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Surprised About Donald Trump's Popularity? You Shouldn't Be

Trump greets his supporters at a Dec. 5 rally in Davenport, Iowa.
Scott Olson
Getty Images News
Trump greets his supporters at a Dec. 5 rally in Davenport, Iowa.

There are a lot of surprising things about Donald Trump's campaign. He has been atop polls almost constantly for nearly five months. Contrast that to GOP primaries of recent past, in which a series of "front-runners" have come and gone before a nominee was chosen.

Likewise, he seems not only immune to fact checks but is helped when he is perceived to be a victim of media targeting — even when he has made blatantly untrue claims and refused to back down.

Wednesday provided the latest Trump news that shocked (shocked!) many: Nearly two-thirds of likely GOP primary voters said in a Bloomberg pollthat they supported his proposal to block all Muslims from entering the U.S. — a proposal that many legal scholars say would be unconstitutional and that many of Trump's GOP opponents blast as "un-American."

But when you look at Americans' attitudes, not only on that specific question of Islam but toward politics in general, a lot of things that have surprised the political establishment about Trump aren't surprising at all.

Americans Feel Negatively Toward Muslims

Let's start with that Bloomberg poll. One important caveat of this poll is that it's primary voters, not all GOP voters. Conventional wisdom says that primary voters (of either party) tend to have more extreme views than voters writ large, but they are who pick a nominee.

It's true that Americans view Muslims more negatively than they do any other major religious group, as Pew found in a 2014 study. On a "feelings thermometer" of 0 (most "cold" or negative) to 100, Muslims scored a 40, on par with atheists' 41. At the other end were Jews, Catholics and evangelical Christians, at 63, 62, and 61, respectively.

In addition, a majority of Americans — 56 percent — believe Islam is "at odds with" American values, up from 47 percent in 2011, according to a recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute. The results are even more extreme on a partisan level, with 76 percent of Republicans agreeing with that idea.

In another new PRRI survey, 67 percent of Republicans said that "U.S. Muslims have not done enough to confront extremism," along with 45 percent of Democrats.

Especially in a time when fear of an extremist Islamist terrorist group dominates the news, surveys like these show why some people might be particularly inclined to jump onto the Trump bandwagon.

As a Trump supporter told a focus group this week, "We have to do something." And Trump has brought forth the biggest "somethings" of all candidates.

Polarization Is A Big Part Of What's Driving Trump

Trump may be appealing to people who already have misgivings about Islam (or, prior to that, immigrants), but of course, it's not those attitudes that are driving his campaign. After all, his popularity has held, regardless of which topic he has chosen to focus on.

Rather, a bigger phenomenon may be at work in why Trump and his ideas are so popular: polarization. It's not clear whether Americans are growing more polarized ideologically (that is, whether their ideas are growing further apart politically). What is clearer is that Americans are experiencing more affective polarization — that is, regardless of where their views are moving, liberals increasingly dislike conservatives, and conservatives increasingly dislike liberals.

More polarization begets poor performance, which begets worse trust, which gives you worse performance, which, of course, gives you more frustration.

For a real-world spin on this, consider that 30 percent of consistent conservatives and 23 percent of consistent liberals say they'd be unhappy if their children married someone of the opposite party, according to a 2014 Pew poll.

"Regardless of whether or not their political beliefs are separate, the degree of dislike and distrust between the parties is really high," said Adam Berinsky, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies political misinformation. "Democrats and Republicans live in different worlds. So what's Trump tapping into? I think it's this idea that the world is going bad."

A few things have driven this dislike, as polarization expert and Vanderbilt University professor Marc Hetherington told NPR last month:

-- the rise of "gut-level" issues like terrorism, guns and abortion as political topics;
-- the way race helped re-sort the political map in the past century; and
-- how closely matched the two parties are. (Think about how much easier it is to hate a sports rival who's a constant threat to your team than one who's way worse or way better.)

What it creates is distrust. Americans' levels of trust in the federal government are at nearly the lowest levels on record, as Pew reported last month.

"More polarization begets poor performance, which begets worse trust, which gives you worse performance, which, of course, gives you more frustration," Hetherington said.

A Lack Of Trust And A Want For 'Change'

Notably, trust is lower among Republicans during a Democratic administration (just as trust is low among Democrats during GOP administrations) — and trust is exceedingly low among Republicans right now.

All of that creates a perfect environment for a Trump to arise right now in the Republican Party. Lack of trust in government means Americans — particularly non-Democrats — may be particularly willing to vote for an "outsider."

Similarly, as Hetherington explained, Democrats were willing to vote for the "outsider" Obama after eight years of a George W. Bush presidency. Obama and Trump's rhetoric may be vastly different, but Americans' willingness to vote for change — even if untested — is the common factor here.

The Teflon Don

Polarization may also contribute to why Trump seems to have a Teflon skin when it comes to fact checks. He has over the years claimed that Obama wasn't born in the U.S. and, more recently, that there were "thousands and thousands" of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the attacks on the World Trade Center. He hasn't disavowed those ideas — even given repeated fact checks.

And, more important, his supporters haven't abandoned him. In fact, they've become more intensely supportive.

Polarization once again may be at work. When people increasingly dislike their countrymen across the aisle, it could reasonably make them more susceptible to "motivated reasoning" — loosely defined as what happens when one's reasoning process is clouded by emotions (such as hatred of the other party) and other pre-existing biases.

Motivated reasoning can happen when new information challenges one's worldview. As political scientists from Appalachian State University wrote in a 2012 article, "When individuals engage in motivated reasoning, partisan goals trump accuracy goals."

In these situations, people "vigorously defend their prior values, identities, and attitudes at the expense of factual accuracy."

Getting back to Trump, this could lead his supporters to believe some of his more brazen claims about Muslim hatred toward other Americans, Sept. 11 celebrations, black-on-white homicide rates or immigrants and crime.

To be clear, the willingness to believe in unsupported ideas is bipartisan. To take an extreme example, according to research from Dartmouth College political science professor Brendan Nyhan, Democrats were, as of 2006 (that is, during the Bush administration), roughly as likely to believe that the Sept. 11 attacks were an inside job as Republicans were, as of 2010, to believe that Obama wasn't born in the U.S.

The point is that in this low-trust, highly polarized environment, when one party is always suspicious of the other, things that might have surprised Americans just a few decades ago are commonplace now.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.