How Donald Trump Changed Our Minds

From Russia to regulation, Trump has given partisans of all stripes some serious cognitive dissonance.

Over the summer, Hulu’s Triumph the Insult Comic Dog convened a focus group of Trump supporters and showed them a series of fake Trump proposals somehow even more outrageous than his real plans. While they raise (alarmingly practical) questions—how would you get a shock collar on every immigrant?—they mostly nod and agree with at least the spirit of the proposals. If the idea is delivered in that sneering New York accent, they’ll eat it up! It’s good fun, if rather low-hanging fruit.

The Donald Trump brand is a powerful thing: Even if it’s not worth $3.3 billion, it clearly carries staggering political capital among his supporters. Months before Triumph’s focus group met, Trump had introduced an idea so far from the mainstream that no pollster had ever asked about it—a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. Within the week, Rasmussen released a poll showing that a stunning 66 percent of Republicans supported the proposal. But Trump hasn’t just moved Republicans to the right. Trump has persuaded millions of conservatives who assailed Obamacare, for example, as a government distortion of the free market that international trade has robbed us of our jobs and dignity. He convinced a Republican convention with its harshest anti-LGBT language in decades to nominate someone whose views on gender-neutral bathrooms align more with Hillary Clinton’s than their own. (By the time Peter Thiel gave his speech on the convention’s final night, the convention cheered when he said their new wedge issue was a “distraction from from our real problems; who cares?”) When he suggested we might not defend our NATO allies in Eastern Europe, Trump defenders like Newt Gingrich hailed his foreign policy as a practical, cost-cutting approach, a few short years after skewering President Obama for his inaction in (non-NATO) Ukraine.

But the Republicans’ Donaldic dissonance has wreaked symmetrical havoc on the Democrats’ beliefs. As Trump denounced free trade agreements, liberals suddenly discovered Adam Smith. Between May 2015 and March 2016, the share of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who believed free trade agreements helped their family’s finances rose by five percentage points; the share of those voters who thought they hurt their family’s finances fell by six. This shift occurred, remarkably, while Bernie Sanders, and eventually an unconvincing Hillary Clinton, joined Trump in rejecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

On foreign policy, even the president changed his mind, or at least his rhetoric. Obama rode into office on a wave of anti-interventionism in the wake of the Iraq War. In Jeffrey Goldberg’s excellent article on Obama’s approach to global affairs, he writes that Obama is “the rare president who seems at times to resent [America’s] indispensability, rather than embrace it,” that “'free riders aggravate [him],'” and that he told David Cameron the countries’ “special relationship” would be over if Britain didn’t pony up the military spending.

As often as Donald Trump calls the president weak, his foreign policy platform is based on a similar idea: NATO needs to start paying its dues, or we stop paying ours. As the Washington foreign policy establishment that Obama “secretly disdains” condemned Trump’s words, the president concurred. Seemingly rebuking his own strategy, he called NATO a “cornerstone” of our foreign policy; how outrageous that our sacrosanct commitments would be held hostage!


Trump’s conditional support plan represents, perhaps, a realistic approach to the limits of American power. It represents, alternatively, an irresponsible dereliction of duty from the sole remaining superpower with an aggressive and malignant Russia on the rise. But Democrats and Republicans flipped, seemingly without material changes to justify the flip.

Why? Well, because Trump said it. Trump has so aggressively signaled his position in the culture wars—on deeply emotionally resonant, identity-defining issues like race, gender, and national identity—that he has become the nation’s number one Good Guy for tens of millions of people, and the embodiment of evil for tens of millions more. More abstract policy concerns, like trade and foreign policy, as important as they are, simply do not move people like Trump’s comments on immigrants. Rather than live in a cognitively dissonant world where Trump agrees with some of their ideas and disagrees with others, millions of people are changing their political beliefs to match or oppose him.

Some commentators, like the Economist, see the world’s politics in the midst of realigning from the traditional left-right split to an “open” versus “closed” debate, citing right-wing nationalists’ embrace of protectionism and isolationism. In this reading, Trump’s rise is an effect, not a cause, of ideological shifts. White voters, especially those without college degrees, needed a candidate who appealed to their cultural values without ignoring, as, say, Mitt Romney did, their economic interests. (Ross G. Douthat ’02, a former Crimson editorial columnist, has written some great work on the ideological vacuum Trumpism filled.) As the Democratic Party increasingly comprises urban and coastal residents, on the other hand, their policy positions on trade would naturally become more sympathetic.

But could such dramatic ideological shifts really have happened in both the Democratic and Republican parties since May 2015? More likely, I’d argue, partisans strongly reacted either positively or negatively to Trump from the moment he declared his candidacy, and adjusted accordingly some of their opinions as he took positions. Maybe this putative realignment is just Trump wreaking further havoc on American politics, and when he fades from the scene, we’ll go right back to normal—until the next polarizing figure makes fools of us all.

Trevor J. Levin, ‘19, a Crimson Arts executive, is (probably) a Social Studies concentrator living in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @trevorjlevin.


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