[Overview] Trump Voters IV – Ethnocentrism

[Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Part VI; Part VII; Part VIII; Single page]

by David Severa

Racial attitudes

Okay, we’ve established who Trump voters are and the kind of environment they live in. How do we get from that to Trumpism? Economic and social malaise don’t self-evidently lead to Trumpism, even if one can sense an intuitive connection. What do these voters believe that makes them distinct? There is plenty of evidence that, above and beyond any economic factors, race and voters’ attitudes towards race matter. We’ve already seen that Trump does even worse among non-white voters than the GOP in general and he has definitely captured the support of outspoken racist whites. But what about Trump voters beyond the fringes? (The alt-right online is loud, not large.) What do they think about race and how has it influenced their votes? The racial divide must be accounted for. From one sympathetic account (which I recommend reading):

Imagine that you were born in a modest Prairie style home in small town Kentucky. Beyond the shadows of the maple trees that surrounded your house, farmland stretched down the highway, interrupted only by small Country homes with white fences, bright gardens, and sunny porches. After high school, you stayed in your hometown and had a family. But jobs were difficult to find. In your father’s day, there were plenty of good manufacturing jobs. But those had left. And the town was changing. The houses that you remembered as warm and sunny were now faded with rotting fences and unkempt lawns. Buildings that used to house hundreds of workers were empty and dilapidated with shattered windows….

Things were getting worse. You knew several people who had lost their jobs to Mexican immigrants who had just arrived in your town. You heard many more complaining about this on the radio, lamenting that immigrants had replaced them at the factory….

So, that was it—your town would continue to decay while politicians continued to pursue policies that hurt you and everyone you knew. And worse still, you weren’t even allowed to say anything about it—weren’t allowed to voice your real political opinions—without being denounced. If you were white, what did you have to complain about? You were privileged. You weren’t a victim. It was time you had gotten with the program. Embraced diversity. And stopped complaining about lower wages, fewer jobs, and changing cultural norms.

Enter Trump.

From a less sympathetic account:

For decades, Republicans relied on the Southern Strategy to win the White House. By using coded racial appeals like complaints about “welfare queens,” “crack babies” and school busing programs, they pulled whites disenchanted with the Democratic embrace of civil rights. The media inadvertently aided the Republican Party by inflating and racializing violent crime and welfare. Political scientist Martin Gilens finds that, “network TV news and weekly news magazines portray the poor as substantially more black than is really the case.” The strategy worked. Economists Ilyana Kuziemko and Ebonya Washington find that racist Southern whites leaving the Democratic Party explains nearly all of the decline in Southern White support for Democrats between 1958 and 2000. Instead of calling out this racism, many centrist Democrats succumbed to it, for instance when The New Republic famously defended welfare reform by placing a Black mother with a baby on the cover. The unwillingness of most mainstream liberals to call out dog-whistle racism has let it fester….

[T]he forces Trump released are not a joke; and the rise of white nationalism and violence against people of color confirm this. The rise of Trump isn’t just an indictment of the GOP, it’s an indictment of the unwillingness of mainstream commentators and politicians on both sides of the aisle to clearly call out racism. The problem is that now, it might be too late.

Enter Trump.

So we have two competing narratives. In the first, white residents of increasingly beleaguered areas come to feel that the wider culture not only doesn’t care about their plight, but actively despises them while valorizing non-whites and immigrants. (One study from 2014 found that whites who believed Obama had done too much for non-whites and that whites had done worse during the recession also felt “feelings of financial frustration and higher levels of blame toward the government in Washington.”) In this account economic and racial factors are intertwined, but racism per se is absent or at least minimized. Animus is not the driving force. In the second racism is “The vile core of Trump’s appeal”, plain and simple. Which, if either, of these obviously politicized narratives is best support by evidence?

Much of the research I’m citing is drawn from one study in particular, “The newest American National Election Studies 2016 pilot survey[,] a 1,200 person internet survey performed by YouGov between January 22 and 28 of 2016 that includes incredibly detailed questions about race and racism.”

It’s possible that some of the measured differences between Trump supporters are really just “differences in how Trump supporters feel they ought to answer surveys” rather than actual differences in hostility. For example,”it might be that Trump supporters are simply more willing to express their dislike of Muslims and Transgender people in a survey”, while others just hide their views better. But this is the data we have.

To avoid getting tied down in discussions of what is and is not racism, I’m not going to use the term and instead just look at responses to specific questions. Readers can draw their own conclusions. Instead, I’ll use the term “ethnocentrism” in a broad sense, covering not just open racism, but also subtler negative attitudes, and a sense of ethnic solidarity.

