Trump Needs His Base to Burn With Anger

But has he raised the political temperature too high for his own good?

by Thomas B. Edsall


For Democrats seeking to pry loose moderates and conservatives in 2020, the voters drawn to President Trump by their shared animosity to all things liberal are an impenetrable constituency, long gone, while more traditional Republicans offer the potential for modest support.

This is just one of the strategic challenges facing those committed to making Trump a one-term president.

John Kane, a political scientist at N.Y.U. and a co-author of a new paper, “Ingroup Lovers or Outgroup Haters? The Social Roots of Trump Support and Partisan Identity,” is among the activists and scholars examining these challenges. In an email, Kane described Trump’s lock on a key set of voters: “For Republicans that absolutely loathe and detest” such progressive constituencies as minorities, immigrants and members of the LGBT community, Kane wrote, “an appeal from Democratic Party elite is likely to be dismissed out of hand.”

Among Republicans more sympathetic to these liberal groups, Kane continued, “the share that could, under any circumstances, actually vote for a Democrat is quite small, below 10 percent, and this is likely concentrated among those who only weakly identify with or lean toward the Republican Party.”

Republicans cross-pressured by partisan loyalty, on one hand, and aversion to Trump on the other, Kane added, “may instead opt to abstain from voting at all.”

In the calculus of elections, an abstention from voting amounts to a gain of one vote, while a conversion — from Republican to Democrat or vice versa — amounts to two: one lost by the other side and one gained for yours.

Julie Wronski, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi, who wrote the “Ingroup Lovers or Outgroup Haters?” paper with Kane and Lilliana Mason of the University of Maryland, noted in an email that

in all of our statistical models, the effect of voters’ party ID was larger than the effect of their group feelings. So while warmth toward groups like blacks and Muslims can make voters amenable to Democratic candidates, it’s unclear whether these feelings can override the strong and longstanding influence of partisanship.

Wronski pointed out in an email that Trump is campaigning

largely on issues of white identity. And given the exchange Thursday night between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on school busing, it appears the Democratic Party is going to also focus on identity-based issues in 2020. Thus, it is looking like feelings toward the groups targeted by the candidates will matter.

All of which helps explain Trump’s shift to rolling back gay and lesbian rights, for example, after many decades of supporting just those causes.

In the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump described himself as a “real friend” of the LGBTQ community. Since taking office, however, the Trump administration has argued that the 1964 Civil Rights Act rights law does not protect gay workers from discrimination and that transgender people should be barred from military service.

There is an underlying political logic to the switch from Trump’s campaign stance to his policies once he won the White House. As he heads into the 2020 election, his “base,” the voters essential to his re-election, are hostile not only to gay men and lesbians, but to racial and ethnic minorities as well.

Trump’s political survival now depends on catering to — indeed, inflaming — those hostilities.

Mason, Wronski and Kane found that under Trump’s leadership, Republican voters increasingly fall into two camps.

The first camp could be called the Trump Republican Party or the party of animosity and resentment. These voters, the core of the president’s support, are driven by a dislike — often crossing into hatred — of constituencies associated with the Democratic Party: African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslim-Americans and the LGBTQ community.

The second camp, the more traditional Republican Party — the older Main Street and Wall Street wings — is made up of voters for whom positive feelings toward key conservative constituencies are more important than their antagonism toward Democratic identity blocs.

As a case study, let’s look at perceptions of lesbians and gay men. The three authors tracked attitudes of voters toward these constituencies from 2011 to 2016 and found that the more animus voters feel toward lesbian and gay people, the stronger their support for Trump.

Among “respondents whose feelings toward lesbian and gay people grew much colder between 2011 and 2016,” they write, “approval of Trump in 2017 is about 55 percent. For those whose feelings toward gay men and lesbians grew much warmer, approval of Trump is around 30 percent.”

While warmth or coldness correlates powerfully with views of Trump himself, feelings about gay and lesbian people did not affect feelings about the Republican Party per se. Kane, Mason and Wronski call feelings about the Republican Party — not the president — “G.O.P. approval,” as shown in the accompanying graphic.

A similar pattern emerged in the case of changing views among Republican voters toward African-Americans. Racist attitudes correlate with support for Trump specifically, but do not change views about the Republican Party.

Clearly, Trump benefits immensely from hostility to African-Americans, to Hispanics and to gay men and lesbians. If he is an expert at anything, it is at exploiting and generating hostility. Trump’s relentless derogation of racial and ethnic minorities, his support for the anti-abortion movement and his right-wing appointments to the judiciary, reflect his political dependence on a key bloc of his loyalists, white born again and evangelical Christians.

