Two days after Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy, Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African American worshipers at the historically black Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C. Pictures of Roof holding Confederate flags soon surfaced — and so, too, did calls from Democratic and Republican politicians to remove the flag and other Confederate symbols from government property.
Trump was one of those politicians. Within a week of the shooting, Trump came out in favor of taking the Confederate flag down from South Carolina’s Capitol, adding, “I think they should put it in the museum and let it go.” Politico summarized his position: “Trump to Confederate flag: You’re fired!”
Of course, Trump took a much different position on Confederate symbols this week. He described removing Confederate statues as “changing history … changing culture.” He defended marchers in a white supremacist rally that turned violent, saying they were protesting the removal of “a very, very important statue.” And, according to a White House source, he “expressed sympathy with nonviolent protesters who he said were defending their ‘heritage.’ ”
Trump’s shift on Confederate symbols parallels his evolving connection to Republican voters — a majority of whom, according to a poll taken shortly after the Charleston church shooting, opposed both efforts to ban displays of the Confederate flag on government property and to remove tributes to those who fought for the Confederacy from public places.
In those initial days of the campaign, when Trump came out against the Confederate flag, more Republicans rated him unfavorably than favorably (48 percent to 44 percent), and he was the preferred choice of only about 10 percent of Republican primary voters at that time.
But it didn’t take long for Trump to win Republicans over, especially Republicans who support the Confederate flag.
In the Public Religion Research Institute’s September 2015 American Values Survey (AVS), 60 percent of Republicans who thought that the Confederate flag symbolizes Southern pride rated Trump favorably. He was rated about 20 points less favorably among Republicans who thought the flag represents racism, but those individuals make up less than a fifth of the GOP.
But Trump grew disproportionately more popular among Confederate flag sympathizers in the party over the course of the campaign. In the October 2016 AVS, nearly 80 percent of Republicans who thought the flag symbolizes Southern pride rated Trump favorably, compared with just 45 percent of those who thought it represented racism.
Racial attitudes are a strong determinant of public opinion on the Confederate flag. Thus, the pattern here is consistent with several analyses showing that attitudes about race and ethnicity were deeply implicated in Trump’s rise.
Indeed, Trump performed best among Republicans who held unfavorable views of African Americans, Muslims, immigrants and minority groups in general. Perceptions that whites are treated unfairly, and that the country’s growing diversity is a bad thing, were also significantly associated with support for Trump in the primaries. These attitudes were also strongly linked to general election vote choices.
The upshot is that Trump voters were 50 points more likely than Clinton voters to say that the Confederate flag has more to do with Southern pride than racism in the 2016 AVS (80 percent to 30 percent, respectively), and 60 points more likely than Clinton supporters to oppose removing the statue of Robert E. Lee from a park in Charlottesville (81 percent to 21 percent, respectively).
It’s not too surprising, then, that Trump went from “firing the Confederate flag” in June 2015 to defending and even sympathizing with white supremacists protesting the removal of Confederate symbols. It shows again how Trump has increasingly appealed to his base as his approval among the rest of the country dips.
And Trump’s base sees nothing wrong with Confederate symbols.
Michael Tesler is associate professor of political science at the University of California at Irvine and author of “Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era.”