New research sheds light on the cultural values that played a key role in shaping people’s attitude toward Donald Trump and their intentions to vote for the Republican candidate in 2016. The findings, published in New Political Science, indicate that beliefs related to hegemonic masculinity, race/ethnicity, and authorities on truth influenced the likelihood of adults developing an affinity for Trump.
“As social scientists, we were particularly interested in the social forces that encouraged people to develop affinities for Donald Trump — who was such a controversial, divisive, and fascinating figure and who, it turned out, won a pivotal presidential election and has largely shaped history and society since,” explained study author Chris Knoester, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University.
“Based on previous research, we became aware of unique data that allowed us to consider how social structure (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity, education, age) and cultural values and related social policies (e.g., culture war topics connected to gender, race/ethnicity and nativism, and authorities on truth) predicted the likelihood that U.S. adults would develop trust in Trump and state intentions to vote for him in the month before the 2016 presidential election.”
“We realized that we could offer evidence that disentangles, to some extent, how and to what degree social structure and culture encouraged people to trust Trump, how and to what degree these factors encouraged people to state intentions to vote for Trump, and how and to what degree a variety of culture war topics connected to gender, race/ethnicity and nativism, and the establishment of ‘truth’ were associated with intentions to vote for Trump even after accounting for the levels of trust that people developed for him,” Knoester explained.
“Essentially, these analyses show evidence of how culture war politics were integral to Trump’s rise to power and they offer a preview of especially Republicans’ culture war strategies, and their reliance upon them and realizations of their effectiveness, since 2016.”
Data for the study came from the Taking America’s Pulse 2016 Class Survey, which included responses from 1,461 U.S. adults. The survey was conducted online between October 5 and 25, 2016 — just prior to the 2016 presidential election, and included the question: “If you HAD to choose, which presidential candidate do you find to be more truthful: Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton?” The survey also collected data regarding voting intentions, demographic factors, and attitudes related to hegemonic masculinity, race/ethnicity and nativism, and authorities on truth.
Of the entire sample, 48% thought that Trump was more truthful than Hillary Clinton and 34% intended to vote for him. Trust in Trump was higher among men (vs women), Whites (vs other ethnicities), and those with a high school or some college education (vs those with a college education).
But these factors were no longer significant predictors of support for Trump after accounting for political partisanship and beliefs that embody specific cultural values. Instead, people who support Trump tended to share certain beliefs about masculinity, race, immigration, and what is considered true or not. This suggests that social structure played a role in influencing support for Trump by shaping people’s beliefs about these cultural values.
In particular, trust in Trump was higher among those who disagreed that women are disadvantaged in the workplace, those who believed it is okay to use physical violence to address bullying, those who supported increased penalties for undocumented immigrants, those who supported more preparation to offset the threats from international terrorists, those who disagreed that climate change is real, and those who agreed that the news media has increased racial discrimination.
Additionally, intentions to vote for Trump were higher among those who disapproved of “participation trophies,” those who were skeptical that long-term interracial romantic relationships could be successful, those who felt athlete protests during the National Anthem were unacceptable, and those who believed that presidential candidates should be able to ban the press from campaign events.
“We were struck by the apparent relevance of different culture war issues involving gender, race/ethnicity and nativism, and authorities on truth in establishing affinities for Donald Trump—even beyond social structural and partisanship influences,” Knoester told PsyPost.
“Some of the prominent and salient culture war issues in 2016 seemed to revolve around disputes about sexism at work, punishments for undocumented immigrants, terrorism threats, protests during the national anthem, trust in the media, and global warming. Many of these cultural war contestations continued to connect to intentions to vote for Trump even after considering the extent to which people trusted Trump relative to Hillary Clinton.
“Nonetheless, before people would state an intention to vote for Trump, it seemed that they needed to establish some trust in him,” Knoester said. “Virtually no one in our study intended to vote for Trump if they trusted Hillary Clinton more than him. And, social structural and cultural forces encouraged some people to establish trust in Trump.”
