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Study Looks At What Motivates Trump Supporters


Discussions about Donald Trump's voter base and what motivated them is a beloved topic among pundits. But as time goes on, we're getting more and more data that sheds light on what some of those motivations are. A recent study published in the American Political Science Review found that animus towards Democratic-linked minority groups in 2011, like African Americans and Muslims, is a strong predictor of Trump support in later years. The study is called "Activating Animus: The Uniquely Social Roots of Trump Support," and Lilliana Mason is one of its co-authors. She's a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, and she's here to talk more about these findings. Welcome, Lilliana.

LILLIANA MASON: Thank you so much for having me.

KURTZLEBEN: So let's start really broadly. As briefly as you can, what question was guiding your research, and what was your main finding here?

MASON: We were interested in identifying the people who ultimately would like Donald Trump but finding them before Trump really existed on the political scene. So we have access to this data set that starts in 2011 and interviews the same people in 2011 and then again multiple years after that. And so that way, we can look at the characteristics of people in 2011 before Trump came around and use that to predict how they feel about Trump in 2018 after had been president for two years already.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And you and your authors write as a conclusion of that, that you knew about that animosity in 2011 before Trump was really a big part of the political scene. You write that that shows that rather than generating animus, that Trump was a, quote, "lightning rod for animus." Tell us more about that and why that's important.

MASON: So the colloquial stories we hear about Trump suggest that he somehow created a whole bunch of hatred in American politics. And instead, what this data shows is that what he did was serve as a place where people who already held a lot of animus towards marginalized groups, they all sort of gathered around him. So this was a latent faction of Americans that had just - that had already been sitting there and had already existed.

So it's not necessarily that it's the Republican Party that is creating animus towards people, it's that there's this faction of Americans who really dislike marginalized groups. And they're attracted to one party or the other based on sort of the decisions of that party, and they're able to kind of hide within the party in order to make American politics be focused more on the party and not on this faction of people who are feeling a lot of hatred towards marginalized outgroups.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And we should say that for comparison's sake, you looked at other Republicans and saw that Trump voters were distinct from them, and you looked at Democratic voters' views of particular Republican groups of people for comparison. And I'm wondering, just to parse out the results here, did this study show that Trump voters' animus itself is uniquely high or simply that it uniquely drives their votes or both?

MASON: It uniquely draws them toward Trump. So what we found was that - when we control for partisanship, what we found is that people in 2011 who have negative views of these particular groups are much more likely to approve of Trump in 2018. They're not any more likely to approve of the Republican Party, to approve of Mitch McConnell or to approve of Paul Ryan.

When we look at the Democratic Party, we looked at people's feelings towards whites and Christians, the groups that are typically associated with the Republican Party. And what we found is that any hatred that people have in 2011 towards whites or Christians has no effect on their approval of the Democratic Party or of a number of Democratic Party officials by 2018. So that relationship doesn't exist on the Democratic side. There isn't sort of an anti-white racism that's driving Democrats the way that there's anti-Black racism driving Trump support. There isn't an equivalent figure on the Democratic side. And, in fact, Trump is unique on the right.

KURTZLEBEN: Finally here, I want to talk about - I mean, we have this big thing this study highlights, that animus towards certain groups not only exists but can influence American politics in a very real way. I'm curious for our listeners out there, what is the big takeaway that you would want them to have from hearing about this study? And I'm just also curious how much this pattern concerns you.

MASON: Yeah. I mean, it is definitely concerning. And that's because it's - what we're seeing is a real empowerment of this group of people that have, you know, truly anti-democratic attitudes and goals. And they have also taken control of basically the entire Republican Party at this point, not because all Republicans agree with them, but mainly because Republicans fear the voters that agree with them.

And we've all been kind of hampered in talking honestly about what we're seeing because it's been about partisanship, and it's been about polarization, which suggests, you know, both Democrats and Republicans are - have become equally extreme. But if instead we focus on this sort of sub-faction of Americans, which is not even close to a majority of Americans, it's a lot easier, I think, for us to talk about politics in a way that says, you know, for instance, Biden could say, yes, I want to have cooperation with the Republican Party, but I want to have cooperation with a responsible opposition party, not with people who are acting on behalf of hatred of marginalized groups, right? We want to create a successful, multi-ethnic democracy. As long as we're cooperating on that goal, then let's have bipartisanship. But this particular faction shouldn't be part of that, right? It shouldn't be part of our pro-democracy decision-making. And so I think if we can start moving our heads out of it's the Republicans versus the Democrats and understand that there's this underlying faction there, I think it might help us to have a clearer conversation going forward.

KURTZLEBEN: That was Lilliana Mason, professor at Johns Hopkins University. She's the co-author of the study "Activating Animus: The Uniquely Social Roots of Trump Support," which was recently published in the research journal American Political Science Review. Lilianna, thank you.

MASON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.