New research published in the journal American Political Science Review revealed that people who expressed extreme dislike toward Democratically-aligned minority groups were more likely to approve of Donald Trump when he made his way into politics — regardless of their party alignment. Animosity toward these groups did not predict support for other Republican candidates, suggesting the effect is unique to Trump.

Study authors Lilliana Mason and her colleagues note that American political parties are becoming further divided on key aspects of identity such as race and religion. It follows that party support can potentially be influenced by a person’s affiliation with social groups, as well as their feelings toward outgroups.

The researchers suggest this to be especially true in the case of support for former president Donald Trump, whose political campaigns were heavily centered around vilifying outgroups. Trump was known for his unapologetic and hateful rhetoric directed at numerous marginalized groups — notably, marginalized groups that were Democratically-aligned. Mason and her team wanted to explore whether animosity toward these minority groups may be partly driving support for Trump.

Mason and her team made use of a dataset involving several thousand respondents who completed online surveys across four waves — in 2011, 2016, 2017, and 2018. At the 2011 survey, respondents had indicated their attitudes toward four Democratic-aligned social groups, which were African Americans, Muslims, Hispanics, and Gays and Lesbians. Respondents also indicated their attitudes toward two Republican-aligned social groups, which were Whites and Christians. Party support was assessed in 2017, and support for various political figures (including Trump and Hillary Clinton) was assessed in 2018.

The researchers analyzed the data to test whether a respondent’s feelings toward a particular social group in 2011 would predict their approval for Trump years later in 2018. Importantly, the researchers controlled for political preferences and demographics at baseline.

It was found that animosity toward Democratic-linked groups was robustly associated with later support for Trump — people who showed extreme dislike for Muslims, African Americans, Hispanics, or LGBT people were much more likely to approve of Trump when he made his way into politics. For example, those with the strongest animosity toward Muslims were more supportive of Trump by about 20 percentage points compared to those with the least animosity toward Muslims.

Further, this link between outgroup animosity and partisan support appeared to be unique to Donald Trump. Animosity toward Democratically-aligned groups did not predict support for the Republican party in general, nor for any other elite Republican candidate. Likewise, animosity toward Republican-linked groups did not predict approval for the Democratic party nor for prominent Democratic candidates like Hillary Clinton.

Mason and her colleagues emphasize that the citizens’ feelings toward Democratic-linked groups were assessed in 2011, before Trump became known as a political figure. This means these citizens had not yet been exposed to Trump’s anti-minority group rhetoric. Presumably, Trump drew the attention of citizens with pre-existing negative feelings toward disadvantaged groups, no matter their political alignment. “Rather than generating such feelings in the electorate,” the authors observe, “Trump acted more as a lightning rod, attracting those who were already harboring animus toward Democratic-aligned groups.”

The researchers warn that future political candidates could potentially mimic Trump’s strategy, using hostility toward outgroups to attract media attention while rallying a league of supporters who harbor such prejudices. They end their report with some cautionary words. “This research reveals a wellspring of animus against marginalized groups in the United States that can be harnessed and activated for political gain . . . Though they may remain relatively latent when leaders and parties draw attention elsewhere, the right leader can activate these attitudes and fold them into voters’ political judgments.”

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