Trump Talk

Trump Talk


The Theoretical and Historical Roots of Trump’s Populist Rhetoric and Fear Appeals

Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency in the fall of 2016 was perceived by many as a shocking event that defied both conventional logic and predictions from polls, algorithms, and political scientists alike. Despite this apparent unpredictability, many overarching themes of Trump’s campaign—such as his faux-populist rhetoric, apocalyptic narrative, and nationalistic fear appeals—have historically been successful in garnering public support. Indeed, Trump’s politics of wall-building, mass mobilization in the name of “the people,” and exaggeration of state enemies is nothing new. These themes, rather, are commonplaces of the discourse of conservative populism that has influenced history now for over a century, from the rise of European nationalism in the twentieth century to the sociopolitical movement of evangelicalism, to Reagan’s Hollywood anti-communism in the 1980s. With that in mind, this paper will analyze the rhetorical themes and appeals of Trump’s campaign, and those central to right-wing populist ideology at large, through a theoretical and historical lens. From what historical events did Trump’s rhetoric emerge, and what political theories can explain its effectiveness? My research aims to investigate the success of this style of doctrine in rallying individuals en masse, through the lens of various political theories and historic instances of populism in America and Europe.

From a psychological standpoint, Freud provides a theoretical framework that analyzes populist phenomena by identifying the unconscious appeals that contribute to the unification of individuals into a mass under populist leadership. According to Theodor Adorno, the formation of a political “mass” is caused by the creation of an artificial unifying “bond” that is libidinal in nature, which he explains in terms of Freud’s concept of the “pleasure principle,” i.e., the “actual gratifications individuals obtain from surrendering into a mass.”1 The fundamental argument is that primitive libidinal desires motivate the unification of groups, and the feelings that arise for individuals who are part of a group hold masses together. One of these unconscious unifying forces is rooted in the psychological image of the leader in question: namely, the symbolic image of the leader as an omnipotent father figure.2 The libidinal bond between individuals is facilitated by this all-powerful father figure through a process of identification, in which subjects “devour” the leader as an enlargement of their own self-image.3 Therefore, populist demagogues garner mass support by promoting an “idealization” of themselves in their followers. Through this process of libidinal identification, individuals gain a sense of pleasure in substituting their individual egos for the collective strength of a newly formed group ego, as embodied in their leader.4 This strategic device provides subjects with the gratification of an idealized ego image likened to an all-powerful figure of authority. However, for this process to function, the leader must also “appear as the average person” and “resemble” his followers to an extent in order to appear as their “enlargement.”5 Donald Trump embodies the “great little man,” a leader who “suggests both omnipotence and the idea that he is just one of the folks,” in that he projects an image of an aggressive, unbridled, powerful authority who at the same time champions the interests of “average” forgotten white Americans.6 Therefore, from a populist point of view, Donald Trump effectively appeals to mass audiences, not through rational or policy-based means but through psychological and unconscious means of identification with his audience, which gratifies followers’ paradoxical wish to both “submit to authority and be the authority themselves.”7 The leader who fulfills this psychological desire must therefore be commanding and dictatorial yet relatable to those “left behind”—both qualities that Donald Trump possesses. Trump’s distinctive personal character thus plays a critical role in attracting followers and mobilizing them as a mass. Aggressively authoritative and self-aggrandizing, Trump successfully encourages the idealization of himself as a “powerful figure” in the minds of his followers. Yet, at the same time, his uncomplicated and repetitive rhetoric calling for the resurgence of the forgotten working class American positions him vis-à-vis his followers as “one of them,” which enables them to envision him as an idealized extension of their own egos.

