COMMENTARY

Trump unleashed the poison of racism — and new research suggests it will linger for years

New research reveals how Trump's presidency shifted social norms to make racism acceptable. Can that be undone?

By Chauncey DeVega

Published March 3, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

President Donald Trump speaks in the Diplomatic Room of the White House on Thanksgiving on November 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump had earlier made the traditional call to members of the military stationed abroad through video teleconference. (Erin Schaff - Pool/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks in the Diplomatic Room of the White House on Thanksgiving on November 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump had earlier made the traditional call to members of the military stationed abroad through video teleconference. (Erin Schaff - Pool/Getty Images)

New research by a pair of social psychologists suggests that Donald Trump's presidency unleashed racial animus and white supremacist ideology in ways that will shape American society for years or decades to come.

The study by Benjamin C. Ruisch of the University of Kent in England and Melissa J. Ferguson of Yale, published last week in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Human Behaviour, is entitled "Changes in Americans' prejudices during the presidency of Donald Trump." The authors summarize their findings this way:

In 13 studies including over 10,000 participants, we tested how Americans' prejudice changed following the political ascension of Donald Trump. We found that explicit racial and religious prejudice significantly increased amongst Trump's supporters, whereas individuals opposed to Trump exhibited decreases in prejudice.

Ferguson and Ruisch explain this by referencing the power of "social norms," which, they say,

do not exert a uniform effect on people's attitudes. Rather, adherence to social norms occurs largely along group boundaries: People primarily assimilate to norms that are held by 'social reference groups', that is, individuals and groups that they personally respect and admire. In the highly polarized political landscape of the United States, this translates into the prediction that Trump's counter-normative behaviour should not have uniformly affected the attitudes of all Americans. Rather, it should have increased expressions of prejudice primarily amongst those who view him positively, that is, his supporters.

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The authors offer additional details about how prejudice against Muslims, Black people and other minority groups changed during Trump's term in office, and on the impact of support for him on those dynamics: 

The previous nine studies demonstrate that prejudice in the United States changed during the presidency of Donald Trump. Critically, however, the direction of this change differed dramatically as a function of support for Donald Trump. We find that Trump supporters not only deviated from the widely documented societal trend towards decreasing expressions of prejudice but also showed significant increases in prejudice towards a range of minoritized groups. Those who were opposed to Trump, conversely, showed significant decreases in expressed prejudice over this same time period. We next turned to examining the mechanism behind these effects. Our interpretation of the correlational changes in prejudice that we observed is that Trump's political ascent may have changed the social norms (that is, standards) for expressing prejudice, leading his supporters to feel that prejudice against minoritized groups had become more acceptable. [Emphasis added.]

Ferguson and Ruisch advance the ominous conclusion that "the presidency of Donald Trump may have substantially reshaped the topography of prejudice in the United States."


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What else do we also know about the role of race and racism in the rise of Trumpism and the American neofascist movement that he symbolizes or leads?

It was never accurate to describe Trump's voters as predominantly belonging to the "white working class," with which mainstream news media became so obsessed. In reality, the average Trump voter in the 2016 Republican primaries had a household income of $72,000, substantially above the national median at the time. Moreover, researchers have shown that Trump's followers who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, were more likely to be from suburban communities experiencing "demographic change" than from economically disadvantaged working-class communities.

We also know that white Americans who believe that white people are "victims" of racism — and, even more fantastically, that white people are more "oppressed" than Black and brown people — are significantly more likely to support Trump and his movement. Social scientists and other experts have demonstrated that a large percentage of white Trump supporters are willing to give up democracy for authoritarianism in order to avoid sharing political or social power on an equal basis with Black and brown people.

Trumpism, like other forms of fascism, is largely driven by social dominance behavior, hostile sexism, a yearning for "tradition" and the "good old days" when the in-group had supposedly uncontested power over society, an attraction to violence and what psychologists describe as the "dark triad" of human behavior (sociopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism).  

Ultimately, Ferguson and Ruisch's research serves as further confirmation of the damage that Trumpism and the American fascist movement has done — and is still doing — to American society. How much worse the damage will get, and how or whether it can be repaired, remains to be seen.

The American news media and the larger political class, along with the public as a whole, need to accept the frightening reality that the fascist movement energized by Trump will be a fixture on America's social and political landscape for years to come. Those who support real democracy need to develop and then enact a plan to defeat them. 

America does not need another "national conversation" about race and racism. That "conversation" has continued for centuries, with no just conclusion in sight. What America — and specifically white America — really needs is a degree of clarity, sobriety and introspection regarding the destructive forces of racial authoritarianism it has birthed, nurtured and unleashed, which not only inflict harm on Black and brown people but white people and the entire society. 

White Americans must confront a final and terrible question: Do you love white privilege and white supremacy more than you love democracy? I suspect I know the answer, yet I still maintain the perhaps-naive hope that a different answer may emerge in the 21st century than ever has in previous centuries. The future of America rests on that question.

Read more on the toxic effects of racism:


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Commentary Donald Trump Psychology Racism Social Science