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A Clearer Portrait Emerges of Trump Supporters

They mistrust experts, whom they consider members of a self-serving elite.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Angelo Merendino/Getty Images)

When Donald Trump emerged as a serious candidate, his supporters were widely described as working-class white men who were hurting economically. When word emerged that most are actually doing surprisingly well, the need for a more accurate profile became clear.

Such a portrait has just been published, and it suggests attitude, not income, is the common denominator among Trump supporters. In short, they tend to be anti-intellectual, scornful of authority figures, and deeply mistrustful of perceived outsiders.

“Trump’s supporters are distinctive in their unique combination of anti-expertise, anti-elitism, and pro-nationalist sentiments,” political scientists J. Eric Oliver and Wendy Rahn write in the Annals of the American Association of Political and Social Science. “Trump’s supporters are also distinctive in their high levels of conspiratorial thinking, nativism, and economic insecurity.”

In a word, they embody populism, the belief that a self-serving elite has accumulated too much power. “The year 2016 is indeed the year of the populist,” the researchers write, “and Donald Trump is its apotheosis.”

“At its core, populism is a type of political rhetoric that pits a virtuous ‘people’ against nefarious, parasitic elites who seek to undermine the rightful sovereignty of the common folk,” they explain. Populist leaders see politics “as a bifurcated struggle between ‘the people’ on the one hand, and a self-serving governing class undeserving of its advantaged position on the other.”

Populism actually has three separate dimensions, and Trump — by design or luck — hits all three squarely.

Of course, people who agree with that basic framework can have radically different views on both causes and solutions. To understand why populist sentiment has turned toward Trump, Oliver and Rahn conducted a nationally representative survey of 1,063 Americans in late February and early March of this year.

All were asked 14 questions about issues that are traditionally associated with populism, including their view of the political process.

The results suggest populism actually has three separate dimensions, and Trump — by design or luck — hits all three squarely.

The first is anti-elitism, which “captures feelings of marginalization relative to wealth and political power.” It is reflected in statement such as “The rich control both political parties” and “The system is stacked against people like me.”

The second is mistrust of expertise, which involves “a general skepticism of science and expert opinion.” The third is national affiliation — the assertion that being an American is very important to one’s sense of self.

The researchers found supporters of various candidates in the presidential primaries tended to score highly on one of these dimensions or another. Bernie Sanders voters, for instance, strongly felt marginalized by the political system, while fans of Senator Ted Cruz strongly mistrusted experts.

But Trump supporters were distinctive in that they scored above average on all three dimensions of populism.

“In the sample, they are the most financially pessimistic and conspiracy-minded of all the voters,” the researchers write. “They also scored record high levels of mistrust and anger at the federal government. And they scored highest on the nativism scale,” reflecting their intense desire to protect the interests of American citizens against those of immigrants.

And here’s a telling finding: “Looking at all the candidates, the greatest contrasts are between Trump’s and Clinton’s supporters. Of all these attitudinal scales, Clinton’s supporters are the mirror image of Trump’s.”

Specifically, “where Trump’s supporters see conspiracies, Clinton’s do not; where the Trumpenvolk fear immigrants, Clinton voters embrace them. And where Trump’s supporters express apprehension about their financial future, Clinton voters tend toward optimism.”

So why is Trump’s populist appeal resonating so strongly right now? Oliver and Rahn argue that “the concerns of these voters are not reflected in either party’s policies.”

As party-line votes become more and more the norm, voters whose beliefs don’t line up precisely with either of their philosophies — such as members of this group — feel alienated from government, making them highly receptive to an outsider who promises to represent their interests.

The researchers add that Trump has tapped into this discontent by using language “that is distinctive in its simplicity, anti-elitism, and collectivism.” He is, they conclude, “the populist par excellence.”

True enough, but they’d better watch it with those French phrases. You don’t want to get branded an untrustworthy elitist.