Two researchers at BYU found something puzzling about the constantly shifting political positions taken by President Donald Trump. His supporters just don’t care.
Michael Barber and Jeremy Pope’s paper “Does Party Trump Ideology?” found that it really doesn’t matter that Trump may take positions on an issue that are 180-degrees away from each other because, for the most part, his supporters will blindly fall in line.
“We showed Republicans either the ‘liberal’ Trump or the ‘conservative’ Trump,” said Pope. “When we showed them a liberal position taken by Trump, Republicans moved in a liberal direction. When we showed them a conservative position from Trump, they moved toward the conservative side of the spectrum.”
That certainly does seem bizarre, doesn’t it?
“They’re loyal to a party and not ideologically consistent to an issue,” he said.
Another curious finding from their research shows Trump supporters who identified as conservatives were the most malleable politically.
“That suggests their conservative has less to do with any principled position and more to do with a social identity that they’re on a team and when they get the signal that this is what the team is doing, they’re quite happy to go along with that,” said Pope.
Trump famously flip-flopped all over the place during his run for the White House. The shifting sands of his ideology touched many many issues, not limited to immigration, his proposed ban on Muslims, how to defeat ISIS, guns, and abortion.
Astonishingly, Trump took opposing positions on guns in the classroom in the same sentence during the campaign. “I don’t want to have guns in classrooms, although in some cases, teachers should have guns in classrooms, frankly,” said Trump during a May 25 interview with Yahoo.
Pope says when he and Barber set out to find the issues where Trump flip-flopped, “It took us about an hour.”
“As an exercise, I started doing the same for Bill Clinton and John Kerry,” says Pope. “It was possible to come up with a few things, but it was much, much harder. Trump is able to skate on this, and I honestly don’t know why.”
Usually, that sort of brazen about-face would be political suicide for a politician. Not Trump.
“Trump has a kind of hold on Republicans that lets him get away with things I’ve never seen a politician get away with before,” says Pope.
Pope’s research does suggest one reason for that. Those who are most likely to go along with Trump are the voters who understand the issues least.
“This does suggest that a lot of people who label themselves as ‘conservatives’ don’t really have thought out positions. They simply label themselves as a conservative and then say whatever Trump says.”
No matter how much of a cognitive dissonance this may cause, it doesn’t deter Trump at all says Pope.
“Trump just stays with whatever seems to be working for him, and it’s hard to figure out why he believes something is working for him. But, our research found that his supporters are happy to go along with that much of the time.”
Pope is very careful to avoid the conclusion that his research shows Trump supporters, and by association Republicans, are unprincipled.
“I don’t know if Democrats are all that different,” he said. “We’ve just never had a Democrat like Trump, so we’ve never been able to test this before. Trump is special, sui generis in some way. I don’t know how, but he is. It’s hard to avoid the idea that Trump exerts some kind of personality hold on people. He just moves them in ways that I think are kind of rare in U.S. politics.”