Other psychological forces that facilitate mass unification behind a figurehead are specifically rhetoric-based, and according to Adorno, follow a “rigidly set pattern of clear-cut devices.”8 The first of these psychological devices is the “unity trick,” a tactic whereby a leader “emphasizes the group’s difference from an outsider but plays down such differences within their own group.”9 This classic “us-versus-them” tactic is sprinkled throughout Trump’s language, which is famous for sharp binary oppositions that refer to American nationals as a unified mass, while sharply alienating a broad range of “others”— whether they be Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, or refugees. An example of this “unity trick” is present in Trump’s inauguration speech, where he hyperbolizes that under his leadership, “we,” referring to the entire population of America, are going to be “the smart people” and “not the people that get pushed around all over the place.”10 In this instance, Trump plays down the vast economic, social, and identity-based differences among members of his own group—the people he governs—and sweepingly declares that under his leadership, they will all become “the smart people,” those who don’t “get pushed around,” despite the enormously different personal, social, and economic conditions that they face as individuals. Adorno identifies another such rhetorical tactic as the “if only you knew device,” which “promises the vindictive revelation of all sorts of forbidden pleasures enjoyed by others.”11 Again drawing on Freud, Adorno explains that group coherence can result from a reaction formation against group members’ “primal jealousy against one another,” which is displaced onto “out-group members.”12 This psychological strategy also finds itself laced into Trump’s rhetoric, which, for instance, accuses the Chinese of fabricating the concept of global warming solely “in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” and Mexicans for “taking our jobs” and “killing us.”13,14 According to Adorno, this strategy is effective by means of leveraging in-group members’ primal contempt for one another and arbitrarily projecting it onto the “out-group” for assumedly enjoying forbidden pleasures rightfully belonging to the “in-group.”15 Therefore, from a psychological perspective, Trump succeeded in rallying his audience, who viewed him as an idealized extension of their own egos, through his dual image of both omnipotence and averageness, and through the use of strategic unifying psychological devices.

From an economic standpoint, the Marxist concept of false consciousness offers a framework in which to understand how conservative political doctrine, and specifically Trump’s narrative of economic nationalism, appealed to middle- and lower- class “common people” in a populist manner, despite working against their material interests. This phenomenon is addressed in Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which analyzes the paradoxical “species of derangement” that defines our civil order.16 This widespread “derangement” describes the striking incongruity between the number of American working class voters who support right-wing economic policies, on the one hand, and directly experience the detrimental effects of those same policies, on the other. Frank examines the underlying reasons for which many lower- and middle- class Americans embraced a movement whose ultimate effect on the power structure is to “make the rich even richer.”17 He analyzes the shift in right-wing politics from appealing only to an “aristocratic minority” to its current status as a movement of economic populism, ironically advocating for the material interests of the common people while causing harm to those very interests. Ultimately, Frank argues that this phenomenon materialized as a result of conservative politicians’ success in perpetuating false consciousness among the working class, which denotes the prevention of the working class of understanding the true state of their exploitation, especially after being distracted by the ideologies of populism and nationalism. Frank asserts that the condition of false consciousness formented in populist ideology that made lower- and middle- class demographics feel as if conservative politicians were on their “team.” Regarding this ideology, he points to right wing’s having coopted rhetoric of exploitation and victimization typically used by the other side of the political spectrum. Ironically, contemporary conservative policy now imagines itself as “the foe of the elite, as the voice of the unfairly persecuted,” despite proposing policies that largely favor the rich.18 Right-wing politicians succeeded in creating this image in part through an ironic role reversal, defining the bourgeois, elitist class as liberals, whether it be the so-called educated liberal elite or the elite liberal media who trivialize the interests of the forgotten working class. These rhetorical strategies of false identification and economic nationalism were central to Trump’s campaign, whose nostalgic narrative about the alleged failed state of the U.S. economy and the reinvigoration of the working class played on the fears, frustrations, and anxieties of many white lower- and middle-class Americans. Trump’s declarations to the effect that the economic system is “rigged,” which emphasize the unfair and conspiratorial persecution of American “common people,” effectively created this unlikely identification and resonance. The idea that other groups of people—immigrants, refugees, or the Chinese—were taking something that rightfully belonged to the American working class, was central to both Trump’s campaign and instrumental in fostering the heated sentiment needed to rally the masses for an unlikely right-wing cause. Ultimately, through this saturation of false consciousness with a nationalist narrative of persecution and victimization, Trump fostered a resonant sense of anger among lower and middle-class Americans that enabled their significant support for him.

