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Trump's Election Made Bigotry More Acceptable

New research offers a disturbing case study in shifting social norms.
President Donald Trump departs the White House on February 2nd, 2018.

President Donald Trump departs the White House on February 2nd, 2018.

A remarkable thing happened when Donald Trump was elected president. Americans almost immediately became less prejudiced.

In their own minds, that is.

New research on how the election results shifted Americans' attitude regarding race and racism offers two disquieting findings—one expected, and one not.

Explaining, at least in part, the rise in hate crimes in the immediate wake of the election, the study finds "an increase in the acceptability of prejudice towards groups Trump targeted." When the president-elect can openly disparage certain minority groups, holding such beliefs no longer seems so aberrant—or abhorrent.

Perhaps more surprisingly, as study participants "saw prejudices becoming more acceptable, they rated themselves as slightly less prejudiced," writes the research team led by University of Kansas psychologist Christian Crandall.

"The rising public tide of prejudiced rhetoric created a compellingly low comparison standard," the researchers explain in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. All those expressions of overt bigotry made the participants' own, more subtle biases seem benign by comparison.

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The study featured 334 Americans recruited online. The group was 82 percent white, and split nearly evenly between Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters. They were surveyed during the final days of October of 2016, and again in mid-November—just before and after the election.

All were presented with a list of minority groups—some targeted by Trump during the campaign (including Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, the disabled), others not (atheists, alcoholics, Canadians).

Half of the participants reported their personal prejudices, noting how negatively or positively they felt toward each group on a zero-to-100 scale. The others were asked about social norms; using that same scale, they rated how acceptable they felt it was to "express negative feelings" toward each group.

The results: "Participants perceived more tolerance for prejudice after the election than before," the researchers report. Among both Clinton and Trump supporters, "The election significantly increased the social acceptability of prejudice toward the groups Trump targeted, but it had little effect on perceived norms of the campaign-irrelevant groups."

But even while acknowledging that bigotry was becoming more the norm, participants insisted that this shift wasn't affecting them personally. To the contrary, "people reported less prejudice toward targeted groups after than before the election."

That may seem strange, but as Crandall and his colleagues note, "people evaluate themselves and their prejudices in direct comparison to others."

"Social norms," they write, "influence how much prejudice people think they have."

In other words, the election of Trump not only gave Americans "voice and license to express the previously suppressed." By lowering the bar of what constitutes unacceptable bigotry, it also left them less sensitive to their own prejudices.