Some people have argued that “Any political movement that was straightforwardly based on economic distress would find its greatest support among nonwhite Americans.” Thus, Trumpism can’t be, because blacks and Latinos are economically worse off than whites and yet Trump is historically unpopular with both groups. And the recession hit black Americans very hard. However, a political movement based on social decline could find greater support among white Americans, even though white living standards are higher than those of blacks and Hispanics. Remember that the rise in mortality was limited to non-Hispanic whites. According to The Atlantic:

Likewise, the groups that have been affected most viciously by these market trends in the U.S., African Americans and Latinos, have not suffered the dramatic increases in death by suicide or substance abuse that whites have. It may be that changes in the economy have affected these workers in different ways. For instance, whites are more likely to be employed in the declining manufacturing sector than African Americans or Hispanics—and for that matter, they’re more likely to live in the rural communities devastated by this most recent, post-NAFTA era of deindustrialization. Furthermore, whites are less likely to be union members than African Americans (though not Asians or Hispanics).

“Make America Great Again” may not be a slogan that appeals to people for whom, recession aside, things aren’t always getting worse.

Certainly social decline isn’t the only reason for the racial gap. Trump’s racially charged rhetoric on top of decades of estrangement and hostility between minorities and Republicans would have divided voters by race anyway. But it does mean that Trump voters might not just be motivated by race. Stagnation and ethnocentrism aren’t mutually exclusive possibilities, though since one makes Trump voters look bad and the other makes them seem sympathetic they tend to be framed in opposition to each other.

One study found that both attitudes toward race and toward the economy predicted support for Trump. In addition to asking about financial security, they also asked “whether they thought it was more of a problem that African Americans and Latinos are ‘losing out because of preferences for whites’ or whether whites are ‘losing out because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics.'”

The odds that a person who feels strongly that whites are losing out supports Trump are more than three times higher than for a demographically and financially similar person who feels blacks or Hispanics are losing out or that neither group is losing out more. Likewise, the odds a person who says he or she is struggling financially supports Trump are about twice as high as someone who says he or she is comfortable or moving up economically….

Those who voiced concerns about white status appeared to be even more likely to support Trump than those who said they were struggling economically, but the results did not clearly show which concern was more important among Trump’s coalition.

chart2 (Source)

One of the pollsters also said, “What was striking to me in analyzing the data is that even after controlling for a variety of demographics and attitudes… believing whites are losing out continued to be a key predictor of Trump support…. Its importance persisted under a wide range of scenarios.” So even controlling for financial status racial attitudes matter. Clearly Trump is not wholly a phenomenon of economic anxiety. Race matters.

(There’s polling that finds support from Trump voters for more incendiary racial beliefs than I’m discussing here, but I don’t trust Public Policy Polling, a partisan firm, enough to cite them. I think the main points stand with the data I do discuss. Check out Snopes for more details.)

White Americans

What sort of racial anxiety might we be talking about? It isn’t just about simple hostility towards non-whites. Molly Ball, discussing Trump’s complaint at a rally “Why are they allowed to do things that we’re not allowed to do?”, says:

It was a potent summary of the identity politics that seem to form a significant part of Trump’s appeal: the idea that they, the others, enjoy privileges, resources, and status to which we are denied access. It is a sentiment I have repeatedly heard from the dozens of Trump supporters I have met over the past eight months I have spent covering his campaign. More complicated than the overt bigotry of, say, the Ku Klux Klan, it is a form of racial resentment based on historic white entitlement and a backlash to the upsurge in leftist identity politics that has marked American politics in the age of Obama…

Trump’s supporters have told me that minorities commit crimes with impunity, that illegal immigrants get benefits at higher rates than Americans, that gays and Muslims are afforded special status by the government. They lament that Confederate symbols, and the people whose heritage they represent, are sidelined while diversity is celebrated. They don’t understand why Democrats can campaign on overt appeals to the interests of blacks and women and Latinos, but Republicans are deemed offensive if they offer to represent the interests of whites and men.

There is support in the polls for this. Voters “who think their identity as whites is extremely important…. perceive a great deal of discrimination against their race…. [and] who think it’s extremely likely that ‘many whites are unable to find a job because employers are hiring minorities instead'” are all far more likely to vote for Trump:

tesler_trumpwhites (Source)

The numbers at the bottom show the sample size of each group. By themselves, these numbers don’t necessarily give us a great sense of how much support Trump is getting from these more race-focused voters. They could be a smaller portion of his support. However, other polls suggest that these voters make up a large portion of Republicans and of Trump supporters particularly. According to a Quinnipiac poll:

There is a wide partisan division among American voters on the statement, “The government has gone too far in assisting minority groups.” Agreement is 45 percent among all voters, 72 percent among all Republicans and 18 percent among Democrats. Agreement is highest among Trump backers, 80 percent.

Black Americans

Salon offers further reporting on the findings of the ANES survey. Salon hardly has a sterling reputation these days, and the article is definitely pushing an agenda (this is the unfavorable piece I quoted above), but I don’t have any particular reason to think that the data they’re drawing on is incorrect. They found that Republicans had a more negative view of blacks than Democrats, and Trump voters were more negative still:

CohenMc1 (Source)


The ANES survey also included a feeling thermometer test, which asks respondents to place their feelings for different groups on a scale from 0 (very cold) to 100 (very warm)…. [T]he relationship is strongest for Trump support, which shows that  negative feeling toward Blacks is most closely associated with his supporters. The model controls for age, gender and education.

