Why Do So Many People Still Support Donald Trump?
Bob Altemeyer, May 2023
If you go to https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/polls/favorability/donald-trump/ you will find a good summary of Donald Trump’s approval ratings in hundreds of polls from April 2021 to April 2023. While occasional “outlier” surveys have sparked off headlines about Trump’s popularity suddenly sinking like a stone (or soaring to new heights), the average of all the polls over the past two years produces essentially a straight line, with his approval rating almost always landing in the low forty percents. That is a few ticks less than the 46.9% who voted for him in 2020, but only a few. During the last two years Trump has constantly spread the thoroughly disproven lie that he actually won the election. He has been criminally indicted for violating campaign finance laws. His business practices have been exposed as a tissue of lies. The country learned that he sometimes paid no income tax whatsoever. A special prosecutor was investigating his removal of classified documents from the White House. He was being sued for sexual assault. And oh yes, he definitely tried to overthrow the Constitution on January 6, 2021 so he could stay in office.
P.T. Barnum famously said there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and Trump has proved him right. The horrendous revelations about Trump’s unethical and downright illegal behavior has cost him almost nothing in terms of popular support. Instead, his supporters have showered him with great piles of money so he can defend himself in court and run for president once again.
How can this be? People will vote for Donald Trump in 2024 for many different reasons, but foremost among them: They believe he stands for what they want and he is the best person available to get it for them. Which are perfectly good reasons for voting for someone. In this case, however, his enthusiastic supporters are willing to send a vengeance-driven, delusional autocrat into the White House to get what they want. A man who will know much better than he did in 2016 how to wield the vast powers of the presidency to corrupt and ultimately destroy America’s democracy. And in so doing put the other democracies in the world on quaking ground. That’s all.
What Do Trump’s Supporters Want?
Over 74 million Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2020, and two overlapping groups especially did so as they had in 2016. More than anything else, they tended to be white evangelicals. Second, white American men with less than a four-year college education notably backed “the Donald.” The only demographic factor that led to better predictions of endorsing Trump was preference for the Republican Party.
To the extent that these are two different groups, they want different things. White evangelicals want to abolish abortion, remove equal rights protections for the LGBTQ communities, re-impose traditional roles on women, return the Lord’s Prayer to classrooms, keep “unsettling” content out of public schools, and so on. They fill out the front ranks in the Culture Wars. White “under-educated” males (and females to a lesser degree) are economically threatened. Like the white baseball players who hit .250 before Jackie Robinson, they are most likely to be replaced if African Americans, Latinos and immigrants beating on the doors get a chance at their lower-level jobs.
Both groups long for a return to the good old days, a Christian, white-dominated America where (as Archie Bunker sang) “everybody knew their place, guys like us we had it made.” The fact that Archie’s song dates back to the 1970s shows this is an old yearning at least two generations deep now. Donald Trump made it a political force the day he came down the escalator in Trump Tower in 2015 and set aside his prepared speech to lambast Mexican drug dealers and Muslim terrorists. Millions upon millions of Americans heard him speak their own thoughts, which they had largely kept to themselves. But which now became part of the public agenda and had a (seemingly) powerful champion. He was their voice, and he had them at “Mexican rapists.” He sealed the deal with the white evangelicals when he discovered during the South Carolina primary that he was against abortion.
While white evangelicals and undereducated white males champion Trump for different reasons, you can trace their endorsements back to a common underlying factor. Compared with the rest of Americans, they are very prejudiced. In a national survey conducted by Monmouth Polls[¹] in 2019, scores on a measure of racial and ethnic prejudice correlated over .80 with endorsing Trump—a connection so powerful it ranks among the strongest ever found in the social sciences. Not all Trump supporters are bigots, of course. But if you look at the most prejudiced people in the United States who are likely to vote in 2024, the smart money would say nearly all of them will vote for Trump.
It may surprise some that very religious people could be highly prejudiced. But social psychologists discovered this connection in the early days of studying discrimination, and it has appeared constantly over the decades. The underlying cause appears to be a fundamental ethnocentrism, a tendency to divide the world into one’s In-group and various Out-groups. Almost everyone does this, but children in strongly religious families pick it up early and strongly when learning about the family religion. It apparently becomes a powerful template for judging others as “Us” or “Them” in other realms throughout life.
Trump “Delivered” For His Base
It has been clear for a long time that Donald Trump has one all-consuming, take-no-prisoners goal in life: Self-aggrandizement. Being truly unprincipled, he had no difficulty adopting stands that double-knotted his ties to his base. He most obviously succeeded with the evangelicals by appointing three Supreme Court justices who provided the margin for striking down Roe versus Wade. He was less successful at protecting blue collar jobs for whites because he needed cooperation from the Congress, the courts, the military, and the world economy to seal off the United States and shelter white industrial jobs. But he constantly advocated for “the forgotten Americans” with isolationist and protectionist policies, and they have stood by him.
But what about everything he did that harmed the United States? Such as the attempted bonding with Putin, and Kim Jong Un, the threats to NATO and other allies, the further degradation of the climate, the Ukraine scandal, the complete mishandling of the COVID threat that cost hundreds of thousands of American lives, the endless proven lies that cascaded out of @realDonaldTrump. Why did they have no impact on his followers, and still do not?
Some of his supporters simply didn’t care. They knew Trump was what he was, but they were getting what they wanted most and all the rest didn’t matter. They were one-issue voters. Others believed he was what he wasn’t. In their minds Donald Trump “delivered” because he is a great leader and a wonderful human being, God-sent and himself almost a god. And the reasons why they have let themselves be so utterly fooled—which are basically psychological—are the biggest reasons why Donald Trump’s approval ratings have held firm over the years and he remains the enduring major threat to our democracy.
