Many of Donald Trump’s supporters are intolerant — racist, sexist and xenophobic. Indeed, some high-profile work has highlighted Trump’s populism and his appeal to less-educated authoritarians — a potent witch’s brew challenging democratic norms. And other analyses have focused on the specific targets of Trump supporters’ anti-democratic attitudes – especially, but not solely, Muslims, immigrants and black Americans.
Attention to the treatment of these minority groups is certainly warranted and important, but focusing only on Trump overlooks a crucial point: These are not the only groups that many people dislike, and intolerance is not concentrated among Trump supporters.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks in France, Trump called for a (temporary) ban on Muslims’ entering the United States. Republican exit polls asked about this proposal and found that support for Trump’s position was widespread (over 60 percent) among participants in Republican nomination contests so far.
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Notably, those favoring a ban disproportionately supported Trump, with the exception of voters in Texas, where a plurality supported Ted Cruz. In Ohio, for instance, of those who wanted to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the U.S., 48 percent threw their support behind Trump.
The same pattern holds when you look at GOP support for Trump’s statements and position on immigrants, especially those from south of the U.S. border. A majority of Republican primary voters don’t support his call to deport all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., but of those who do support that position, most favor Trump.
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A few other data points along the same lines:
- Pew Research Center found that 17 percent of Trump supporters said diversity makes America worse, a higher share than among either Cruz or John Kasich’s backers. Pew also found that 69 percent of Trump voters agreed that immigrants are a burden on the country.
- An ABC News/Washington Post survey showed that among respondents who said that white Americans are losing out because of preferential treatment for Latinos and blacks, 43 percent backed Trump — higher than the 34 percent of Republican respondents who supported Trump overall.
- Trump also performs well among those who dislike African-Americans and evaluate whites at higher levels than minorities.
As professor of political science Lynn Vavreck put it so well, “Mr. Trump has reinvigorated explicit appeals to ethnocentrism, and some voters are responding.”
To date, however, most of this analysis has focused on the Trump campaign. But Trump’s supporters are markedly different in who they dislike, not in how they would treat the rights of people they dislike.
Putting up with groups we dislike is referred to in political science as “political tolerance.” The empirical study of political tolerance was born in the 1940s as the U.S. reacted to the second “Red Scare,” stripping the rights of “nonconformists” and suspected “communist sympathizers.” In public opinion research, modern treatments (since 1979) let people pick a group they “like the least” and ask them whether that group should be allowed to give a public speech, teach in public schools, and otherwise have access to the public square as any other citizen. Using data from a national (online) sample of nearly 1,000 adults gathered March 8-15, we asked these questions of each candidate’s supporters.
As the chart below shows, the “least liked groups” of each candidate’s supporters differ in expected ways, though perhaps not as dramatically as media reports may lead us to believe. (Recall that we asked everyone to select a single group.) Given his statements about immigrants, it is no surprise that Trump supporters (20 percent of our sample) are more likely to pick “illegal immigrants” (18 percent versus 3 percent overall); they pick Islamic fundamentalists at about the same rate (33 percent) as other Republican candidates’ supporters (29 percent) except Cruz supporters (23 percent). Consistent with the evidence about racism discussed above, Trump supporters are less likely to pick the KKK as their least-liked group (20 percent) compared to others (52 percent). Backers of the Democratic candidates overwhelmingly pick the KKK as their least-liked group (and do not differ by their choice of Sanders or Clinton).
But leave aside how you feel about each of these groups and focus on the constitutional guarantee that everyone, no matter their views, has certain rights. We find that commitment to equal rights is disregarded by more than just Trump supporters. Using a tolerance index1 that combines the responses to all the questions, Trump supporters would grant about 40 percent of the rights asked about to the groups they dislike. That is not high. The chart below compares the tolerance levels of supporters of the other candidates to Trump’s supporters. The marker shows the average tolerance level and the horizontal lines are 90 percent confidence intervals — if the confidence interval overlaps with the vertical line representing Trump’s supporters, then we cannot say they are statistically distinguishable.
The nearly unequivocal story is that Trump supporters are no different from others, including Clinton and Sanders supporters.2 The one clear exception is supporters of John Kasich (~7 percent of the sample), who are demonstrably more tolerant than Trump’s. Kasich’s supporters are distinctive because 30 percent of them in this poll are self-identified Democrats, but also because the majority of them (54 percent) will not vote for Trump if he is the nominee – just over a quarter will peel off and vote for Clinton and the other quarter claim they will not vote. Kasich support appears effectively to be a protest against Trump by people who wish a restoration of good democratic order.
An enduring lesson of American politics is its pluralist nature – everyone dislikes someone else. James Madison recognized this feature early on and designed a political system to harness pluralist intolerance so that a majority of minorities would rise up against experiments on our liberties. Of course, this design is not fail-safe, and Madison’s predictions have proved wrong on many occasions to the shame of the nation. The greatest fear is that events, such as terrorist attacks, and demagoguery will conspire to overwhelm Madison’s delicate mechanism. That may yet prove to be the case here, and that is the particular danger that Trump represents. But it is important to recognize that the fundamentals of an intolerant act lie within most of us and no candidate’s support is immune from such scrutiny. If essentially all candidates’ supporters have a similar penchant for intolerance, what is most concerning is when those antidemocratic sentiments are inflamed and mobilized against particular groups.