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Donald Trump’s Appeal to American Nationalism

A new analysis explains why it resonates with only a segment of the population.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

American nationalism has always been an integral part of Donald Trump’s message. But as the election inches nearer, the Republican presidential candidate has taken to expressing that nationalism in increasingly overt terms. “Hillary Clinton is the vessel for a corrupt global establishment that is raiding our country and surrendering our sovereignty,” he declared last week.

As patriotic appeals go, Trump’s is disturbingly dark and angry — quite far from Clinton’s notion of American exceptionalism, which is based on assimilation and inclusivity. Newly published research offers a compelling analysis of why it resonates with certain segments of society — and strongly turns off others.

Sociologists Bart Bonikowski of Harvard University and Paul DiMaggio of New York University argue that, in terms of their attitudes toward nationalism, Americans are actually divided into four distinct camps, with varying levels of patriotic fervor and distrust of outsiders.

“Trump’s campaign has used a particular vision of the nation that emphasizes the superiority of the American people, the moral corruption of elites, and dire threats posed by immigrants and ethnic, racial, and religious minorities,” the researchers write in the American Sociological Review.

Will Trump’s overtly nationalistic appeal help him revive his sinking poll numbers?

This closely aligns with two of the four camps’ “understanding of America.” These shared assumptions “may have been an important driver of Trump’s popularity, enabling him to mobilize on the basis of nationalist sentiments Republicans for whom his issues positions might not have been sufficiently conservative.”

Using detailed data from the General Social Survey (more specifically, its 2004 National Identify Supplement) the researchers examined Americans’ attitudes toward four aspects of nationalism: national identification (how important American citizenship is to your identity); criteria of legitimate membership (who constitutes a “real American” in your view); national pride (what specific achievements or attributes stir up positive feelings about being an American); and national hubris (including the belief that one should support our nation whether it is right or wrong).

Based on their responses to an array of questions on all those issues, Bonikowski and DiMaggio categorized the populace into four groups:

  • Ardent Nationalists (24 percent of the population): They scored very high in measures of national pride and hubris. “A large majority apparently viewed Jews, Muslims, agnostics, and nationalized citizens as something less than truly American,” the researchers write. “The typical member of this class was a white male observant Evangelical or mainline Protestant with relatively little formal education, living in the South.”
  • Creedal Nationalists (22 percent): They represent “the form of national self-understanding associated with a set of liberal principals — universalism, democracy, and the rule of law — sometimes referred to as the American creed,” the researchers explain. “They were the most likely of any group to hold advanced degrees and to have graduated college.”
  • Restrictive Nationalists (38 percent): A large but poorly understood group, they “expressed only moderate levels of national pride, but defined being ‘truly American’ is particularly exclusionary ways,” with “well over half” expressing the view that only Christians fit that definition. Few of them have more than a high school education. “A rough generalization would depict them as Americans who are disadvantaged with respect to some combination of race, gender or social class.”
  • The Disengaged (17 percent): The youngest of the four groups (with a mean age of 38), they do not identify strongly as Americans. “Highly educated and less-religious respondents were particularly likely to belong to this group, and almost all were Democrats.”

Viewing the population through this lens allows us to look at the current election from a unique perspective. In the 2004 survey, “creedal nationalists” — people who love what the country stands for — “were disproportionately Republicans, almost as much as the ardent nationalists,” the researchers write. Polls suggest a great many of these folks (who tend to be well-off economically) have chosen, perhaps for the first time, to vote for a Democrat for president, due to their dislike of Trump.

On the other hand, Trump is likely drawing significant support from “restrictive nationalists,” who may not resonate with his America-first rhetoric, but feel left behind economically. Like “ardent nationalists,” they are suspicious minority religions; “well over half strongly endorsed the view that only Christians can be ‘truly Americans.’”

“The disengaged” sound a lot like Bernie Sanders supporters (who have largely gravitated to Clinton in the general election). But the researchers caution that these categories don’t align neatly with political ideology.

That said, they do predict feelings about immigration, which the Trump campaign has made a major issue from the beginning. Even after taking into account their partisan affiliations, “ardent” and “restrictive” nationalists are both significantly more likely than other Americans to believe immigrants cause crime and take jobs away from Americans.

Trump has exploited these beliefs, even as his anti-Muslim (and implicitly anti-Semetic) statements have solidified his support with people who equate Americanness with Christianity. That conviction “most strongly distinguishes creedal nationalists and the disengaged (most of whom do not hold this belief) from restrictive and ardent nationalists (most of whom do),” the researchers note.

So will Trump’s overtly nationalistic appeal help him revive his sinking poll numbers? It seems doubtful. These findings suggest the divide between Trump and Clinton is not over patriotism — both candidates are likely to have many supporters who are strongly nationalistic, along with many others who are not — but rather over religion and immigration.

As the researchers note, “these attitudinal profiles constitute important cleavages in U.S. political culture that partly cut across partisan identity.” Does this mean a major realignment is in the making? Stay tuned.