Emotional bonding. It was noted back in July 2016 that Trump’s supporters’ connection with their leader was powerfully emotional, based primarily on fear that he fans and anger that he channels.”[²] His followers are frightened by the way their world is changing. Old norms are being challenged. Sins are lauded and running amuck. Simple truths such as there being two genders are being discredited. America is being overrun by people from awful places. In short, the America they knew is disappearing, and with it the long-established privileges from being white and being male[³]. The anger rose with each headline.
We all know that emotions can overwhelm sound judgment, and when Trump—for reasons buried deep in his own personality—developed the “politics of grievance” he connected emotionally with tens of millions of anxious, resentful Americans who would march with him to the end. They were, as it happens, quite susceptible to his appeal because of weaknesses buried deeply in their own personalities.
Compared to most people, experiments have shown that people highly likely to support Trump have a limited tendency to think for themselves. Instead they have adopted the opinions of others, especially persons they consider the “proper authorities.” Almost everyone does this during childhood, but most people eventually develop some independence in their thinking. Trump’s supporters, by and large, have not.
This may seem a strange conclusion about people who flocked to a man who, most unconventionally, declared war on both major political parties and promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington. But Trump’s followers identified with ideas such as immortal souls created at the moment of conception, and norms like white and male supremacy which stretch far back in history. By the time Barack Obama became president it was clear to them, if it hadn’t been before, that various elected officials were no longer the proper authorities. The government had become infested with the Out-group. The people who marked their ballots for Donald Trump did so not only because of the emotions he aroused in them, but because he championed the positions they had learned as children and never critically examined.
This inability to develop their own ideas has widespread effects on their behavior. Since they have not developed their ideas so much as copied them from their authorities, they do not really know why they believe what they believe. They therefore rely, more than most people do, on social confirmation of their opinions rather than evidence and reasoning. That is, they bond with others who believe what they do, and keep their distance from those who do not. This amounts to saying, “I know I’m right because people who agree with me say I am,” which is a no-brainer in more ways than one. But of course it tucks in very nicely with the ethnocentrism that guides them through life.
However, relying on others to validate your beliefs can lead to many missteps. For example, during that 2016 South Carolina primary when Trump, who had previously supported women’s rights on the matter, declared he was now against abortion, no one asked him why. The Right to Life folks just welcomed his new stand, and he carried the state. Experiments have shown that whereas leftists can be downright suspicious of people who might have nefarious reasons for agreeing with them, conservatives tend to open up the door and their wallets to them. (So if you were a crook with political ambitions, where would you make your pitch?)
Maintaining your beliefs by restricting your contacts to people who agree with you will definitely increase your certainty that you are right, but it also means the whole pack of you can be wrong but never find out. A good example of this occurred in March 2023 when Chuck Callesto tweeted three misleading stories about the January 6th attack on the Capitol that exonerated Trump supporters and blamed Antifa instead. With Elon Musk’s endorsement these were viewed up to 58 million times. When fact-checkers pointed out each story was false https://www.cnn.com/2023/03/16/politics/fact-check-january-6-videos-musk/index.html Callesto acknowledged his mistakes. But the correct information was seen at most by about 150,000. Obviously, the agreeable messages spread like wildfire within the “echo chamber,” but very few of its sounding brass were interested in relaying a disagreeable truth.
This fits in perfectly with Trump supporters’ attitudes toward group cohesiveness. They believe more than most people that members owe extreme loyalty to groups they belong to. One should never criticize them and their leaders, and nothing is lower than a group member who does. So belief that left-wingers staged the January 6th insurrection, that the election was stolen, that climate change is a liberal hoax, that gays have an agenda to make other people gay, that injections against COVID actually put the virus in your veins as well as microchip tracking devices, and that a secret cabal of Jewish financiers and high-ranking Democrats run a white-slavery operation out of a Washington pizzeria and eat babies—these beliefs fly around the Internet among Trump supporters virtually nonstop and unopposed, picking up energy like protons swirling around a nuclear accelerator. And the people who get bombarded by the absurdities and in turn bombard others thrill at being so tightly immersed in the In-group—almost totally, dogmatically beyond the reach of evidence and reason. Where they have been most of their lives.
We know these things about Trump supporters, and much, much more that you can find on this website, because as a group they score very highly on a psychological test that measures one’s tendency to be an authoritarian follower. Research in this area began in the early 1940s as an attempt to understand the psychology of Nazi supporters. If you look back on what we have covered in these few pages, you will probably see the similarities with Trump’s followers, if you did not spot them already. This is a striking, dreadful thing to say about so many of one’s fellow Americans. But can there be any doubt by this time that everything our democracy is based upon, down to the Constitution and the rule of law itself, is at risk?
But we are not doomed. America was well-served by its free press, by its judicial system, and by its military leaders in the recent battle, and by the tens of millions who fought their way through all the Republican roadblocks to exercise their right to vote. We will need all of these votes for the next battle, and probably even more. And if they do not appear, November 5, 2024 will almost certainly begin the end of American democracy.
¹ John W. Dean and Bob Altemeyer, 2020, Authoritarian Nightmare, Brooklyn, NY, Melville House Publishing, Chapter 10.
³ One notes that white male supremacists did nothing to accomplish, or deserve, their supremacy. It was a birth effect. So if a guy who has accomplished very little in life sees others advancing, putting him farther and farther behind, he can still generate some self-esteem by identifying with successful groups. Being white makes him better than any colored person, he thinks, and being a man makes him better than any woman. So you can see why challenges to white, male superiority would be more threatening to him, and induce more anger, than they are to others. It’s about all he’s got.