Has Donald Trump’s relentless demagoguery against Mexicans, Muslims, and African Americans made Americans more hateful? Or did Trump capitalize on a white backlash against the election of the first black president to put himself in the White House?
Last week, Reveal, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, identified 150 incidents of verbal harassment or physical violence over the past 18 months in which the perpetrator explicitly mentioned Donald Trump. Reveal’s Will Carless wrote that “nearly every metric of intolerance in the U.S. has surged over [that time period], from reported anti-Semitism and Islamophobia to violent hate crimes based on skin color, nationality or sexual orientation.”
This postelection surge in hatred has been referred to as “the Trump Effect.” But several studies have suggested the spike in racial animosity pre-dates Trump. For instance, George Washington University political scientist John Sides found that the white working-class voters who had first backed Barack Obama and then voted for Trump in 2016 were already moving toward the Republican Party before the campaign got underway. Sides found that the share of these voters who “perceived that the Democratic Party was to the left of the Republican Party on the issue of how much the government should help improve the status of African Americans grew dramatically over the Obama years.” Obama, Sides told me last year, “was clarifying on this issue, and that may have hastened their departure from the Democratic Party.” And a study by Mara Cecilia Ostfeld that was published last week in the journal Political Behavior similarly concluded that, “as White Democrats learn about Democratic outreach to Latinos, they become less supportive of Democrats.”
But a new, as yet unpublished study presented to the Midwest Political Science Association last month suggests that there’s a causal relationship between Trump’s demagoguery and those reports of racialized abuses. Brian Schaffner, a scholar at UMass Amherst, found empirical evidence that Trump’s rhetoric did indeed lead non-Hispanic whites to express more bigoted views of “the other.”
Shortly before the 2016 election, Schaffner randomly divided almost 1,200 non-Hispanic white respondents into four groups. He showed one, the control group, three relatively anodyne statements made by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the course of the campaign. The second group was given the same three statements, and also shown an excerpt of Trump’s infamous Mexican-rapists speech. A third group saw a different inflammatory statement that had been tweeted by Trump: “Our great African-American President hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore.” And the final group was shown all five.