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Trump’s Political Rhetoric About Elections Can Be Dangerous, Says Pitt Professor

Evan Vucci
Donald Trump's political rhetoric around elections can be "dangerous," says Pitt professor Paul Johnson.


On today's program: The polls are closed, but President Trump continues to ratchet up the rhetoric around the presidential election; traditional retail spaces look for untraditional tenants as demand for storefronts in malls continues to go down; and a new grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services aims to increase access to technology in shelters. 

Trump supporters may feel alienated and angry, says Pitt professor
(00:00 — 6:44)

The political rhetoric was expected to intensify as Election Day approached. It reached a whole new level in the days and hours after polls across the country closed. President Trump called the election process a “fraud” and told the White House press corps, “If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us.” There is no evidence to support either of these claims.

“Trump is trying to provide a lens for many of his supporters to interpret the results of the election where they can, sort of, make their own suppositions or inferences about the kinds of voters that are ‘legal’ and the kinds of votes that are ‘illegal,’” saysPaul Johnson, a professor of communication and rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh whose research focuses on argumentation, American politics and race studies.

This language can be dangerous for people who do support Trump and those who don’t, he says. “You know there’s this view that Trump is their champion against a broader system from which they feel alienated. And those feelings of alienation will not just continue but, you know, will probably intensify and grow.”

When Trump introduces conspiracy theories and dismisses them, Johnson says his partisans still understand his meaning. “The consistent message in all of those things is ‘trust yourself and trust me because we are separate from and different from this whole system.’”

Malls in decline turn to movie theaters, community colleges in attempt to boost business
(6:47 — 12:28)

Tennessee-based CBL Properties owns more than 100 malls across the country, including the Monroeville and Westmoreland Malls in the Pittsburgh region. The company has filed for bankruptcy, but says the two malls will remain open while the business is restructured.

“Changing consumer behavior and expectations have led to changes in retail needs and retail operations, and that certainly has had an impact on malls,” saysDorene Ciletti, director of the marketing and sales program at Point Park University’s School of Business.

Brick and mortar stores have been on the decline for a while, she continues. As traditional retailers have struggled to keep up with online retail giants, they’ve reduced the amount of space leased in malls and other storefronts, leaving hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space empty.

Many malls have pivoted to entertainment and experience-based attractions to bring in new tenants. “Those who are doing the leasing for the malls are trying to be more creative in how they bring different entities into those empty spaces,” Ciletti says.

A“mini casino” is scheduled to open in the Westmoreland Mall later this month. Other malls have converted retail space into micro apartments, added movie theaters, and leased space to community colleges to bring in new tenants.

But high school students looking for jobs shouldn’t feel too worried about the downturn of traditional malls. 

“There will still be, you know, store-based retail,” Ciletti says. “So I don’t think the declining nature of malls and some on ground retail is going to have a significant impact on our high school students.”

Local shelter receives grant for technology to help families experiencing homelessness
(12:31 — 18:01)

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services has distributed more than $400,000 in grants to shelters serving families experiencing homelessness and domestic violence survivors and their families.

TheWomen's Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh received $2,390 from the grant. Anita Hammond, the children’s program supervisor for the Center, says they’re using the funding to improve internet access and support purchase of computer equipment for parents and children to use while staying at the shelter.

“We make sure that everything is covered as far as anything that they may basically need to help through this time. And it is hard for some parents who are, so to speak, teachers for the first time with their children,” she says.

The grant comes at a crucial time. Hammond says the Center has seen an influx of people during the pandemic, and is working to help all of them. They’re awaiting other grants to help them cover the costs of more iPads and laptops for parents and children to use at the Center.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.


Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago.
Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Julia Zenkevich is a general assignment reporter for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at
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