One of the questions worth asking about the rise of Donald Trump in American politics is the extent to which he took advantage of a latent frustration over immigration — or whether he's driving new hostility among people who hadn't paid much attention to politics in the past.
In other words: Was someone preaching Trump's isolationist message naturally going to do well, or have those themes risen to prominence because of Trump?
This is surprisingly hard to suss out. For example, we have no way of knowing how many people would have supported a temporary ban on Muslim immigration to the United States prior to Trump making that proposal, for the simple reason that it had never come up before. Over the course of the Republican primary contests, we saw broad support for the idea — but was that support just sitting out there, untapped? Or was it because so many Republicans embraced Trump that it became popular. (It was certainly more popular among his supporters than supporters of other candidates.)
Last week, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Brookings Institution released a new iteration of a survey they conducted in 2013, evaluating public attitudes about the role of immigration in American society. It's clear that Trump supporters (and Republicans more broadly) currently show more skepticism about the value of immigrants than most Americans. By comparing the new results with those from 2013, though, we can get a sense of the extent to which Trump has taken advantage of undercurrents in the electorate — and the extent to which he has heightened them.
Take this question, which gets at Trump's mantra of making America great again. Has American culture changed for the worse since the 1960s? If we compare overall numbers to the demographic group most closely identified with Trump support — white men without a college education — we can see that the strength of that sentiment predates Trump.
Half of Americans agree with that idea — but 63 percent of white men with no college education do. Since 2013, the percentage of people saying that has dipped among both groups, but at both points, there was a big gap between non-college white men and Americans overall.
Contrast that with this: Asked whether the idea of an America where most people aren't white bothers them, more than a third of non-college white men (37 percent) said they completely or mostly agree. Only about a fifth of all Americans do.
But since 2013, the percentage of non-college white men saying that has more than doubled. They're now much more likely to say it than Americans on the whole, which didn't used to be the case.
Now, we can't say for certain that this change is a function of Trump. 2015 was the first year that babies younger than a year old were mostly non-white, according to data from the Census Bureau released last week. Unlike the 1950s question, though, a core Trump demographic has grown more skeptical about the prospect of a majority-minority country.
PRRI and Brookings asked a similar question about the American way of life. Three-quarters of non-college white men completely or mostly agree with the idea that it must be "protected against foreign influence," as does a majority of the country on the whole. The margins for non-college white men, though, are much larger, and support for the idea within that group has grown since 2013. Among all Americans, it remained about the same.
Interestingly, concern about Islam specifically has increased. Similar percentages say they completely or mostly agree that Islam's values are at odds with the American way of life as say we must protect against foreign influence.
But that sentiment has grown among all Americans since 2013 nearly as much as it grew among non-college white men.
Back to immigration: Most Americans say the immigration system is completely or mostly broken. But since 2013, the percentage of non-college white men who say that has grown substantially. Three years ago, that group thought the system was broken at the same rate as Americans on the whole. Now they're much more likely to view it as such.
Non-college white men are also more likely to say that the number of Americans who have been deported over the past five or six years has decreased. (They haven't; we looked at this in December.) That's different than three years ago. In 2013, non-college white men were about as likely to say that the figure had gone down as Americans overall.
This group has consistently been more likely to say that we should make a concerted effort to find and deport immigrants in the country illegally. More than 60 percent of non-college white men hold that opinion — down slightly from 2013 but still far more than the country on the whole.
The group has consistently believed that changes to American society from immigrants are a bad thing on the whole. More than two-thirds of non-college white men believe that's true — a figure that has gone up since 2013. Overall, half of Americans agree that such changes are bad. That's up since 2013.
What has changed since 2013 for non-college white men, though, is the belief that immigrants are actually changing the country. Nearly half of the group says that immigrants are changing American society a lot — up six points from 2013, while Americans on the whole were less likely to think that's the case. This would seem to mirror the increase in concern over the shift to a majority-minority nation.
Again, we can't tell from this the extent to which Trump has driven a shift in opinions, though there are some hints. What we can say clearly is that some of the anti-immigration rhetoric that has powered Trump's rise preceded his candidacy — and that one group from which he draws an overwhelming amount of support was more than ready for a message like his.