Explaining Donald Trump’s Hold on Many White Voters

Trump partisans B&W
Some voters for Trump tend to see the election in black and white terms. (Photo: Jamelle Bouie/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Is support for Donald Trump largely driven by racial resentment? To some observers, the answer is self-evident; to others, the assertion is overstated and deeply unfair.

With the U.S. presidential election less than two weeks away, we have some new empirical evidence. A just-published study finds many white Americans are more likely to support the Republican presidential candidate if they are reminded that, in a quarter-century, people of color will make up a majority of the population.

This post by Tom Jacobs originally appeared at Pacific Standardunder the title, “Among Trump Supporters, There’s a Real Fear of Whites Becoming the American Minority.”

“The changing racial demographics of America are directly contributing to Trump’s success among whites by increasing perceived threats to their group’s status,” writes a research team led by University of California–Santa Barbara psychologist Brenda Major.

“Trump has successfully tapped into the threat to group status that white Americans who are highly identified with their racial group feel as their numerical advantage shrinks.”

The study, published in the journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, featured 375 white Americans recruited online in March, 262 of whom identified themselves as Democrats, and 114 as Republicans.

Participants were randomly assigned to carefully read one of two press releases. One accurately stated that racial minorities will outnumber non-Hispanic whites in the United States by 2042; the other steered clear of race, using similar language to indicate geographic mobility is increasing.

Each then indicated their level of support for the presidential candidates who were still active at that time (Trump, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders), and reported their degree of support for eight of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, including building a wall across the U.S. border with Mexico.

In addition, using a one-to-seven scale, they indicated their level of agreement with such statements as “The ethnic group I belong to is an important reflection of who I am”; “My ethnic group should be threatened by growing ethnic diversity in the U.S.”; and “Political correctness norms interfere with Americans’ right to free speech.”

Not surprisingly, whites who reported strong identification with their ethnic group felt a greater sense of threat when informed of the coming demographic shift. This sense of peril was, in turn, associated with increased support for Trump and his anti-immigrant policies, as well as opposition to perceived political correctness.

“Trump’s rhetoric and policies thus appear to hold special appeal” for certain white Americans, the researchers note — those who feel their race is a key component of their personal identity. If reminded of the coming demographic shift, such people “moved to the right, and towards Trump,” even if they called themselves Democrats.

In contrast, among whites low in ethnic identification, reminders of the racial demographic shift did not increase group status threat, nor did it lead to greater support for Trump, or for conservative policies,” the researchers add. “These findings illustrate that increasing racial diversity is threatening to some, but not all, white Americans.”

The results suggest the likelihood of Trumpism outliving Trump’s candidacy may depend upon whether, over time, the percentage of white Americans who view their race as a key component of their personal identity increases or declines. Major and her colleagues are not optimistic on that score.

“As white Americans’ numerical majority shrinks, and they increasingly feel that their group’s status is threatened, white identity will become increasingly salient and central to white Americans,” they write.

“To the extent that their ethnic identity as white becomes an important part of their self-concept, it is likely to guide white Americans’ political preferences in the future, especially on policies … related to immigration and tolerance of diversity.”

America’s political upheaval may be just beginning.

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Tom Jacobs

Tom Jacobs is a staff writer for Pacific Standard magazine. Through interviews, reviews, and essays, he has tracked and analyzed trends in the arts and sciences, with an emphasis on psychology, the role of culture, and the cultivation of creativity. A native of Chicago, Jacobs earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern University.

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