Mike Grillo teaches political science, not literature. But he argues that, to understand the success of Donald Trump — and the most effective ways to oppose him — you need to start with narratives.
In a chapter of the just-published book Why Irrational Politics Appeals, the Schreiner University assistant professor presents new evidence that Trump’s appeal — at least among his core supporters, who voted for him in the Republican primaries — is rooted not in “rational concerns for material well-being or economic security,” but rather in racial resentment.
His analysis shows support for the Trump/Bannon brand of nationalism is driven by prejudice-fueled emotional responses, which are shaped by the stories people read, hear, and share. When those narratives depict certain groups as threatening, they create hostile predispositions, which in turn create support for leaders who promise to mitigate the perceived danger.
This is known as “symbolic politics,” and it drives people on both the left and right. Grillo’s equation, “preexisting biases elicit knee-jerk emotional reactions, which influence our decisions and behavior,”is not unique to Trump voters. But, given Trump’s nationalist rhetoric during his presidential campaign, Grillo focused on them when he analyzed a detailed survey of 1,200 Americans conducted in January of 2016.
Grillo looked specifically at how their feelings toward Trump (measured on a “warmth” scale of one to 100) coincided with their feelings about immigrants, national identity, prejudice against minorities, fear of terrorism, and “racial resentment.” He discussed his findings in a telephone interview.
Let’s start at the first link in the causal chain you identify. What kind of narratives are you speaking of?
Narratives can come from various sources: parental upbringing, political and cultural elites, pop culture. They can include cultural narratives: Who belongs to the group, who doesn’t, who are rival groups. Numerous studies have shown that people’s anti-Muslim narratives have come from numerous places: politicians, popular films and television shows, certain media outlets, and the even pulpit, depending on the church.
You conclude that these stories created fears and prejudices that engendered hostility toward minorities, including immigrants. How do you define and measure that term?
Racial resentment is this idea that minorities are getting special treatment from the government (welfare, affirmative action, etc.), usually at the expense of whites. It is usually rooted in underlying beliefs that minorities are not deserving of any special treatment. There was also the idea that whites are now at a disadvantage — that the system is now working against them.
In the data set, racial resentment was measured having people indicate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements, including “Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.”
I assume many people differentiate between those earlier legal immigrants and today’s undocumented workers.
They do. But even disapproval of legal immigration — as measured by responses to the statement, “When people from other countries legally move to the United States to live and work, is this generally good for the U.S., generally bad for the U.S., or neither good nor bad?” — was associated with racial resentment, prejudice, and other predispositions that, in turn, predicted support for Trump.
But actual economic distress was only weakly associated with support for Trump? That would seem to contradict the narrative that his supporters were desperate, lower-middle-class whites struggling to make a living.
Another political scientist [Philip Klinkner] examined this very same data set, and found racial resentment and prejudice had greater impact on Trump support than attitudes about whether the economy was worse off. That research also found that (one’s personal) income, and attitudes about whether it is easier or more difficult to improve one’s economic status now, as opposed to 20 years ago, were not significant predictors of Trump support.
Now, this is data that was collected during the primaries. In the general election, the people harboring racial resentment probably voted for Trump, but there were likely other factors influencing support, such as anger with government and the Washington establishment — the idea that they no longer serve the interests of the working class, dislike of Hillary Clinton, voting on strictly partisan lines, and the hope that a person like Trump can bring back the jobs, etc.
Michael Moore observed in his [Michael Moore in] TrumpLand film that, for many, the Trump vote was an anger-driven decision where people felt they could torch the government and politicians hurting them. I think that all of these explanations can be explained by symbolic politics, as they are all based on predispositions that trigger emotional responses.
The connection between racial resentment and support for Trump was even stronger than the link between fear of terrorism and support for Trump. What does that tell you?
I think it is reflective of the fact that you have this perception among a sizable portion of the white middle-class population that the government has abandoned them, while instead providing special assistance and treatment to minorities, who they see as undeserving, either because they believe that they don’t work hard enough, or because they believe that systematic racism is no longer a problem.
You couple this with stagnating wages, higher cost of living, unemployment, and the decimation of small manufacturing towns, and you have a recipe for a very ugly populist nationalism. We’ve seen this in other periods of American history, where whites were resentful of Irish and Italians because of this belief that they were taking all of the good jobs because they were cheap labor.
You noted that “Trump is not creating the narratives and predispositions detailed in this paper. They have been a feature of American politics for a long time.” Do you believe he was successful because he addressed them more openly than previous politicians? Or that his pugnacious style fit his supporters’ image of a “strong leader”?
I think it was probably a combination of both. I also think that Trump was probably the only one who could do it, because, as we have seen, he was able to say many things throughout the campaign that would have destroyed any other candidate.
Reading your paper, I had the thought that Trump is trapped, in a way. He feels the need to give his voters what he promised them, and for good reason: Your analysis suggests that they only support him to the extent that his positions align with their prejudices and speak to their fears. But if that’s the case, he can’t really moderate his positions, can he? He’s descending rapidly in the polls and losing all but his hard-core supporters, but he can’t really move to a more reasonable position.
That is indeed a possibility. Another possibility is that he can maybe buy himself some leeway if he manages to deliver on some of his promises. Or he may begin to alienate his own base via the consequences of his policies, such as higher taxes and tariffs. His rise and win was so unpredictable that I’m just not sure at this point.
One thing that I have been discussing with my colleagues here in Texas is what happens if he is serious about building the wall. There would be all kinds of eminent domain issues, which people in Texas take very seriously. That could open up a hornet’s nest.
So if this analysis is right, what path or paths does it suggest for the anti-Trump coalition?
One thing they could try to do is reframe the argument. Trump’s opposition has definitely been galvanized, and if you look online at social media, they have begun advancing the argument that the policies and values of Trump and his followers are un-American and will hurt America, while their values of inclusiveness, tolerance, and compassion are the epitome of American patriotism. They are in essence trying to alter the narrative.
Another thing they might do is try to capitalize on the “Trump regret” movement. Tumblr has a whole archive of tweets from Trump supporters who expressed regret voting for Trump. Some complain that his cabinet appointees are hardly “draining the swamp.” Others express concern about their health-care coverage. They may try to advance the narrative that Trump is not a champion of the middle class, and that his policies will hurt them.
So, once again, it’s all about narratives, since, whether we realize it or not, they shape our assumptions and our emotional responses to issues. Are they the battleground?
I agree with that assessment. The main challenge with altering narratives is that, in most cases, it can take a very long time. Take, for example, the abolitionist, women’s suffrage, or civil rights movements. Changing the respective narratives in each of those instances was a long and painful process. Whether Trump’s opposition can change the narrative on racial resentment and other prejudices remains to be seen.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.