The researchers used a framework developed by Linguist George Lakoff to interpret the relationship between social structure and cultural values. Lakoff outlined two common frames used in political discourse. All humans have both mental frames, but they may prioritize one over the other based on their personal experiences and situation in life.
The “strict father morality” frame is often embraced by conservative individuals and assumes a hierarchical structure with a focus on personal responsibility and toughness. It is also patriarchal and racialized, with the “father” figure being a white male who enforces rules and traditional gender expectations and inequalities.
In contrast, more liberal individuals tend to embrace a “nurturant parent” frame, which assumes that people are generally good but require support and opportunities to thrive. This frame is less hierarchical and more accepting of differences in behavior and beliefs. It also promotes equality among different human characteristics such as gender, race/ethnicity, and place of origin.
“Our study suggests that people use different notions of morality, affected by their embrace of what George Lakoff describes as a ‘strict father’ or ‘nurturing parent’ metaphorical framing,” Knoester told PsyPost. “Social forces encourage us to differentially adopt one of these social psychological framings of morality, oftentimes subconsciously. Many of these influential social forces stem from social structure (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity, education, age).”
“Yet, cultural values and related social policies are also very meaningful and gender, race/ethnicity and nativism, and authorities on truth disputes are traditional fault lines that have emerged as extensions of social structure influences and different moral authority framings. Culture wars seem to especially prompt visceral reactions in people, divide potential coalitions, and enable political agents to co-opt them for inspirational, motivational, distractive, and control purposes. Often, they tap into fears, anxieties, grievances, and pushes for diversity, equity, and inclusion—and backlashes to these pushes, amid many changes in the culture at large.”
“We all need to be more mindful of these social structural and cultural contestation forces, recognize how influential they have been, and wary of how they are activated and used to frequently gain or maintain power and influence—often, by dividing and polarizing us in ways that commonly stigmatize and harm some groups of people and more generally prevent collaborations that may enable better qualities of life, for all. In fact, they can also offer threats to social order and democracy.”
The study provides valuable insights into people’s opinions on cultural and political topics leading up to the 2016 U.S. election, and offers new data on their affinities towards Trump during that period. But like all research, it has some limitations.
“Unfortunately, due to data limitations, we were unable to analyze the relevance of religious influences and contestations about LGBTQ issues,” Knoester said. “It seems clear that religious affiliations profoundly matter in the determination of moral authority framings. Also, culture war contestations have commonly involved LGBTQ issues (e.g., same sex marriage, gender and sexual identities, and transgender rights). These factors should be more fully considered in future research.”
“Furthermore, the relevance of social structure and culture—and particularly cultural war issues—continue to be in flux and, to some extent, their influence seems to be continually manufactured. So, for example, we see changes in what issues take hold and there continue to be ‘trial balloons’ floated about cultural war issues and related social policies in attempts to capture media attention, public reactions, and effective taps into fears, anxieties, hopes, and grievances.”
“Recently, the issues have emphasized gender identities, sexual identities, race/ethnicity, and discussion and recognition of institutionalized, historic, and systematic inequalities,” Knoester continued. “The culture war issues have highlighted, as part of this, transgender athletes, critical race theory, and public education—among many other things. So, continually, the questions that still need to be addressed involve what has changed in terms of the relevance and manipulations of social structural and cultural forces and influences, why, and to what effect—and what should and can be done about these dynamics?”
“The findings from our study suggest that we need to become more vigilantly educated and aware of where social structural and cultural forces are coming from, why they matter, and how they are use,” the researcher added. “Also, we need to continually try to make better sense of these social forces and collaboratively work to challenge them if they are being used to infringe upon the rights, well-being, and opportunities of fellow Americans. These processes do not begin, nor will they end, with Donald Trump—although he has been intimately involved in benefitting from them, co-opting them, and affecting them.”
The study, “Social Structure, Culture, and the Allure of Donald Trump in 2016“, was authored by Chris Knoester and Matthew Knoester.