Research appearing in the June 2020 issue of Political Behavior suggests that any damage that President Donald Trump causes to the international image of the United States is not irreparable. The study, which examined attitudes in Japan, found that people are more influenced more by policy content than by the person delivering the message.
“This study was part of my broader interest in the extent to which ordinary people use heuristics in politics. For example, when evaluating political information and forming opinions, do people rely more on mental shortcuts (e.g. the source of the information) or the information itself?” said study author Alexander Agadjanian (@A_agadjanian), who is currently an independent political science researcher.
“This has been an ongoing debate in American politics literature, but little work had been done in a transnational setting. My co-author and I thought this question was very applicable to the context of Donald Trump and global public opinion toward the United States. For one, Trump had frequently discussed foreign countries during his presidential campaign, so how foreign publics interpreted U.S. messages was important.”
“Second, given Trump’s reputation as a polarizing figure with unusually hostile rhetoric, testing messages from Trump made for a ‘most likely’ case for a leader to powerfully shape opinion,” Agadjanian explained.
“Third, Trump himself talked about the question that interested us. On the topic of whether his rhetoric increased tensions with foreign countries, he said ‘If someone else uttered the exact same words that I uttered, they would say what a great statement, what a wonderful statement.’ We were well-positioned to test this experimentally.”
In the study, 3,198 Japanese citizens completed an online survey between April 26 and May 2, 2017. The participants were randomly assigned to read one of eight versions of a policy statement, which was attributed either to Trump or an anonymous U.S. congressman, described a cooperative or uncooperative policy approach, and was either about education or security.
For example, an uncooperative statement attributed to Trump read: “U.S. President Donald Trump stated that Japan should pay entirely for its own protection and denounced past U.S. defense spending for the protection of Japan. He also said that the U.S. should not get involved in Japan’s defense policy.” The cooperative version read: “U.S. President Donald Trump stated that the U.S. should help Japan with paying for its own protection and applauded past U.S. defense spending for the protection of Japan. He also said the U.S. should maintain defense cooperation with Japan.”
The messages were mostly based on statements made either by Trump during his presidential campaign or by his administration during budget proposals.
After reading the statement, each participant then reported his or her favorability towards the United States as a country, Trump, U.S. foreign policy, and the American people.
The researchers found that the source of the policy had only a small impact on Japanese people’s perceptions of the U.S. Whether a statement was cooperative or uncooperative, on the other hand, had the strongest effect in influencing Japanese opinion of the United States.
The researchers also found that participants who read an uncooperative policy message attributed to Trump tended to have more negative attitudes toward the United States, Trump, and U.S. foreign policy — but not toward American people.
“For as unusual, polarizing, and hostile a figure Trump has been in foreign relations, his influence on the way other countries’ citizens think is limited. At least in our case study of Japan, outside citizens are thoughtful and keen to the policy implications of a message sent by Trump. They’re not just turned off when they realize that Trump is the messenger, but instead pay attention to the message,” Agadjanian told PsyPost.
“This implies that if Trump starts to reverse course and become more friendly toward countries he previously slighted — as he’s already shown some signs of — foreign citizens will in fact take his message seriously and view the US more favorably.”
The study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“The one big (and perhaps obvious) caveat is we focus on just one country — Japan. Japan of course differs in many ways from other countries that may have been a subject of Trump’s focus and rhetoric, and so it would be instructive to see if our results hold in other countries,” Agadjanian explained.
“Another caveat is in our methods. Our survey experimental approach can clearly establish cause and effect, but might have low external validity (it abstracts away real world conditions and makes for an artificial context). Given this concern, it would be interesting to see if observational approaches find similar results — how do outside views toward the U.S. change in real time before and after Trump publicly sends friendly/hostile messages? What does this look like for past/future presidencies?”
“The implication that if Trump starts to change his tone, foreign citizens will take it seriously and warm toward the U.S. actually seems to be supported by recent public opinion data. Following a campaign full of hostility toward Japan, Japanese favorability toward the U.S. declined from 72 to 57 percent when Trump took office in 2017. Yet in the first few years of his presidency, Trump shifted his tone, becoming friendlier toward Japan and sending cooperative messages,” Agadjanian said.
“Given that the message changed but the messenger stayed the same, our study would predict Japanese attitudes should become more positive as a result. And indeed, after falling to 57 percent in 2017, the percentage of Japanese viewing the U.S. favorably rose 10 points to 67 percent in 2018 (close to pre-Trump levels).”
“Prior to this trend, one might’ve thought that Trump’s built-up negative reputation would singularly shape outside opinion to the point where foreign citizens would ignore his message, even if it was friendly. Instead, as our study finds, foreign opinion does not hinge unconditionally on the US leader and is actually responsive to policy shifts (even while Trump remains in power),” Agadjanian added.
The study, “Has Trump Damaged the U.S. Image Abroad? Decomposing the Effects of Policy Messages on Foreign Public Opinion“, was authored by Alexander Agadjanian and Yusaku Horiuchi.