Date of Award


Degree Type

Closed Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Mary E. Stuckey

Second Advisor

Carol K. Winkler

Third Advisor

David M. Cheshier

Fourth Advisor

Debra Hawhee


This project examines the heckling of American presidents, using the Obama presidency as a representative case study, to understand the mechanisms in place when presidential rhetoric goes beyond carefully scripted messages. After conducting a multimodal rhetorical analysis of forty heckling cases during the Obama presidency, I test my findings from Obama’s presidency against that of Donald Trump’s. Through this comparative analysis I propose a theory of affective ripples in heckling, which argues that the struggle between civic engagement, enactments of presidential authority, and the audience’s affective state mimics the dynamics of the ripple effect phenomenon in physics. The rhetorical weight of heckling produces ripples that represent the struggle between three forces: the “mass” and “shape” configuring the intensity of heckling, the viscosity of presidential authority as liquid, and affect as gravity. Presidential responses to hecklers are significant because (1) they are representative of how political resistance is negotiated in democratic settings; (2) they reveal the different ways that presidents enact authority in challenging times; (3) unscripted presidential responses reveal a personal hierarchy of values influenced by affective dynamics responsive to pressures of space and time; (4) presidential responses to heckling can be understood synecdochally as a symbolic representation of a president’s understanding of civility, which, in turn, teaches us about the state of democracy in the country. Conceptualizing heckling as a mode of civic engagement, I argue that presidential responses to hecklers reveal the state of tolerance towards dissent during a presidency, which is emblematic of the state of democracy.