Bruce Stokes
Associate Fellow, US and the Americas Programme
Surveys reveal the president-elect’s voters combine a thirst for a new approach with support for bold, risky policies.
A Trump rally in Baton Rouge on 9 December. Photo by Getty Images.A Trump rally in Baton Rouge on 9 December. Photo by Getty Images.

The presidential candidacy of Donald Trump catalysed long-simmering frustrations among large segments of the American public. This dissatisfaction contributed to his election as the next US chief executive.  Better understanding this public discontent—where it corresponds with candidate Trump’s stated policy positions and where it contradicts them--provides insights into future popular support for potential Trump administration policies, especially those that relate to the rest of the world.

Trump’s campaign slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ touched a raw nerve for many Americans. Roughly eight-in-ten Trump supporters believe that life for people like them is worse today than it was 50 years ago, according to a Pew Research Center survey. And for those older, white males, the American demographic hurt most by the loss of manufacturing jobs and wage stagnation, many of whom apparently voted for Trump, their life may well be worse than it was in the past.  

Moreover, two-thirds of Republicans think that the US is less important and powerful than it was 10 years ago. And 71% of Republicans say the US is less respected by other countries than it was in the past. Most, but certainly not all, of these Republicans are likely to have voted for the GOP candidate. Moreover, exit polls on Election Day found that 69% of Trump voters believed the country was seriously off track.

This is a potent stew of frustration with the direction of the nation that President Trump may call on to support his policies. Nearly nine-in-ten Trump voters believe that he will change the way things work in Washington for the better. And among his supporters, there is a tendency to support bold policies. More than half (53%) of Trump voters say they prefer new approaches to the nation’s challenges in order to solve problems quickly, even if these initiatives risk making things worse. 

Campaign promises

One of these changes is a tougher approach to trade. Roughly two-thirds (65%) of registered voters supporting Trump in the primary believed US engagement in the global economy is a bad thing. A similar proportion of registered voters who backed Trump during the general election thought the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal negotiated primarily during the Obama administration with 12 Asian-Pacific nations, is a bad thing for the US. And 72% believed that free trade agreements in general are bad for America.  

The issue of trade and America’s stance vis-à-vis China were inextricably linked in Trump’s campaign rhetoric. A quarter of registered voters who support Trump see China as an adversary and roughly half (51%) say China is a serious problem. However, similar proportions of registered Clinton supporters also see China as an adversary or very serious problem suggesting a bipartisan willingness to support tougher measures by Washington against Beijing.

Another public concern with policy implications is the issue of immigration and attitudes toward Muslims. Roughly two-thirds (69%) of registered voters supporting Trump during the primaries believed that immigrants are a burden because they take jobs and government benefits. Candidate Trump repeatedly promised to build a wall along the US border with Mexico to halt the flow of undocumented people into the United States. Nearly eight-in-ten (79%) of Trump voters during the general election backed such a structure.

Moreover, 57% of registered Trump supporters said that as part of the federal government’s anti-terrorism efforts Muslims living in the US should be subject to more scrutiny, another Trump campaign pledge.

More broadly, 70% of registered voters backing Trump were inward looking, believing that the US should deal with its own problems rather than help other countries deal with their own problems.

Nonetheless, with regard to Iraq and Syria, 79% of Trump registered backers said the US military campaign against ISIS was not going well and three-quarters voiced the view that their bigger concern is that this military effort will not go far enough, compared to just a quarter who were concerned the US would go too far in getting involved.  At the same time, 87% of registered Trump backers believed that the US does not have a responsibility to accept refugees from Syria.

And as Trump heads to Washington, 38% of registered voters who back him express anger at the federal government. In part this may be because 79% of Trump voters say government regulation of business usually does more harm than good.

Diverging views

At the same time, much of the electorate disagrees with some of Trump’s signature issues. Roughly a quarter (24%) Trump voters see Russia as an adversary and an additional 40% say Russia is a serious problem, despite their candidate’s ‘bromance’ with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. And similar share of Clinton voters view Russia as an adversary and 53% Clinton backers say Russia is a serious problem.

Most do not share the incoming president’s avowed scepticism toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Trump voters believe that being a member of NATO is good for the US.

Trump is riding a wave of public anger and sense of personal and national loss that will both inform and potentially mobilize political support for his policy initiatives. But such sentiment among his supporters could also be a source of frustration and disillusionment if he fails to follow through on his populist campaign promises. Trump adherents’ desire for quick change, even if it is risky, suggests they may be willing to give the new US president the benefit of the doubt if his initiatives fall short of their expectations. But only time will tell.

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