Since Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency Washington has struggled to get a handle on his administration’s approach to matters of war and peace. In recent weeks, there has been intense focus on the perceived influence of top presidential aide Steve Bannon, who is seen as extremely hawkish on national security matters, especially when it comes to combating Islamic terrorism and confronting China’s rising influence. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that Bannon’s prominence within the administration – highlighted by his appointment to the National Security Council – portends a more bellicose turn in American national security policy.
And despite his purported skepticism of defense spending and aversion to spending cuts, Trump’s new budget bolsters spending for defense by $54 billion while cutting spending elsewhere.
There are undeniable reasons for concern – if not outright fear – about Bannon’s appointment, particularly coupled with soaring military investment. But these worries obscure more systematic – if also more subtle – reasons for the United States’ persistent aggressiveness on the world stage. (After all, American military interventionism long preceded the Trump Administration and continued during the presidency of Barack Obama). Our research suggests that a major, if under-appreciated, base of support for the frequent use of American military force abroad is the enthusiasm of wealthy persons – and especially large political donors.
On several key questions, wealthy people – and, in particular, “elite donors” (those who contribute $5,000 or more, or the top 1 percent of all donors) – are much more enthusiastic about the projection of American force than are American adults. The enthusiasm of the most wealthy and influential private actors in American politics provides a durable reservoir of support for the assertion of American power abroad. Given the profound, and likely growing, influence of political donors in American politics, our findings suggest that strong political supports for American foreign interventionism will remain long after Bannon, and Trump, have departed the executive branch.
These conclusions come from our ongoing research project on the preferences and contribution patterns of big donors. As part of this work, we investigated how preferences toward American military spending and the use of force compared between elite donors, wealthy individuals (those with family incomes of more than $150,000), all donors, and all American adults.
Our analysis drew on a cumulative data file from the 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies surveys. By pooling together multiple surveys, we were able to obtain an unusually large sample of these elite donors, as well as extremely large samples of several other groups: all political donors, individuals with family incomes over $150,000, and all American adults. (Across all surveys, there were 196,000 respondents.) To make the elite donor sample nationally representative, we re-weighted the sample using information from Catalist, a political data firm with information on more than 260 million adults, and the Federal Election Commission.