Certain questions haunt many of us who care about the nature and future of the Republican Party. Is the GOP as it currently appears — defined by white identity and excited by cruelty and exclusion — really the way it has always been? Does Trumpism represent a hostile takeover of Republicanism or its natural outworking?

A recent study by political scientists Lilliana Mason, Julie Wronski and John V. Kane sheds some interesting light on these matters. They compare a Democracy Fund voter survey conducted in 2011 with a survey of the same voters done in 2017. And they analyze the factors in the 2011 group that predict current approval for the Democratic Party, for the Republican Party and for President Trump.

Mason, Wronski and Kane found that support for the Democratic Party is associated with warmer feelings toward African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims and LGBT people. This type of “in-group love” is what you’d expect. “Put simply,” said the authors, “when you like the people who make up the party, you like the party.”

The results concerning the GOP were more mixed, but similar. Warmer opinions about whites and Christians in 2011 predicted later support for the GOP — the Republican version of “in-group love.” But hostility toward African Americans and Hispanics did not drive future Republican support (though negative feelings toward Muslims and LGBT people did have limited predictive value).

Support for Trump, in contrast, was strongly associated with “out-group hatred” of African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims and LGBT people. “In every case, the people who felt hostile towards Democratic groups in 2011 are most likely to be Trump supporters today. The same cannot be said of Republican partisans.”

What to make of these distinctions? “In-group love” of whites and Christians for other whites and Christians is hardly a noble political motivation. “Love your white neighbor as yourself” doesn’t have quite the same moral ring to it. What Mason calls the “social sorting” of the parties — in which partisan identities are closely associated with ideological, racial and cultural identities — is a source of deep and damaging polarization.

Yet it comes as a relief to some of us that Republican partisans and Trump supporters can be distinguished from each other at all. And “in-group love” is certainly better than an “out-group hatred” of anyone who looks and thinks differently.

There is evidence, it appears, that the party of George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney was not merely the party of Trump in waiting. “Trump support,” say the authors, “is uniquely dependent upon out-group hatred.” This is not a normal sort of partisanship. It is partisanship supercharged by prejudice and contempt. This fits the experience of elected Republicans I have interviewed, many of whom no longer recognize the political party they rose within. The players and attitudes in many states and districts have shifted. Something different and disturbing is taking place.

Trump did not create this out-group animosity; he exploited it, organized it and sent it into political battle. “Even in the 2016 Republican presidential primary,” the authors note, “out-group hatred predicted support for Trump, but not for [Ted] Cruz, [Marco] Rubio or [John] Kasich.” They go on: “We tend to think of partisans as being generally intolerant of outsiders, but our findings suggest that Trump supporters are unique in terms of their out-group hatred.”

This offers the comfort of knowing that the whole GOP is not united and defined by contempt for outsiders. But the indictment of the Republican non-haters is still quite damning. In every way that matters politically, they have accepted the leadership of a president and a movement that cultivate hatred as a strategy. The GOP non-haters — say, business conservatives and social conservatives — have deferred to the hater in chief. They have (for the most part) held his coat, carried his water and licked his boots — which are not easy to do simultaneously.

All of which raises another vexing question: Which is worse, bigotry or cowardice in the face of bigotry?

Whatever the answer, we should prepare ourselves for an especially ugly and destructive 2020 presidential election. Trump seems to believe, with some justification, that the cultivation of anger against outsiders won him the Republican nomination and the presidency in 2016. We should expect more of the same, and worse. The racism, misogyny and dehumanization — the assault on migrants, Muslims and refugees — have only begun. And those who enable it are equally responsible for it.

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