These voters, in turn, have demonstrated exceptional determination to use the ballot box to protect their beliefs, values and prejudices from liberal challenge.

In a June 25 Atlantic essay “The Electoral Time Machine That Could Re-elect Trump,” Robert P. Jones, founder and C.E.O. of the Public Religion Research Institute, showed that white evangelical Christians have successfully maintained their strength as a voting bloc despite declining as a share of the population.

The accompanying chart, covering elections from 2004 to 2018, shows that as a share of the population, white evangelical protestants have fallen precipitously from 23 percent in 2004 to 15 percent in 2018.

Over the same period, however, their share of the electorate actually grew, from 23 percent to 26 percent in 2008, and stayed at that level through the 2018 election.

What this demonstrates is that white Christians are deeply committed to challenging the ascendance of liberalism marked by the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

White evangelical Protestants remain more opposed to gay marriage than other religious constituencies, including Mormons — another political rationale for Trump to adopt policies adversarial to the LGBT community.

The 2020 election, then, will likely provide support to the central thesis developed by Christopher Ashen and Larry Bartels, political scientists at Princeton and Vanderbilt, in their book “Democracy for Realists.”

They argue that the classic view of American Democracy, a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” amounts to a “folk theory” of democracy.

Instead, Achen and Bartels contend,

voters, even the most informed voters, typically make choices not on the basis of policy preferences or ideology, but on the basis of who they are — their social identities. In turn, those social identities shape how they think, what they think, and where they belong in the party system.

The Achen-Bartels thesis received additional support last month from a study published in the journal Political Behavior, “In-Group Love Versus Out-Group Hate: Which Is More Important to Partisans and When?

The study’s three authors — Karyn Amira, Jennifer Cole Wright and Daniela Goya-Tocchetto, all of the College of Charleston — provide insight into the political motivation behind Trump’s incendiary accusations against perceived or real adversaries, especially the media. They argue that in general “people tend to act in ways that benefit the in-group, rather than denigrate the out-group.” However, this seemingly “more benign form of prejudice can shift focus under situations of symbolic threat — activating out-group animosity.”

In the end, Amira, Wright and Goya-Tocchetto write, “we found that a symbolic moral threat to their party caused respondents to lash out at the opposing party.”

Trump portrays his political opponents — Democrats are “sick people” and the media are “enemies of the people” — as threats to the social order, aware that tapping into voter anger and anxiety is one of the most effective tools to drive up election turnout.

Alex Gage, head of TargetPoint Consulting, a Republican firm specializing in voter mobilization, found that “anger is a much stronger motivation” than recounting the beneficial things a politician has done.

Trump has aligned himself with two overlapping, declining constituencies that are clearly motivated by a combination of anger, resentment and anxiety — white evangelical Christians and whites without college degrees.

If Trump is to win re-election next year, he must raise the stakes for these two sets of voters so that they turn out in unprecedented numbers. Demonizing immigrants and other minorities is crucial to this strategy.

As last week’s debates made clear, most of the Democratic presidential candidates, partly in response to Trump’s incendiary provocations, are doubling down on what appears to be, in traditional political terms, a risky strategy: identifying with just those constituencies Trump loves to paint in the harshest terms.

But Democrats may be on to something. A measure of the mood of the electorate based on a compilation of large amounts of poll data developed by James Stimson, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, portrays a landscape that is currently favorable to Democrats. The Policy Agendas Project at the University of Texas, which has adopted and regularly updates Stimson’s survey measure, reported last month that

The annual estimate for 2018 is the most liberal ever recorded in the 68 year history of Mood, just slightly higher than the previous high point of 1961. It represents the expected leftward movement in thermostatic reaction to the presidency of Donald Trump.

“In terms of impact on 2020, it shows that Democrats have some room to endorse liberal policies because more of the public is doing so,” Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State, wrote in response to my request for his interpretation of the data.

Grossman pointed out that the trend stands “in contrast to 1996, when the pickup was relatively conservative and Bill Clinton won by explicitly moderating.”

If the leftward movement detected by the Policy Agendas Project is sustained over the next 16 months — and if it is in fact a “thermostatic reaction” to Trump — then the anger that the president has so successfully fanned may now turn against him.

Would that be too much to hope for?

Thomas B. Edsall teaches political journalism at Columbia University Thomas B. Edsall is also a contributor to The New York Times Opinion section s. His column on strategic and demographic trends in American politics appears every Wednesday.


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