From a historical standpoint, the examination of the rhetorical patterns and strategies that gave rise to far-right nationalism in twentieth-century Europe provides further insights into the types of rhetoric that provoke or arouse nationalist sentiment similar to that which Trump evoked during his campaign. The rise of nationalist sentiment in Germany in the 1920s and ’30s was largely rooted in a strategy of leveraging middle-class anger and frustrations, scapegoating minority groups, and fantasizing an idealized past of national unity and power. The National Socialist movement was mainly supported by rhetoric that promised to restore Germany from an alleged loss of greatness and power. After suffering defeat in the First World War and the economic collapse that followed, perceived political and economic dysfunctions as well as increased class tension, left the middle class in an especially vulnerable position, therefore becoming a core component of the National Socialist movement.19 Their social and economic frustrations were blamed on a minority “out-group,” German Jews, who were perceived to be conspiring to defraud the country. Ultimately, this strategy leveraged the dissatisfaction widespread among the mass population and scapegoated an ethnic “other” to rally the nation towards the movement’s cause. These rhetorical strategies, anchored in fear and uncertainty, ultimately materialized in a far-right nationalist movement, with the slogan “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” which translates as “One People, One Nation, One Leader.”20 Similar nationalist strategies and rhetorical patterns manifest in Trump’s campaign. Trump’s patriotic call to ‘Make America Great Again’ is based on the same nostalgic premise of restoring an idyllic past. Moreover, the “forgotten white working class” was a central part of Trump’s campaign, which promised to “serve America’s forgotten citizens” and to “put America first.”21 Furthermore, Trump’s rhetoric placed the blame of The United States’ perceived economic and social dysfunctions on non-American ‘others’ and minority groups, namely Mexican immigrants supposedly stealing American jobs. The tactic used by the German National Socialists whereby working class frustrations were directed towards a scapegoat was also used by Trump, in which he leveraged the anxieties of working class Americans to blame Latin American immigrants. Those same strategies resultantly contributed to a wave of patriotism and nationalism, with crowds of supporters rallying to “Make America Great Again.”

Examining the rhetoric and language used to fuel the populist wave of anti-communism in the United States during the 1980s also enables us to understand how the inflation of political enemies has mobilized a nation against a threatening “other,” just as Trump has rallied the masses against globalists, Wall Street executives, and immigrants. In his book, Ronald Reagan The Movie: And Other Episodes in Political Demonology, Michael Rogin provides an analysis of Reagan’s anti-communist narrative, which demonized a a purportedly evil “out-group” as a rhetorical tool to perpetuate a sentiment of national persecution, and to thus mobilize mass populations. Reagan’s fear-inducing doctrine, Rogin explains, took shape in the vilification of communists as “monsters” and warnings to Americans of a “menace” threatening their nation.22 This strategy is characterized by a “rigid insistence on difference” and a pattern of imposing a master “binary opposition” of “our people” against an “evil other” in which America is positioned directly opposite to the “subversive force that threatened it.”23 This classic dichotomy of good and evil encapsulated the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, which Reagan imagined as a “titanic struggle between the forces of good and an empire of evil.”24 In the famous speech in which Reagan characterized the U.S.S.R. as an “evil empire,” he emphasized this polarizing binary in his calls to action, urging the country “to beware of the temptation . . . to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”25 In this stark comparison, Reagan not only demonizes the “other” but fabricates a narrative of “the single hero” in which it is the United States’ moral obligation to fight against the threat of “evil” in the name of “good.” Today, Trump’s success in mobilizing Americans against demonized “others” employs the same rhetorical tactics as Reagan’s demonization of communism. In his campaign to rally the American population against Mexican immigrants, Trump goes as far as to generalize and vilify them as being, “in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, and rapists.”26 In a similar fashion, Trump’s  notorious “Snake Poem” speech exemplifies Reagan’s use of the “good-versus-evil” binary opposition as a rhetorical tool. In the speech, Trump, vigorously chanting a poem about a snake, strikingly equates immigrants, foreigners, and various “others” to vicious snakes.27  Positioning the United Stated on the opposite end of the binary, he figures America as an innocent “tender-hearted woman” who naively takes the venomous snake in out of kindness and pity. After the snake is revealed to be vicious and bloodthirsty, the “tender-hearted women” is left betrayed and exploited by the snake. Ultimately, parallels between Reagan and Trump’s creation of binaries and ruthless demonization of “others” demonstrate the effectiveness of such strategies in rallying mass populations around a nationalist cause.

