[Overview] Trump Voters VIII – Populism

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

by David Severa

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, along with Emily Ekins, researched how the supporters of different candidates fit in with his moral foundations theory, the idea that people use a number of distinct mental axes to think about ethics, and that people vary by how important each axis is. Haidt has identified six foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. So, when judging an action, one person may care whether or not authority is respected but not much care whether the action is particularly fair, while another person may do the reverse.

They polled voters to measure their moral foundations. (Only one of the authority questions is about child rearing, and they combined authority with some other foundations, so that measure may not be directly comparable to the other research on authoritarianism. Proportionality is equivalent to the fairness/cheating axis – whether you think “The world would be a better place if we let unsuccessful people fail and suffer the consequences” for instance.)


Trump voters don’t particularly stand out relative to the average American. They care less about care/harm (“morality requires caring for and protecting the vulnerable”) and more about proportionality (people getting what they deserve, “highly predictive of a preference for small government and a dislike of activist government and the welfare state”) and a combined measure of authority, loyalty, and sanctity, which the authors finger as the foundations of social conservatism. Their scores on those social conservative foundations are similar to those of other Republicans, and they place less weight on proportionality than some other Republicans, but more on care.

In further comments, Ekins says that:

Because Trump has a larger share of the vote, his supporters’ standardized scores for each moral foundation are more likely to be closer to average. Since 0 indicates the median voter, candidates with larger vote shares will appear closer to average.

They also tested “to see if adding the moral foundations improved prediction above and beyond the demographic factors that are usually used.” They did:

Among Republicans, four moral patterns stand out. First: Voters who still score high on authority/loyalty/sanctity and low on care — even after accounting for all the demographic variables — are significantly more likely to vote for Donald Trump. These are the true authoritarians — they value obedience while scoring low on compassion. They are different from Huckabee supporters, who appeared to score even higher than Trump supporters on authority/loyalty/sanctity, but also scored high on care, as we saw in Figure 1.

Authoritarianism is often assessed in social science research by asking people two or three questions about the relative importance of teaching their children obedience and respect, but our data shows a limitation of this approach: Not everyone who wants their kids to be obedient is an authoritarian. Some past research has been too quick to lump in social conservatives with authoritarians.

A further reason to doubt any simple interpretation of the “authoritarianism” measure.


We have done some preliminary tests finding roughly 2-3 groups [of Trump supporters]. One group scores particularly high on Loyalty-Authority-Sanctity, while another group appears to be less engaged and scores lower on all the foundations. When these different groups are averaged together, the average Trump supporter is closer to the average.

This research on morality and authoritarianism is interesting, but still preliminary I think. It’s perfectly plausible that Trump voters have a different psychological profile on average, but I’d like to see more work disentangling the effects of regional culture, and so on.


Populism isn’t any one thing, so there isn’t any simple test for populism. After all, Trump and Sanders have both been labeled populists and we’ve seen that their supporters have often radically different attitudes and beliefs. Populism is, perhaps, a style of thought that encompasses many different schools of thought. The Washington Post compares populism to authoritarianism:

Populism, on the other hand, is a type of political rhetoric that casts a virtuous “people” against nefarious elites and strident outsiders. Scholars measure populism in a variety of ways, but we focus on three central elements:

  • Belief that a few elites have absconded with the rightful sovereignty of the people;
  • Deep mistrust of any group that claims expertise;
  • Strong nationalist identity

Of course, authoritarians and populists can overlap and share dark tendencies toward nativism, racism and conspiracism. But they do have profoundly different perceptions of authority. Populists see themselves in opposition to elites of all kinds. Authoritarians see themselves as aligned with those in charge.

The authors polled voters to see if populist proved a better descriptor of Trump supporters than authoritarian. (I’ve already discussed this paper a few times, including in the section on authoritarianism.) They found that, while Trump voters were more authoritarian than average, populism mattered more:


“Trump voters are the only ones to score consistently high on all three populist dimensions.” I’d be interested in seeing more research on this question, but based on everything else I’ve discussed, I think that populism is a better lens to understand Trump than authoritarianism. There may well be authoritarian elements, but there’s more than that going on.

“Populist” is a useful, but vague, shorthand that captures a good deal about Trump’s appeal. I haven’t had time to discuss the history of right-wing populism in the United States (let me know if you’d like a series on that!), but I think that there’s a strong case to be made that Trump is best understood as part of that tradition. Remember that support for segregationist George Wallace in 1968 was a strong predictor for a county’s support for Trump in 2016. And they’ve drawn from similar wells of support: “overwhelmingly white, not college educated, racially intolerant, hostile toward immigrants, dismissive of social progress, and facing bleak economic prospects.” Analogies have even been made to Andrew Jackson’s candidacy almost two centuries ago, each being “a wealthy celebrity always ready for a fight, a superpatriot who says he will make America great again. He vows to attack government corruption and defend the common man.” And all three men with particular appeal to Appalachia. (Which isn’t to say that Trump supporters hold all the same views as their antecedents, but that they occupy a similar political position.)

