December 10, 2019


Are Trump supporters anti-Muslim? (George Hawley, December 4, 2019, Brookings)

In other papers in this project, we learned about increasingly powerful political parties dedicated to immigration restrictions, of well-known political entrepreneurs focused entirely on restricting Islam's influence in European societies, and of right-wing populist governments consolidating their power. Although further right-wing populist victories in Europe are not inevitable, in recent years these movements have effectively shifted the political conversation in their own direction. Many mainstream parties have begun to embrace talking points once relegated to the far-right.

This is less the case in the U.S. Trump's victory has not fundamentally changed the Republican Party or led to substantively significant immigration policy changes. Trump's electoral base furthermore does not seem particularly concerned about Muslim immigration as such -- which is not to say it is especially tolerant.

We can reasonably criticize President Trump for promoting anti-Muslim prejudice, and he may have played a role in promoting these attitudes. A recent poll published by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding showed a small but statistically significant increase in its Islamophobia index over the last year. A poll conducted by the think tank New America additionally found that Republicans are especially likely to view Muslims with suspicion. On the other hand, we should remember that, on average, Republicans have long been likely to express negative views of Muslims and Islam. We should therefore investigate whether we saw a spike in these attitudes after Donald Trump entered the political arena. In my own analysis of the American National Election Survey data, I found little evidence that this occurred. In the 2012 survey, the mean feeling thermometer score for Muslims among all Republican identifiers was about 38. In the 2016 survey, conducted after then-candidate Trump called for a total ban on Muslim immigration, the mean score among all Republican identifiers was a bit higher -- about 45. This is not a definitive finding, of course, but it does indicate that President Trump has not ushered in an unprecedented era of anti-Muslim animus, even among Republicans.

In my own interviews, I came across no subjects seriously concerned about the "Islamification" of the United States. Such sentiments exist in this country, and there is a large audience for Islamophobic rhetoric. However, this particular fear is apparently less politically significant in the U.S. than in Europe. This is likely because Muslims remain a very small percentage of the U.S. population, and are only a small part of the ongoing and dramatic demographic change occurring here. In much of Europe, Muslim immigration is a key source of demographic shifts, and thus of great concern to European nativists. In the U.S., Muslims are just one small part of the broader phenomenon.

Even if anti-Muslim sentiments are just as strong in the U.S. as elsewhere, there are compelling historical reasons to doubt the long-term sustainability of any right-wing populist movement in the United States. Political expressions of these kinds of right-wing sentiments have rarely led to successful long-term organizations. These movements typically form around the personality of a charismatic politician, and then recede from political significance after that politician is defeated or otherwise fades from the scene. Although they had different agendas and styles, this was the case with George Wallace, David Duke, Ross Perot, and Patrick Buchanan.

Posted by at December 10, 2019 12:00 AM