Fear and Loathing in the American Electorate: Part 4
Seven “deplorable” beliefs that predict 2020 Presidential vote
This is Part 4 of an eight-part exploration of the 2020 American National Election Study, focusing on the motivations and sources of information driving the American electorate, especially the Republican/conservative voters who cast their votes for Donald Trump in 2020. Here are quick links to the other seven parts.
- Part 1: The most important question facing American democracy today
- Part 2: Demographic predictors of 2020 vote
- Part 3: Media consumption — Where do voters get their information and what difference does it make?
- Part 5: The role of conspiracies and misinformation in the 2020 election
- Part 6: Partisan animosity
- Part 7: Combining sources of behavior — Path models of the 2020 Presidential vote
- Part 8: Republicans have crossed the Rubicon — Conclusions and implications
Speaking at a fundraiser in New York City on September 9, 2016, Hillary Clinton memorably observed that half of Donald Trump’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables” who held “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic” views. This statement quickly became a lightning rod for Republican politicians and Trump promoters, who treated it as direct confirmation of what they had been preaching to their base for decades — that Democrats were elitist snobs who looked down their noses at the hard-working Americans whose homespun values were the opposite of deplorable. They were decent, pure, and the bedrock of everything great about America. Or so Donald Trump and Republican elites incessantly told them. Who was right?
Looking at attitude and belief data from the 2020 ANES surveys, we have to conclude that Clinton was, if anything, too generous in her estimate that only half of Trump supporters were “deplorables”. In fact, the number was much higher. And it appears to have metastasized even further after four years of Donald Trump in the White House.
Not every Republican voter had deplorable values in 2020, but the Republican Party made it clear that anyone who held deplorable values had a home in the Republican Party.
Here are seven “deplorable” values and beliefs that were documented in the 2020 ANES surveys and proved to be significant predictors of Presidential vote.
The elephant in the room before, during, and after the 2020 election was racism in America. Assessing racist beliefs and attitudes in a public opinion survey is difficult, because most people who hold racist beliefs in America do not believe their beliefs are in fact racist. So evidence of racism must be gathered indirectly. In the 2020 ANES surveys, this delicate task is accomplished by asking people the extent to which they agree or disagree with four carefully-worded statements:
- “Irish, Italian, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.”
- “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.”
- “Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve.”
- “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.”
Agreement with the first and fourth statements and disagreement with the second and third statements represent negative beliefs and attitudes about black people in America. The fourth question is perhaps the most overt regarding racial stereotyping, in that it gives respondents an opportunity to express their agreement with the racist idea that blacks as a group are lazy and solely responsible for any economic hardships they might face. Trump voters endorsed this idea overwhelmingly.
Among Trump voters, 52% agreed strongly or somewhat with the statement, compared to 13% of Biden voters. Another 27% didn’t acknowledge agreement, but were unable to disagree either. At the other extreme, only 21% of Trump voters disagreed with this statement, compared to 74% of Biden voters.
A series of questions like these are meant to be combined into a scale to provide a more reliable indicator of the general belief or attitude that underlies the individual answers. In this case, I combined responses into a racist scale¹ that I standardized to fit into a 0-to-1 range, with higher scores representing more racist attitudes (racist scale, Cronbach’s alpha = .88). Comparing average scores on this measure for Biden, Trump, and ‘other’ voters, we get the following results:
Trump voters on average expressed nearly three times as much racist sentiment on these questions as Biden voters.
Digging deeper, we find a close alignment between racist attitudes and liberal-conservative self-identification. While liberals shared similar (and low) racism scores, self-described moderates and conservatives expressed significantly greater racism at each level of conservative ideological intensity.
These graphics paint a very clear picture of the depth of racism in America today and where it resides. Since our racism measure is a continuous scale, we cannot pick a single point along the continuum and say this is where non-racists become racists. But we can use the scale to divide our sample into distinct bins based on where individual’s’ racism scores fall compared to the public as a whole. To that end, I divided responses on the racism scale into five equal-sized bins, from the 20% least racist Americans to the 20% most racist. To quantify the extent to which racism was a source of Presidential vote in 2020, we can compare how people voted within and across these five groups. The results leave little room for doubt.
While not all Trump voters in 2020 were racists, 90% of the most racist Americans said they voted for Trump, compared to only 2% of the least racist Americans.
As documented in the 2020 ANES surveys, racism was alive and well in Donald Trump’s America.
Anti-immigrant and anti-minority sentiment
A bedrock belief of the Republican Party, greatly amplified by right-wing media and Republican office holders at least since the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, is that immigrants and minorities are a burden on white America that must be controlled through draconian immigration laws and entry restrictions.
Immigration policies in American are universally acknowledged to be ineffective, cruel, and “broken”. What is less universally acknowledged is that they are this way because Republicans want them to be.
Republicans have blocked every effort to streamline and modernize US immigration laws in recent years. Perhaps the definitive example of their dedication to this cause was the infamous “Gang of Eight” fiasco in 2013, when Republican Senators were forced to renounce an immigration plan they themselves helped draft when it became clear it might actually pass into law.²
Republicans like to keep immigration in chaos because it allows them to agitate and motivate their base by activating fears and suspicions about “others”. Their playbook is simple. First, they repeatedly claim that immigrants are criminals and monsters who will steal you job and rape your daughter. Then they point out that any Democrat running for office will “open the borders” and let these monsters run wild through our communities. Then they sit back and watch their voters rush to the polls to elect Republicans who will save them from this impending invasion. Republicans have been running this play for decades.
How well is this Republican immigration playbook working? In the ANES 2020 post-election survey, respondents were asked the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with five statements about immigrants and minorities:
- “Minorities should adapt to the customs and traditions of the United States.”
- “The will of the majority should always prevail, even over the rights of minorities.”
- “Immigrants are generally good for America’s economy.”
- “America’s culture is generally harmed by immigrants.”
- “Immigrants increase crime rates in the United States.”
It is worth noting that these are not just opinion statements. With the exception of the first one, which asks what minorities should do, the other four are all empirical statements that could be either true or false, regardless of anyone’s opinion about them. What is the factual status of these statements?
“The will of the majority should always prevail” sounds like an opinion statement, but it is actually a mini-test of how well one understands the US Constitution. The American form of government was designed to provide a general framework for majority rule, but also to protect fundamental minority rights within that framework. The First Amendment, and indeed the Constitution as a whole, specify numerous minority rights that cannot be overruled by majority decree.
“Immigrants are good for America’s economy.” This is empirically true. Study after study has shown not only that immigrants are good for the economy, but that restricting immigration is bad for the economy.³ A recent blog post from the otherwise right-wing Cato Institute reviews extensive evidence documenting the economic value immigrants bring to America, countering the opposite claim regularly made by right-wing commentators and Republican office holders.⁴
“America’s culture is harmed by immigrants.” “Culture” is a code-word here. It means “white culture”. Further, it implies there is a single, monolithic white culture that is under assault by the “alien” cultures of immigrants. Both parts of this implication are demonstrably false. There is no single culture in America and there never has been. The concern about “alien” cultures is mostly about assimilation, a fear that today’s immigrants won’t assimilate as well as immigrants in previous generations. Just the opposite is true, as has been documented in numerous high-quality studies.⁵ The statement is false.
“Immigrants increase crime rates in the United States.” This is another empirical statement that can be easily checked against the facts. Despite being a favorite right-wing talking point — and the go-to claim Republicans use to whip their followers into a biennial frenzy — it is false. Even among undocumented immigrants residing in the country illegally, crime rates are lower than for comparable native-born US citizens. This is why efforts to lower crime rates by “rounding up” undocumented workers have never worked, nor should they be expected to work in the future.⁶
Given this background on these five statements, what do Americans believe? As with the racism questions above, I combined responses into a single anti_outgroup scale that ranges from 0 to 1. Consistency in responses is acceptably high (Cronbach’s alpha = .77), resulting in a reliable scale of anti-immigrant and anti-minority sentiment. Utilizing to this scale, Trump voters in 2020 expressed approximately twice as much anti-outgroup sentiment as Biden voters.
Looking at these attitudes by liberal-conservative self-ID, we find a similar pattern. Anti-outgroup sentiment increases significantly at each step along the liberal-to-conservative continuum.
Dividing responses to this anti_outgroup scale into five equal-sized bins and then comparing Presidential voting within each bin, we again find, as with the racist scale, that people with the most anti-outgroup beliefs voted overwhelmingly for Trump and that anti-immigrant and anti-minority beliefs (factually incorrect as they may be) were a powerful predictor of Presidential vote in 2020.
Opposition to equality values (social dominance orientation)
Much has been written in the academic literature about social dominance orientation (SDO) as a source of conservative political beliefs and attitudes.⁷ Belief in social dominance is basically a combination of two beliefs: (1) that people are inherently unequal in status or rights and (2) that the existing hierarchy of inequality is right and just and should not be tampered with. We can call someone who agrees with both these sentiments a hierarchist. The 2020 ANES surveys capture social dominance and inequality beliefs by asking respondents the extent to which they agree or disagree with these four statements:
- “Our society should do whatever is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.”
- “This country would be better off if we worried less about how equal people are.”
- “It is not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others.”
- “If people were treated more equally in this country we would have many fewer problems.”
Social dominance orientation is measured by agreement with the second and third statements and disagreement with the first and fourth. The resulting hierarchist scale has good reliability (Cronbach’s alpha = .76), indicating that it is measuring a single underlying construct. As expected, higher scores on this 0-to-1 hierarchist scale are associated with a significantly greater likelihood of voting for Trump vs. Biden in 2020.
Looking at the relationship between SDO beliefs and liberal-conservative self-ID, we see a pattern more like the results for racism. Belief in hierarchy and social domination, like a belief in racist stereotypes, increases significantly as intensity of self-described conservative orientation increases.
When we compare the voting preferences of respondents with high and low hierarchist beliefs, the pattern is clear at both ends of the SDO continuum.
Not all Trump voters were anti-equality hierarchists, but the most anti-equality hierarchists were overwhelmingly Trump voters, 89% to 11%.
Anti-science and anti-expertise sentiment
Perhaps the strangest aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic in America has been the stubborn refusal of millions of Americans to accept the recommendations of doctors and other medical experts to get vaccinated and take other common-sense precautions to protect themselves and their families from infection and possible death. Yet, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, denial and outright rejection of vaccines and other safety measures persist.
The idea that there is no such thing as “expertise” is a view Republican leaders have been feeding their followers for decades, with a recklessness that only accelerated under the “expert-free” Trump administration. The rationale at the leadership level is both simple and obvious. Republican policy priorities — to the extent they exist at all — are designed to benefit their rich benefactors, usually at the expense of “ordinary” Americans.⁸ In order to sell these bad policies (tax cuts for the rich, discrimination against immigrants and minorities, anti-democracy legislation, underfunded healthcare and education systems, etc.), they must discredit and deny the legitimacy of anyone who points out that their policies are, in fact, bad for most Americans.
If experts tell the truth about Republican policies, Republicans’ only defense is to attack the experts, because the policies in question are indefensible on their own merits.
This deliberate strategy of attacking experts took an unexpected but predictable-in-hindsight turn when the pandemic swept uncontrolled through the United States, thanks to the incompetence of the Trump Administration. Unable to admit the enormity of their failure, Republicans fell in line behind their leader, a pathological liar in the best of times, and proceeded to deny that the pandemic was even real. This, in turn, necessitated expanding the ring of “experts you should not listen to” to include some of the most dedicated and respected scientists, doctors, and healthcare institutions in the country. One would imagine this would be a hard sell. But there was Donald Trump on TV every day, telling Americans that COVID would disappear on its own, that they might want to consider ingesting bleach to protect themselves, and that the words of eminent experts like Dr. Fauci carried no more legitimacy than his own incoherent, self-serving ramblings.
It was in this context that the ANES surveys included three questions to probe people’s attitudes toward science and expertise in late 2020.
- “When it comes to public policy decisions, whom do you tend to trust more: ordinary people, experts, or trust both the same?”
- “How much do ordinary people need the help of experts to understand complicated things like science and health?”
- “In general, how important should science be for making government decisions about COVID-19?”
The three questions form a moderately acceptable anti_science scale (Cronbach’s alpha = .66), ranging from 0 (answering all three questions in favor of trusting experts) to 1 (answering all three questions in favor of trusting ordinary people more than experts). As might be expected given the context just described, Trump voters expressed significantly more anti-science sentiment than Biden voters.
Looking at the distribution of Trump and Biden voters on the anti_science scale, we find Biden voters predominantly clustered at the pro-science end of the scale, while Trump voters are more evenly distributed across the full range of the scale, but with a significant minority of at the extreme anti-science end of the scale. (Grey vertical lines indicate the mean score for each group.)
Anti-science sentiment has a clear relationship with ideology, as we can see by comparing anti_science scores across the liberal-conservative spectrum. Those who identify as liberal at all levels of intensity display a consistent pro-science perspective, while anti-science sentiment ratchets up significantly at each level of conservative intensity.
Dividing individuals into five equal-sized bins based on their anti_science scale scores, we get another perspective on the relationship between anti-science beliefs and Presidential vote. Among the 20% of Americans who were most anti-science, 83% voted for Trump, whereas among the 20% of Americans who were least anti-science, only 12% voted for Trump.
This evidence from the 2020 ANES surveys clearly shows that the Republican Party has been successful in delegitimizing science and expertise for a large segment of its base. As recently reported in the New York Times, this “success” has resulted in an increasing bifurcation of the COVID crisis in America. States that voted for Biden have been significantly more successful at controlling the virus through higher vaccination rates and stricter masking guidelines, while vaccination rates have lagged in Trump-voting states, resulting in more illness, death, and overrun hospital systems as Trump loyalists prove their fealty to the former President by dying in increasingly partisan numbers. As the Times article concludes:
Since Delta began circulating widely in the U.S., Covid has exacted a horrific death toll on red America: In counties where Donald Trump received at least 70 percent of the vote, the virus has killed about 47 out of every 100,000 people since the end of June, according to Charles Gaba, a health care analyst. In counties where Trump won less than 32 percent of the vote, the number is about 10 out of 100,000.⁹
You can almost hear the Trumpian response: “Who the heck is this Charles Gaba guy, and why should I listen to him? He’s probably lying anyway.”
Nativism (exclusivist nationalism)
Nativism is a hyperbolic form of nationalism in which one’s expressed love of country is accompanied by a belief that native-born or established citizens should have rights and privileges that immigrants and first-generation residents should not have. The 2020 ANES post-election survey contains four questions on this topic, which it calls questions of national identity. Respondents were asked how important each of the following is for one to be called “truly American”:
- “To have been born in the United States.”
- “To have American ancestry.”
- “To be able to speak English.”
- “To follow America’s customs and traditions.”
Building a nativist scale out of people’s responses to these questions, we find once again that Trump voters were much more likely than Biden voters to see these attributes as important elements of American identity.
We see a similar pattern across the liberal-conservative spectrum. The more conservative one’s self-identified political orientation, the more one ascribes to these beliefs about what constitutes a “true Americans”.
Finally, looking at how people along this nativist scale choose to vote, we see a familiar pattern, but one slightly more attenuated than in previous cases. Clearly, the more one holds nativist beliefs, the more one was likely to vote for Trump, but in this case we find more Biden voters sharing nativist beliefs at the high end of the scale, and somewhat more Trump voters sharing non-nativist beliefs as the low end of the scale, than we saw with either the racist or anti_outgroup scales. Nativism is a somewhat less powerful predictor of Trump voting.
Misogyny (distrust/dislike of assertive women)
The core of modern misogyny as it exists in America today is a concern that some women, not all, are becoming too assertive regarding their rights, interests, and grievances. It is a worry that those women may not “know their place” and reject the roles men assign them. Closely aligned with hierarchist and social dominance thinking, misogyny is a concern about the health of one particular hierarchy: the dominance of men over women.
Misogyny is not about male hostility or hatred toward women — instead, it’s about controlling and punishing women who challenge male dominance. Misogyny rewards women who reinforce the status quo and punishes those who don’t.¹⁰
This is the perspective on misogyny the ANES 2020 surveys attempt to capture with two “agree-disagree” questions and two “how much” questions:
- “Many women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist.” (agree/disagree)
- “Women seek to gain power by getting control over men.” (agree/disagree)
- “When women demand equality these days, how often are they actually seeking special favors?”
- “When women complain about discrimination, how often do they cause more problems than they solve?”
Responses to these four questions were acceptably consistent (Cronbach’s alpha = .70) to form a 0-to-1 misogynist scale of attitudes toward women who “seek to gain power”, “demand equality”, or “complain about discrimination”. Concerns about these troublesome women were much more prevalent among Trump voters than Biden voters in 2020.
As with previous “deplorable” values, scores on the misogyny scale increase monotonically and significantly at every level of conservative self-identification.
Finally, looking at the voting preferences of respondents stratified into 5 equal-sized groups based on low-to-high misogynist scores, we see that those with the lowest levels of misogyny voted overwhelmingly for Biden and those with the highest levels of misogyny voted overwhelmingly for Trump, misogyny was less of a differentiator than some of the other attitudes we have examined, most notably racist and hierarchist beliefs.
We can get a clearer picture of how misogyny impacts voting by comparing the effects of misogynist beliefs on Presidential vote among self-identified liberals, moderates, and conservatives. Here we see that misogyny has little impact on those who identify as liberal or conservative. Their votes appear baked-in based on their ideological orientation. Misogyny’s impact on voting occurs predominantly among moderates, where each step along the five levels of misogynist beliefs results in a sizable uptick in Trump vote.
Lack of empathy for other racial/ethnic groups
An interesting series of questions in the ANES 2020 post-election survey attempts to capture the extent to which people notice and care about the challenges faced by racial or ethnic groups other than their own. Here are the questions.
- “How often would you say that you have tender, concerned feelings for people from another racial or ethnic group who are less fortunate than you?”
- “How often would you say you try to better understand people of other racial or ethnic groups by imagining how things look from their perspective?”
- “Before criticizing somebody from another racial or ethnic group, how often do you try to imagine how you would feel if you were in their place?”
- “When you see someone being taken advantage of due to their race or ethnicity, how often do you feel protective towards them?”
These questions address a particular form of empathy. More broadly, empathy is the human capacity to recognize and care about the feelings of others. In these questions, empathy is assessed with regard to a particular target: “other” racial and ethnic groups. These terms are essentially code for Black Americans, immigrants, and other minorities. The four questions form a very reliable and consistent empathic scale (Cronbach’s alpha = .85) of attitudes toward the challenges faced by these groups. Comparing empathy scores for Biden vs. Trump voters in 2020, we see a familiar pattern, but in reverse.
In this case, Biden voters score higher on this scale than Trump voters. The difference, however, is smaller than on other scales. We can get a sense of how Biden and Trump voters compare on this scale by examining histograms of the distribution of Biden and Trump voters along the empathic scale, with mean values indicated by vertical grey lines (0.70 for Biden voters and 0.55 for Trump voters).
Dividing respondents into five equal-sized bins based on their empathy scores, we find that the 20% who scored highest on the empathic scale voted overwhelmingly for Biden, while the 20% who scored lowest voted almost as overwhelmingly for Trump. Trump’s share of vote diminished linearly at each level of increased empathy for other groups.
Finally, as we saw with the misogynist scale, this relatively modest effect of empathy-toward-others on Presidential vote operates almost exclusively among those who self-identify as moderate or non-ideological.
Deplorable: A summary measure of deplorable beliefs and values
In this long article, we have identified seven deplorable beliefs that strongly predict candidate bias and presidential vote in the 2020 national election. It should come as no surprise that they also correlate highly with each other and with media exposure habits. A weighted correlation matrix of the seven beliefs plus votefor, cbias, mbias, and mmedia (mainstream media usage) tells the overall story.
Several things stand out in this table.
- The four “hardest” deplorable beliefs — racist, hierarchist, anti_outgroup, and anti_science — all correlate at high levels with each other and with candidate bias and Presidential vote.
- Deplorable beliefs correlate positively with conservative media bias and negatively with mainstream media usage.
- Deplorable beliefs correlate negatively with feelings of empathy toward less-fortunate groups and individuals. People at the high end of these deplorable belief scales have little concern for the welfare of others who might be less well-off than they are.
- Finally, all these results strongly suggest that we should think of deplorable beliefs as a syndrome, that is, as an interrelated and mutually-reinforcing set of values, attitudes and beliefs that derive from deeper psychological needs and life experiences. This syndrome, in turn, makes people particularly susceptible to embracing the conspiracies and misinformation promoted by Republican elites and right-wing media.
To capture this “deplorable” syndrome of interlocking beliefs, I created another scale variable called deplorable, which combines scores on the racist, anti_outgroup, hierarchist and anti_science scales.¹¹ This variable effectively captures the unidimensionality of the four beliefs (Cronbach’s alpha = .82).
It should come as no surprise that this deplorable scale variable is highly predictive of Presidential vote.
Trump voters, on average, express more than twice the deplorable sentiments expressed by Biden voters. The impact of deplorable beliefs on 2020 vote is even more apparent when we divide voters into five equal-sized bins, from the 20% who have the lowest deplorable scores to the 20% who have the highest. The more deplorable a person’s beliefs and values regarding race, minorities, equality, and science, the more likely they are to vote for Donald Trump in 2020.
Finally, when we compare histograms of the distribution of deplorable scores for Biden vs. Trump voters, we get a visual sense of wide divide between the two groups. Biden voters have an average deplorable score of .24 while Trump voters have an average score of .57.
The seven deplorable beliefs and values we have reviewed here demonstrate exactly what the Republican Party is up to when it encourages and celebrates these feelings in its followers.
The core of the Republican political strategy is this: fuel and amplify your followers’ fears, suspicions, and animosities in order to mobilize them politically. As long as they are fearful, angry and aggrieved, they will do the Party’s bidding and never notice that the Party is the source of their discontent.
One way Republicans have learned to keep their voters in a state of constant agitation is to feed them a steady diet of conspiracies and lies, reminding them that their cherished beliefs and values, deplorable as they may be, are at risk and under attack — by evil Democrats who must be defeated in the next election.
Continue to Part 5: The role of conspiracies and misinformation in the 2020 election
- To generate this and other multi-item scales, I used the scoreItems() function in the R package psych. This function also produces a measure of internal consistency called Cronbach’s alpha. For the racism scale, alpha = .88, indicating a high degree of consistency in respondent’s answers to the four questions. Generally, an alpha score above .6 indicates an acceptable level of consistency across scale items. Most of the scales used in the ANES surveys are well-established in the academic literature and have proven records of consistency across many studies.
- See, e.g., Nakamura, David and Ed O’Keefe, “Timeline: The rise and fall of immigration reform,” Washington Post, June 26, 2014, online here.
- See, for example, Anderson, Stuart, “Evidence Mounts That Reducing Immigration Harms America’s Economy,” Forbes.com, April 1, 2021, online here.
- Nowrasteh, Alex. “The 14 Most Common Arguments against Immigration and Why They’re Wrong,” Cato.org, May 2, 2018, online here.
- Two of the most extensive studies finding nothing unusual in current immigrants’ assimilation into American (and European) societies are: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and Committee on Population. The integration of immigrants into American society. National Academies Press, 2016; OECD, “Indicators of Immigrant Integration 2015,” online here.
- Light, Michael T., Jingying He, and Jason P. Robey. “Comparing crime rates between undocumented immigrants, legal immigrants, and native-born US citizens in Texas.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117.51 (2020): 32340–32347.
- Jost, John T., et al. “Political conservatism as motivated social cognition.” Psychological bulletin 129.3 (2003): 339; Pettigrew, Thomas F. “Social psychological perspectives on Trump supporters.” Journal of Social and Political Psychology 5.1 (2017): 107–116.
- This has certainly been the result in states where Republicans have held legislative and executive power for years, as I demonstrate in my analysis of social policies in GOP-run states, available here on Medium.
- David Leonhardt, “Red Covid. Covid’s partisan pattern is growing more extreme.” New York Times, September 23, 2021, online here.
- Sean Illing. “What we get wrong about misogyny.” Vox, March 7, 2020. Interview with Cornell philosopher Kate Manne, online here.
- Using the same scoreItems() function in the R package psych that I used to calculate the other scale variables discussed above.