Why doesn’t President Trump’s base feel betrayed yet, as so many observers think it should? Pundits have argued that they would feel alienated by his State of the Union address, his firing of Stephen K. Bannon and his trip to Davos to mingle with the global elite.
Our research suggests it might be because Trump is delivering the traditional conservative policies that large shares of his voters wanted all along.
That’s what we found when we asked 2,600 Americans in fall 2016 to “name something in your life that would improve if Donald Trump were elected president.” We wanted to know what immediately came to people’s minds and which aspects of the Trump pitch they found most appealing. The responses to our open-ended question suggest that Trump’s appeal was not so much based on the ways he was different from a typical Republican but rather that supercharged conservatism was a big part of what made him appealing.
Here’s how we did our research
Our question was part of a larger, online, three-wave panel survey conducted by the New York University Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) lab with the support of the National Science Foundation. Because of needs of the survey unrelated to this post, the survey combines a random sample of Americans with an oversample of Twitter users. This piece reports selected results from the third and final wave of the survey that took place between Oct. 25 and Nov. 7, 2016. We offer observations based on the “open-ended” answers from self-identified Trump supporters. We are still in the process of coding, and will be able to release more quantitative assessments this spring.
Give us jobs, cut the red tape, keep us safe
The Trump candidacy was, to be sure, out of the ordinary in certain ways. Among other things, the GOP brand used to be about an outward rejection of identity politics. Trump, in contrast, made issues related to white ethnic identity more central to his campaign. But what often came to people’s minds when they talked about Trump was small-government conservatism, “better chances to find a good job” and the prospect of lower taxes.
Some respondents said they expected that the Trump administration would “bring companies back to the U.S.” Others said they hoped that fewer jobs would be outsourced, saying he will “fine companies that move their jobs overseas.” Being perceived as pro-business also appears to have contributed to Trump’s appeal. We found comments such as:
- “[My life will improve because] lowering taxes on the job creators would allow them to offer more jobs and kick start the economy.”
- “Taxes might go down, Republicans in the White House means furthering of conservative values.”
- “In general government would tend to stay out of my business.”
Others mentioned their skepticism of welfare, which has been for some a staple of white resentment — as when a female homemaker in Texas said that “people who truly qualify for government assistance would receive it and those that are leaching on to it would be stopped.”
Voters with similar attitudes would have supported a different Republican candidate had Trump not emerged victorious from the primaries — not because they are blindly partisan, but because they in general agree with much of the Republican platform and rhetoric.
Trump is the Republican brand on steroids
We also found many answers that referred to safety or national security, such as “stopping crime,” “peace of mind knowing he will send all illegals back,” “my city no longer being overrun by illegals,” “he would reduce the threat of terrorism.” These are phrases with racial and ethnic overtones; they also suggest Trump benefited from the GOP’s ownership of domestic and national security issues. A significant number of respondents further expressed excitement about the border wall and a “sense of security from radical Muslims.”
A related theme comes under a broad umbrella of pride and respect, with hopes like:
- “I won’t be stressing over national security, this guy loves America.”
- “My renewed faith in citizens of the United States for getting their heads out of the sands for a change.”
- “Respect from foreign governments.”
- “Be proud again at being an American.”
- “Would improve pride, trust.”
- “Peace of mind.”
Rejecting cultural liberalism
Many voters complained about what they saw as the imposition of “political correctness.” They believed that as president, Trump could and would reverse that trend, delivering:
- “The elimination of corruption and political correctness.”
- “Being able to follow my religious beliefs.”
- “Equal rights for Christians.”
- “Less discrimination against white people.”
- “Demands to bow to the ‘politically correct’ agenda of the LGBTQ, anti-life abortion, anti firearm, anti-constitution, and anti-Christ groups will be less.”
In a related way, some of our Trump voters expressed spite and animosity toward the Democratic nominee. A male respondent from Florida who did not identify with either political party said: “My state of mind would improve knowing that evil Hillary was not at the helm of it and that we had sent a message to D.C. that we want change, we don’t want the status quo, good ole boy system.” Other examples include:
- “Would enjoy the embarrassment of Hillary Clinton being beaten by Donald Trump.”
- “Schadenfreude from seeing friends with cultlike adoration for Clinton flounder.”
- “Democrat would not be in White House.”
- “Hillary would likely go to prison.”
- “Seeing Hillary behind bars.”
- “My blood pressure, if I don’t have to listen to Hillary for 4 years!”
Trump benefited from the Republican brand
Today, Trump is viewed as a disruptive, anti-system candidate, but he actually benefited from the GOP brand even while he reminded everyone that he was not a product of the Republican establishment. That ultimately made him, in the eyes of some, a candidate of hope, and respondents said they would vote for him because:
- “my whole way of life [would get getter]”
- “literally everything”
- “Everything. No more politically correct garbage. Finally have a president with the guts to stand up to foreign dignitaries instead of bowing down to them.”
It may turn out that some of Trump’s base is more forgiving of his supposed transgressions not because they are blindly loyal but because by pursuing “traditional” Republican policies, he may doing what they wanted all along.
Jan Zilinsky (@janzilinsky) is a graduate research associate at the New York University Social Media and Political Participation lab and a PhD candidate in NYU’s department of politics.