Analyzing the sociopolitical movement evangelicalism and its relationship to nationalist and conservative state policies again furnishes insights as to how Trump’s ethos appealed to a seemingly unlikely voter demographic. While evangelical Christian values of traditionalism and piety seem to clash with Trump’s controversial and vulgar character, Trump shockingly secured eighty per cent of the white evangelical vote.”28 When analyzing how Trump garnered support from such a large percentage of this voter demographic, William Connolly’s research provides insights. On this topic, his research that suggests that evangelical beliefs combine with conservative policy to create what he calls an “Evangelical-Capitalist Resonance Machine,” which produces a shared affective ethos of “existential revenge” and resentment towards cultural diversity, two themes present, of course, in Trump’s campaign. According to Connolly, the evangelical ethos is rooted in existential revenge and a general resentment against the human condition, which is manifested in discontent against divergent opinions.29 An example of this is the Evangelical Church’s insistence that its sect’s reading of Jesus’ gospel is the only one acceptable, and that “all other readings should be castigated, or worse.”30 Miguel E. Vatter’s research suggests further that the evangelical ethos contains a sense of revenge and hatred against non-believers, whom they feel should be “held responsible for the . . .  tribulations and obstacles” supposed to afflict “bliss-awaiting believers.”31 This sense of outward resentment is intensified by the evangelical perception of the antichrist and his followers as “consummate masters of deception,” which creates an “aura of suspicion, resentment, and revenge.”32 Thus, white evangelical voters likely found resonance with Trump’s nationalist politics, as those positions were based on the same premise of existential revenge; Trump’s declaration that “others” should be held responsible for the obstacles and tribulations facing U.S. nationals parallels the evangelical position on non-believers. The evangelical sentiment of “master deception” by a threatening other takes shape in Trump’s suspicious and conspiratorial narratives of the Chinese, Mexicans, and “liberal media” as intentionally seeding deception in the United States.