As Trump has expanded his support in the months since this poll was taken and become the presumptive nominee, I would expect that Trump voters would become more similar to Republicans as a whole, since many Republicans will now be supporting Trump. But we can see here the base Trump started with.

The authors discuss further results from the survey here, and they also criticize this Vox article which found that racial resentment didn’t much vary among supporters of different Republican candidates.

One of the authors also Tweeted this from the survey:

% of whites who support Trump who think government favors Blacks: 51%
% of whites who don’t support Trump who agree: 32% (ANES 2016 Pilot)


In January, the Washington Post found:

Trump barely leads among Republicans who say immigrants strengthen America. But he holds a 33-point lead — commanding a solid majority — among Republicans who strongly believe immigrants weaken society.

Pew found that Trump supporters consistently take the harshest stances against immigrants, and not just illegal immigrants:


They are also likeliest to support deporting illegal immigrants, though only a plurality of 42% do. But note the near-even split on whether undocumented immigrants should be given legal status conditionally.

The Washington Post looked at this same study:

59 percent of registered voters nationwide think that an increasing number of people from different races, ethnic groups and nationalities makes the United States a better place to live; only 8 percent say this makes America worse. But among Trump backers, 39 percent say diversity improves America, while 42 percent say it makes no difference and 17 percent say it actually makes America worse. Supporters of GOP rivals Ted Cruz and John Kasich were significantly more upbeat on diversity….

Other somewhat-related attributes may be as or more predictive of whether somebody will support Trump: approval of deporting undocumented immigrants, strong feelings that the government is dysfunctional, and support for banning Muslims from entering the United States. (Authoritarian child-rearing attitudes, believed by some to be closely related to Trump support, were less predictive.)

Trump voters are the most hostile to diversity, but still over twice as many Trump voters think diversity improves America as weakens it. Unfortunately, these studies doesn’t really show how much hostility to immigration is driven by economic vs. cultural concerns. Opposition to immigration doesn’t necessarily stem from ethnocentrism or racism, but it is of a piece with Trump supporters’ attitudes towards other groups.


Using a survey from November, Michael Tesler found that concerns about Muslims and Islamic terrorism are also related to support for Trump:

tesler_trumpmuslim3 (Source)

In December, after the shooting in San Bernardino, Trump proposed a total ban on Muslims entering the United States “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on”. In March a poll found that 50% of Americans agreed:

While 71 percent of Republican voters supported the ban, 34 percent of likely Democratic voters and 49 percent of independents also did, according to the new poll by Morning Consult.

Although support for the ban is highest among Trump’s supporters, at 84 percent, there is also support for a ban among those who support fellow GOP candidates Ted Cruz and John Kasich — at 65 percent and 48 percent, respectively.

Among Democrats, more Hillary Clinton supporters agreed with the travel ban, at 37 percent, versus 27 percent of Bernie Sanders‘s supporters.

Pew found that a smaller number of Americans support profiling Muslims in America, but again that Trump supporters were most likely to be in favor:

Section2_6 (Source)

(And according to left-leaning polling firm Public Policy Polling, 62% of Trump supporters say that Obama is Muslim, versus 54% of Republicans overall.)

Yet again Trump voters take the hardest line, though again they aren’t complete outliers either.


I’ve gone into unusual detail in this section, because race and related topics are obviously particularly sensitive, and I wanted to be sure that any conclusions reached were backed by a wide variety of data.

Obviously Trump draws support from voters that have consistently less friendly attitudes towards various outgroups and are defensive about the prospects of their white ingroup. Probably all of the polls I cited here are more or less picking up on a single factor: ethnocentrism. Combining various questions from the ANES survey into one measure of ethnocentrism, Kerem Ozan Kalkan made this graph:

kalkan_fig2 (2)

I’m not going to speculate if or where these attitudes shade into racism. Certainly by the time you hit David Duke. But if we can separate racist actions from the attitudes that lead to them, I think that ethnocentrism is the right way to understand the underlying attitude that is motivating Trump supporters. This ethnocentrism includes more negative attitudes towards blacks, immigrants, Muslims, but it isn’t just that. There are other associated traits, such as having a strong group identity and hostility to trade and foreign aid (which I’ll discuss later). Again, my purpose here is neither to condemn nor condone, just understand more precisely.

I’d encourage readers to look at the charts above again. Trump is winning the more ethnocentric wing of the Republican Party (which itself itself has a much stronger tendency towards white ethnocentrism than the Democrats), but on a given question many voters who don’t give the ethnocentric answer support Trump and many voters who do don’t support Trump. While I think that this factor is one of the most important ones when understanding Trumpism, it isn’t the only one, or even the only major one. To say that racism is the driving force is too simplistic, but so is to pretend that race has no importance, or that race as a factor can be wholly reduced to economics. Whether economic malaise can drive people to greater ethnocentrism is beyond the scope of these posts.

These polls can’t capture everything about race. If a given Trump supporter doesn’t express racist attitudes, that doesn’t mean there aren’t deeper social forces helping to sort things by race. Race can influence how we vote even if we’re not saying so to pollsters, whether or not we’re not aware of it.

Next: The alienation and anger of Trump voters

(Source for header image)

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