I don’t know of a specific term to capture this tendency, but “Appalachian Populism” wouldn’t be too far off the mark, if perhaps too narrow. But a label is less useful than knowing everything to which the label refers.

Trump voters in review

After all these words, all these graphs, all these polls, all these numbers, it’s time to bring things to a close and review everything we’ve covered. What can we say about Trump supporters?

  • Certain basic demographic factors matter somewhat. Women, the young, those with college educations, and those with high incomes are all less likely to support Trump, though not always by much, and even so Trump received more of his support from likelier-to-vote high income Republicans. It’s important to remember that Trump was still often winning pluralities of the groups he did worse with.
  • He didn’t bring in many Democrats or independents, but he did energize weakly attached Republicans.
  • Racially, Trump voters closely resemble other Republican primary voters: both are over 90% white. But among white ethnicities, his supporters stand out, drawing especially heavily from those regions in and around Appalachia that claim “American” ancestry, and in regions, like in the Northeast, with ancestry from Catholic countries like Italy.
  • Those Trumpist regions share other characteristics, many of them related to atomization and social and economic decay. These are areas that have lost manufacturing jobs, areas with low work force participation, areas with weak religious ties, areas that are poorly educated, areas with high mortality. The parts of white America that are doing worst, that have been left behind. But, and I can’t emphasize this enough, with exceptions like Utah, Trump did pretty well most everywhere. (That is, pulling in at least a quarter of the votes.)
  • Additionally, although Trump did disproportionately well with poorer voters, they did not vote in large enough numbers to make up the bulk of his support. The average Trump supporter (like the average supporter of every other candidate) had an above average income. Trump voters do report more financial problems, and it’s possible that, being older, their incomes overstate their real socioeconomic position. But still, it seems more plausible to describe the typical Trump supporter as someone doing alright for themselves in a region that is decidedly not.
  • Trump voters have what I’ve chosen to call ethnocentric attitudes, above and beyond those of the typical Republican (who are more ethnocentric than non-Republicans). They are more likely than other Republicans to say that most blacks are violent and lazy. A majority think that Muslims should be subject to increased scrutiny solely because of their religion and that all Muslims should be temporarily banned from entering the United States. They have the most hostile attitudes towards immigration on every measure. This ethnocentrism doesn’t only matter for attitudes towards outgroups. There is also a sense of white ethnic solidarity. Voters who think their identity as whites is extremely important are more likely to vote Trump. Voters who perceive a great deal of discrimination against whites are more likely to vote Trump. These factors simply cannot be wholly reduced to economic concerns. Attitudes towards race matter. Again, not all Trump supporters share ethnocentric attitudes and not all those with strong ethnocentric attitudes voted for Trump. But it is predictive.
  • Republicans are angry, but Trump voters are angrier. Only 1% said that they were content with the federal government. 75% said that life had been better for people like them 50 years ago.
  • Despite this anger at the government, they have more favorable opinions of individual government programs than other Republicans. They are more likely to want to increase spending and raise taxes on the rich. They are the most opposed to free trade. They are not particularly economically conservative, though they are more conservative than Democrats.
  • They are socially conservative, but less so than many other Republicans. They are fairly evenly split on abortion, for instance. Trump voters are probably more socially conservative than the establishment Republicans who backed Bush or Rubio, but less so than those who backed Cruz. Certainly this is not an area where Trump supporters stand out and, unsurprisingly, Trump voters are mostly not inspired by these kinds of social issues.
  • Trump voters are the most opposed to American engagement with the rest of the world with the sole exception of using military force. They are, if anything, more militaristic than anyone else while also being the most hostile to trade, to foreign aid, and even to NATO. I called it “nationalism that believes we live in a zero-sum world”. It somewhat closely matches what Walter Russell Mead called Jacksonian foreign policy.
  • There is evidence that Trump voters are more authoritarian than the average American, but the evidence that they are more authoritarian than other Republicans is more uncertain. I’m not sure how useful the attempts to psychologically pigeonhole Trump supporters are at this point. Still, Trump voters are likeliest to want a strong leader, who will “say or do anything to solve America’s problems”.
  • They are the most likely to support expanding the use of torture.
  • Probably the best way to encapsulate the world and worldview of the typical Trump voter is what I called Appalachian Populism, though it isn’t confined to Appalachia. White ethnocentrism, an openness to some kinds of government largesse, a militaristic foreign policy, and a distrust of experts, all in regions that are socially and economically struggling. That is the core of Donald Trump’s support.

Thanks for reading! Up next, a dialogue on objective morality.

(Source for header image)

2 thoughts on “[Overview] Trump Voters VIII – Populism

  1. VK says:

    This whole series of articles was very insightful. It was great to see an analysis of Trump voters that wasn’t motivated by hate or fear, but also wasn’t trying to downplay the effects of racism and anti-immigrant beliefs. The graphs and presentation of data was excellent, informative and memorable.

    Whenever I read the news, I’m saddened by the lack of a source that really tries to understand things, instead of being driven by ideology or shallow thinking. Thanks for giving me hope that it’s possible to see something different!


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