In terms of genre, Richard Hofstadter’s concept of the “paranoid style” provides an overview of how creating the appearance of perpetual national danger has led to the widespread championing of nationalist policy. Hofstadter coined the term during Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential campaign to describe a rhetorical style with historical roots as far back as colonial times, and Trump’s affect displays all of its major tenets. According to Hofstadter, the “paranoid style” is characterized by a “heated exaggeration, suspicion, and conspiratorial fantasy” and is “apocalyptic in expression.”33 This mode of expression heightens conspiracy to the extent that it becomes the “motive force in historical events”;  ultimately, “history is conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power.”34 Another characteristic of this rhetorical style is its grandiose inflation and image of the enemy as a sinister, immoral, and ubiquitous “superman” who is very often held to possess some sort of power: “he controls the press, he directs the public mind through ‘managed news,’ he has a new secret for influencing the mind.”35 Trump’s fear-filled political rhetoric, constant apocalyptic declaration of new national enemies, threats, and catastrophes, and overheated, grandiose tweets containing volatile statements about the state of the U.S. economy, national security, and stance toward other nations are emblematic of this paranoid style of expression. Trump’s sweeping exaggeration of enemies and apocalyptic narrative of their inevitable threat has become a touchstone of his campaign: each day, there appears to be a new enemy-related crisis, whether it be the war on the media, Mexicans, or the Justice Department. The notion of attributing some grandiose, almost transcendental power to national enemies is both a token of the paranoid style and of Trump’s political rhetoric: The global influence of Trump’s perceived enemies spans the entire mainstream media. Another paranoid quality of Trump’s expression is his exaggerated, emotionally-charged pathos of winning and losing. His volatile and inconsistent tweets center on victories and defeats, as when he declared first that “Trade wars are good, and easy to win,” and then only one month later claiming that “We are not in a trade war with China, that war was lost many years ago.” This example demonstrates his use of polarizing and “win-lose” language to evoke an emotional response from his followers, whether it be pride, anger, shame, or frustration.36,37  The success of Trump’s paranoid narrative relies on rhetoric that doesn’t speak to logical reason but to irrational, tribal, and unconscious emotions and anxieties. Ultimately, Trump’s paranoia resonates effectively with Americans because it plays on already-existing national fears, that are temporarily heightened, such as the looming anxiety of terror attacks, which when combined with overheated rhetoric, only further reinforce the semblance of a nation under constant persecution.

Finally, exploring Wendy Brown’s critique of the recent frenzy of hardline nationalist policies offers an understanding of the underlying causes behind defensive political practices such as wall-building, a topic central to Trump’s campaign and rhetoric. In her 2017 book, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, Brown conceives of the purpose of walls as no more than the mental and visual organization of space which produce, and reinforce, weakened national identities through the imposition of boundaries.38 In an example of frenzied wall-building following the attacks of 9/11, she remarks the discrepancy between the psychological purpose the walls fulfilled and their complete physical ineffectiveness; walls would fail to defend the general public from any of the tactics used in the 9/11 attacks, should anyone try to replicate them, and merely protect from the possibility of car bombers.39 She therefore argues that the modern pattern of building walls is solely a defense mechanism that attempts to offer a psychological security blanket against diminishing national sovereignty, unity, and identity, caused in part by the aforementioned climate of fear and perceived danger, and which is felt in many contemporary states, not least the United States. Brown asserts that modern citizens desire walls to “gratify psychic anxieties, fantasies, and wishes” by “generating visual effects” of a “homogeneous national imagery,” despite the material inefficacy of such walls in repelling physical threats.40 Such fantasies are propelled by exaggerated fears of “alien dangers” and a “need for containment in too global a world, too unhorizoned a universe.”41 Therefore, it can be inferred that Trump’s aggressive and urgent proclamations of the need to build walls ultimately constitute nothing more than an attempt to regain hold of a homogeneous and unified national identity. In a political climate characterized by paranoia of threatening “others,” perceivably incessant national danger, and increased globalization, the modern tendency toward walls is essentially rooted in a desire to restore a weakened or lost grasp of state sovereignty and unity.

Ultimately, analyzing conservative populist rhetoric from various perspectives reveals the roots, causes, and underlying influences of the rhetorical devices and strategies used by Trump and other right-wing populist leaders. A psychological analysis of the forces behind group formation demonstrates the importance of a leader’s symbolic image, as well as the use of psychological tools, in unifying masses. Investigating the phenomenon of conservative economic populism through the lens of false consciousness uncovers the power of persuasive rhetoric in rallying mass audiences for causes conflicting their own self-interests. Analyzing the historic events of far-right European nationalism in the 1920s and ’30s, 1980s populist anti-communism, and the movement of evangelicalism demonstrates the influence of tapping into subjects’ emotions to champion nationalist causes. Finally, an investigation into paranoid styles of expression and modern trends of wall-building showcases the significant role of fear and psychological insecurity in garnering mass support for defensive policies.

