Paul Elliott Johnson, PhD

1426 Cathedral of Learning
Office hours: By appt.
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PhD, University of Iowa


Paul matriculated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2005 with a degree in political science and after a successful career as a competitor for the William Pitt Debating Union. He returned to Pitt in 2011 while finishing his studies at the University of Iowa. Despite hailing from Nashville, TN he is a big fan of most things Pittsburgh.



Areas of Interest

Paul is interested in a varied body of academic literatures, including but not limited to rhetorical theory, work on victimhood in American culture, theories of gender and sexuality as they related to American conceptions of selfhood, psychoanalysis, and democratic political theory. The uniting interest in all of these interests is a concern about national identity, namely: how does America as a nation reconcile its intense celebration of heterogeneity in narratives of its founding reconcile its committment to pluralism with its actually existing character as a polity riven with inequalities.



Paul Elliott Johnson studies rhetorical theory, argumentation, and American politics, with a particular focus on rhetorics of populism and conservative identity. Utilizing lenses drawn from psychoanalysis, post-structural democratic theory, and gender studies, he is working on a manuscript entitled I, The People: The History of American Conservative Populism which examines the last half-century populist turn of American conservatism and its consequences. In attempting to navigate between the Scylla of traditionalism and the Charybdis of libertarianism, Republicans extracted long-standing political gains in terms of establshing themselves as the party of "real America" but at a Pyrrhic cost of fanning populist flames that threaten practices of good governance and democratic citizenship. The manuscript tells this story by examining key inflection points from the mid-twentieth century onward, including Ronald Reagan's famous "A Time for Choosing" speech, President Reagan's 1984 presidential campaign, 1994 the "Year of the Angry White Male," and finally the rise of the Tea Party and Trumpism as contemporary consequences of conservative populism. This populism departs from previous American populism which theorized "the people" as an interest group demanding the reallocation of resources. The conservative "people" are a rhetorical figure whose nihilistic demands for political recognition negate the concept of government (and indeed politics) as matters of course, with far ranging implications for the American's polity's capacity to govern effectively, oppose the power of economic elites, and  facilitate a more just union.

Paul has several publications forthcoming, including an essay appearing in Critical Studies in Media Communication which figures the critical and public adoration of the television show Breaking Bad as a mode of white supremacist compensation for two then-contemporary threats to white masculinity: the 2008 financial crisis and the election of Barack Obama president. Another forthcoming publication in Argumentation and Advocacy uses the work of Giorgio Agamben to examine how the controversy over trying 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as a criminal suggests the ways in which popular sovereignty poses philosophical difficulties for advocates of the war terror, arguing for the inclusion of public controversies as trials into the category of the "popular trial."

Paul has other article length projects in process, including an essay rethinking demagoguery in the context of the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, another piece theorizing the origins of "state-phobic" American populism in sixties-era shifts against the managerial state apparatus, and a third project about the television shows Veep and House of Cards as showcases for the danger that tragic populism poses to the American polity and the value offered by a more comic take on politics, respectively.


Von Burg, R., & Johnson, P. E. (2009). Yearning for a Past that Never Was: Baseball, Steroids and the Anxiety of the American Dream. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 351-371.

Courses Taught

  • Public Speaking (COMMRC 0520)
  • Power, Knowledge, and Desire (COMMRC 1143)
  • Argumentation
  • Rhetoric and Social Theory
  • Politics of Popular Culture


American Foresnics Association Outstanding Dissertation Award (2015)