By Emily Reynolds
Whether or not Donald Trump’s presidency actively increased prejudice or simply emboldened those who already held bigoted views was frequently debated during his term. A new study looks more closely at prejudicial attitudes during the presidency, exploring the views of over 10,000 American citizens.
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, finds a complex picture. While prejudicial attitudes decreased among Trump’s opponents, his supporters showed an increase in prejudice — and this seems to be because they believed these views had become more socially acceptable.
First, the researchers conducted a set of studies looking at attitudes towards Muslims. In 2014/2015, before Trump came into power, participants completed a scale measuring their levels of Islamophobia. Some also rated how ashamed, angry, guilty, and compassionate they felt towards a Muslim man who had been arrested by US forces and held in Guantanamo Bay prison. Then, two years later once Trump was in office, the participants repeated these measures and answered further questions about their political attitudes generally and support for Trump.
Participants did not, as a whole, increase or decrease in prejudice between the first and second survey. However, when the team looked at Trump supporters and opponents separately, this changed: supporters of Trump showed a significant increase in Islamophobia, while those opposed to Trump showed significant decreases in negativity towards Muslims. These findings were also replicated when participants read the story about the Muslim man imprisoned in a US military prison: Trump supporters reported significantly less concern for the man by the second survey.
Trump support was crucial here: this, rather than conservatism generally or membership of the Republican party, was the most important predictor of changes in prejudice. In fact, conservatives who opposed Trump did not display increases in prejudice.
The next set of studies looked at prejudice against African Americans, again surveying participants before and after Trump’s rise to power. The same patterns held: Trump support predicted increases in prejudice towards Black people, both in implicit and blatant forms. Trump supporters were more likely to agree with racist statements such as “Blacks are not as smart as Whites” by the second survey, for instance. And, again, this held when controlling for political conservatism more generally.
Data from a longitudinal study of American citizens conducted in 2016 and 2011 looked at prejudice against other minorities too. This data again showed that prejudice amongst Trump opponents decreased over this period, while supporters showed an increase in prejudice against some of these groups (for others, they didn’t show a significant increase but still didn’t show the decrease in bigotry seen in society on a broader scale).
What could account for these changes in prejudice? Shifts in social norms that occurred with the rise of Trump seem to be crucial. In a final set of studies looking at perception of other people’s attitudes, participants believed that Americans generally had become more critical of Muslims — something both Trump supporters and non-Trump supporters agreed on. And Trump supporters also reported that those they respected and admired in their own social group had become more critical of Muslims, too. In further experimental studies, the team found that leading people to believe that Trump supporters approved of his anti-immigrant rhetoric led Trump-supporting participants to express a greater degree of prejudice themselves.
While the earlier studies are merely correlational, these later studies provide evidence of some form of causation: that Trump supporters felt it was more acceptable to express prejudice after his election, and that this acceptance facilitated their own further expression. Creating social environments where such speech or action is not acceptable is, on a societal level, easier said than done — future research could look at ways to push back on hateful rhetoric even when it is being promoted by those in the public sphere.
Photo: Donald Trump holds a rally in 2016 after being elected president. Credit: Mark Makela/Getty Images
Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest