A new study provides evidence that the norm-violating rhetoric of former President Donald Trump can polarize democratic attitudes. His supporters become less supportive of inclusiveness and political equality, while his disapprovers potentially become more supportive of the rule of law. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), highlights the complex relationship between elite political discourse and support for democratic principles.
The United States has recently witnessed a rise in political leaders using rhetoric that challenges democratic norms. This rhetoric often questions the fairness of elections, the credibility of media, and the integrity of democratic institutions. The researchers were motivated by the need to understand the consequences of this rhetoric by political leaders.
“Over the last decade, many political leaders like Donald Trump have started using rhetoric that violates some of the most basic American political norms,” said study author Matthew E. K. Hall, the director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame. “Over the same period, there are many indications that support for democracy has been wavering among the American public. Many observers assume that these patterns are connected, but there has been no scientific evidence to support that claim.”
In their study, the researchers gathered data from 804 participants who formed a representative sample of the American population. Half of the participants were Republicans who approved of Trump, while the other half were Democrats who disapproved of him. To ensure the quality of the data, bots and low-effort respondents were screened out. The research took place between June 22 and July 7, 2022, with approval from the Notre Dame Institutional Review Board.
Each participant was exposed to 20 tweets from Trump. The participants were randomly assigned to one of four experimental conditions: election norm violation, general norm violation, election placebo (tweets endorsing a candidate), or nonelection placebo (tweets mentioning non-election topics, such as responding to a hurricane).
Examples of Trump’s norm-violating tweets:
Election norm violation: “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”
General norm violation: “THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE. Sadly, our Lamestream Media is TOTALLY CORRUPT!”
After reading the tweets, the participants were then asked to rate their support for democracy versus autocracy and express their views on four democratic principles: inclusiveness, contestation, the rule of law, and political equality.
The study found no significant effects on support for democracy versus autocracy across all experimental conditions when compared to the nonelection placebo. However, the researchers found that exposure to both Trump’s election norm violations and his general norm violations decreased support for democratic inclusiveness among individuals who approved of Trump.
In other words, Trump supporters exposed to Trump’s norm-violating tweets were less likely to disagree with statement such as “Everyone should be allowed to vote” and “The more people participate in politics and elections, the better.” Trump’s general norm violations also decreased support for political equality among Trump supporters (e.g., “The government should never treat members of one religion differently than members of any other religion”).
The findings indicate that “the rhetoric that our political leaders use matters in very important ways. Violating norms of standard political behavior undermine support for the most basic democratic principles,” Hall told PsyPost.
On the other hand, among those who disapproved of Trump, exposure to tweets that violated election norms, general norms, or even election placebo tweets nearly significantly increased support for the rule of law. This effect was mainly driven by the item “The president should not be above the law.”
“I was surprised to find that exposure to Donald Trump’s norm-violating rhetoric actually increases support for limitations on presidential power among Donald Trump’s opponents,” Hall said.
The new findings build upon a previous study, published in 2021, which found that exposure to Trump’s norm-violating tweets reduced trust in voting and increased beliefs that elections are “rigged” among his supporters.
But while the research sheds light on the effects of norm-violating rhetoric, it does not explore the long-term consequences or the broader societal impact of such discourse. Future research could delve deeper into the mechanisms through which political rhetoric shapes public opinion and investigate the durability of these effects over time.
“It’s important to note that Donald Trump’s rhetoric only affects support for democratic principles among his supporters,” Hall noted.
The study, “Norm-violating rhetoric undermines support for participatory inclusiveness and political equality among Trump supporters“, was authored by Matthew E. K. Hall and James N. Druckman.