A series of 13 studies with over 10,000 participants tested the change in Americans’ prejudice following the presidency of Donald Trump. The researchers found that explicit racial and religious prejudice increased amongst Trump’s supporters, while prejudice decreased among those who opposed him. This research was published in Nature Human Behavior.
In recent decades, there has been a downward trend in prejudice toward racial and religious minorities. However, some studies suggest that racial and religious prejudice had a critical role in Trump’s presidential victory. While some commentators have suggested that numerous trends following the 2016 elections (e.g., increases in reports of hate crimes, minorities reporting more discrimination) point toward a rise in racial and religious prejudice in America, others have argued that these increases may be a consequence of “increased national attention to issues of prejudice.” Other commentators from both sides of the political spectrum have suggested that even if there has been a rise in discrimination, it only reflects extremist fringe groups, rather than the broader American population.
In this work, Benjamin C. Ruisch and Melissa J. Ferguson examine “whether a single counter-normative public figure, and his widespread acceptance by a large portion of the American people, can lead to large-scale changes in social norms and societal prejudices.”
The authors tested two key predictions. First, that racial and religious prejudice significantly increased among Trump supporters but not other Americans. Second, that increase in prejudice reflected the increased acceptability of expressing prejudice (i.e., changes in social norms).
Studies 1-9 were multi-year longitudinal studies involving over 1000 participants, examining the “the breadth and depth of changes in prejudice across various target groups and measure types.” At Time 1, they included at least one measure of prejudice and various questions assessing views on social and political issues. Time 2 measures were nearly identical, and also included a question regarding support for Donald Trump.
The researchers included a wide range of measures on “political ideology, political party identification, perceptions of the US economy, perceived threat and political knowledge/sophistication, as well as demographic characteristics such as age, gender, race, education and income.” As well, they looked at environmental factors, including “income inequality, racial diversity and voter turnout in participants’ home counties” by extracting this information based on participants’ geographic location.
Study 9 included data from the VOTER survey conducted by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group and YouGov. Responses on “voting history, political attitudes, daily lives, social group memberships, health history and demographics” from over 7500 participants who completed this survey in both 2016 and 2019 were included. These studies did not allow for the isolation of Trump support as a causal factor of changes in prejudice. However, they did allow the researchers to track changes before and after his political ascension, while statistically adjusting for over 80 possible predictors.
Using both correlational and experimental methodologies, Studies 10-13 included 1402 participants and were conducted for the purpose of providing support for a causal explanation.
Across Studies 1-9, Ruisch and Ferguson found that support for Donald Trump predicted “a significant increase in prejudice towards a range of social, racial and religious minoritized groups.” Those who generally opposed Trump, including liberals and conservatives, showed decreases in prejudice in the same time period. Studies 10-13 provided indirect support for the mechanism behind the shift in social norms.
Trump supporters perceived that expressing prejudice had become more acceptable since his election, and this perception predicted greater personal prejudice among them. As well, “experimentally leading participants to feel that Trump supporters approved of his controversial rhetoric significantly increased Trump supporters’ personal expressions of prejudice .”
The authors concluded, “Together, this research suggests that the presidency of Donald Trump may have substantially reshaped the topography of prejudice in the United States.”
The research, “Changes in Americans’ prejudices during the presidency of Donald Trump”, was authored by Benjamin C. Ruisch and Melissa J. Ferguson.