Upon looking back on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and the central components of his victory, recognizing the power of simple yet compelling rhetoric that speaks to human fears, desires, and anxieties is crucial. Trump’s effective use of storytelling techniques to create a satisfying narrative in the public’s minds—the perception that the United States is under attack and that it is at the fault of someone else—proved a key element of his campaign’s success and unlikely victory. After a historical analysis of the broader devices present in Trump’s campaign, there is something to say about the timelessness and enduring power of the pathos-based appeals central to his platform. The notion that these aforementioned strategies and tactics continued to resonate with the public throughout various eras and political climates, including those of Trump’s very own campaign, is perhaps one of the most surprising insights of all. Keeping this in mind, I hope my findings provoke and question us to reconsider the role of rhetoric, emotion, and psychology when analyzing this specific campaign, and other political campaigns as a whole.

  1. Theodor Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” in Psychoanalysis and the Social Sciences (Oxford, England: International Universities Press, 1951), 412.
  2. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” 416.
  3. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” 418.
  4. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” 420.
  5. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” 420.
  6. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” 418.
  7. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” 420.
  8. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” 408.
  9. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” 425.
  10. “Transcript: Trump’s ‘Winning, Winning, Winning’ Speech.,” Tampa Bay, Florida News, February 24, 2016, (Accessed May 16, 2018).
  11. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” 425.
  12. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” 426.
  13. Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump), “China Has Been Taking out Massive Amounts of Money & Wealth from the U.S. in Totally One-sided Trade, but Won’t Help with North Korea. Nice!,” Twitter, January 02, 2017, (Accessed May 16, 2018.)
  14. Daniel Politi, “Donald Trump in Phoenix: Mexicans Are ‘Taking Our Jobs’ and ‘Killing Us,’ ” Slate Magazine. July 12, 2015, (Accessed May 16, 2018).
  15. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” 426.
  16. Frank, Thomas. What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004), 1.
  17. Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? 7.
  18. Frank, Thomas. What’s the Matter with Kansas? 5.
  19. David Welch, The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda (Routledge, 2008), 15.
  20. David Welch, The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda (Routledge, 2008), 12.
  21. Ryan Teague Beckwith, “Read Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ Foreign Policy Speech,” Time, April 27, 2016, (Accessed May 16, 2018).
  22. Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagan, the Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Berkeley: UC Press, 1987), 68.
  23. Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagan, 237.
  24. Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagan, xv.
  25. ReaganFoundation, “‘Evil Empire’ Speech by President Reagan – Address to the National Association of Evangelicals,” YouTube, April 03, 2009, (Accessed May 16, 2018).
  26. Michelle Ye Hee Lee, “Donald Trump’s False Comments Connecting Mexican Immigrants and Crime,” The Washington Post, July 08, 2015, (Accessed May 16, 2018).
  27. CBSNewsOnline. “Trump Reads ‘The Snake’ Poem,” YouTube, April 29, 2017, (Accessed May 16, 2018.)
  28. Hollis Phelps, “Maybe It’s Time to Admit That The ‘Grotesque Caricature’ of White Evangelicals Is the Reality,” Religion Dispatches. April 19, 2018, (Accessed May 16, 2018).
  29. William E. Connolly, Capitalism and Christianity, American Style (Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 4.
  30. William E. Connolly, Capitalism and Christianity, 4.
  31. Miguel E. Vatter, Crediting God: Sovereignty and Religion in the Age of Global Capitalism (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), 875.
  32. Vatter, Crediting God, 875.
  33. Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), 1
  34. Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, 29.
  35. Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, 21.
  36. Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump), “Trade Wars Are Good, and Easy to Win,” Twitter,
  37. Michael Sheetz, “Trump: ‘We Are Not in a Trade War with China, That War Was Lost Many Years Ago,’” CNBC, April 04, 2018, (Accessed May 16, 2018).
  38. Wendy Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 2017), 73.
  39. Wendy Brown, Walled States, 76.
  40. Wendy Brown, Walled States, 109.
  41. Wendy Brown, Walled States, 119.
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