessed 24 January 2017.
  36. Silverman, C. (2016) Here are 50 of the biggest fake news hits on Facebook from 2016. Buzzfeed, 30 December 2016., accessed 9 May 2017.
  37. Smith, P. (2005) Why War? The Cultural Logic of Iraq, the Gulf War, and Suez. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Sundar, S.S. (2016) Why do we fall for fake news? The Conversation., accessed 7 December 2016.
  39. Tashman, B. (2016) 58 Donald Trump conspiracy theories (and counting!): The definitive Trump conspiracy guide. Alternet., accessed 26 January 2017.
  40. Tavernise, S. (2016) As fake news spreads lies, more readers shrug at the truth. New York Times., accessed 26 January 2017.
  41. Trump, D. (2016a) Transcript of Donald Trump’s economic policy speech to Detroit Economic Club. The Hill., accessed 7 May 2017.
  42. Trump, D. (2016b) FULL SPEECH: Donald Trump in Tampa, Florida. The Hill., accessed 7 May 2017.
  43. Trump, D. (2016c) Read Donald Trump’s speech on jobs and the economy. Time., accessed 7 May 2017.
  44. Trump, D. (2016d) Full text: Donald Trump 2016 RNC draft speech transcript. Politico., accessed 7 May 2017.

Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of California, IrvineIrvineUSA

Personalised recommendations