The Trump Effect: “America First” Loses Support

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by Derek Davison

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump railed against what he argued were foreign and trade policies that favored other countries over America. His slogans—“America First,” “Make America Great Again,” and “Americanism not Globalism”—played to voters’ resentment over the perception that the rest of the world was taking advantage of America, and promised to reorient the federal government toward defending the United States from these supposed foreign predators. But Trump’s overall unpopularity and polarizing nature may be having an opposite effect, causing Democrats, some Independents, and even non-Trump-supporting Republicans to gain a new appreciation for the “globalist” policies” he decries.

The 2017 Chicago Council Survey (an annual gauge of U.S. public opinion on issues related to American foreign policy commissioned by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs) finds that, halfway through Donald Trump’s first year in office, many of the foreign policy ideals he’s expressed are losing popularity among the American public at large. However, among “core” Trump supporters, those ideals are, if anything, gaining in popularity, revealing a growing chasm not just between Democrats and Republicans, but also, and more dramatically, between Trump’s base and everyone else.

At an October 2 event releasing the survey’s results, Chicago Council President and retired U.S. Ambassador Ivo Daalder summed up the findings this way:

One of the reasons we wanted to look at the differences between what we call “core Trump supporters,” those who have a highly favorable view of the president, and [everyone else] is to see the extent to which the president’s foreign policy messages are resonating among his base. The answer is, they’re resonating extraordinarily well. So our findings are very consistent with the idea that the president is maintaining his base in a strong way.

But secondly [we wanted] to see where the non-base is going. And the striking finding—maybe not if you are living in the Washington bubble—but the striking finding overall is that the 70 to 75 percent of Americans who do not have a highly favorable view of Trump has a pretty coherent worldview. There are differences between Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, but those differences are all much smaller than the differences between them and the “core” Trump supporters.

Trump’s two main foreign policy targets have been international trade, which he’s characterized as harmful to job creation, and immigration, which he’s treated as an existential threat to the United States. On both issues, the differences in public opinion between the 2016 Chicago Council Survey and this year’s edition are striking.

  • The percentage of Americans who believe that international trade is good for the U.S. economy has risen from 59 percent last year to 72 percent this year.
  • The percentage who believe that international trade is good for American job creation has risen a whopping 17 points, from 40 percent last year to 57 percent this year.
  • On immigration, the percentage of Americans who view immigration as a threat reached the lowest point ever measured in the Chicago Council Survey at only 37 percent.

Some of this change could be understood as Republican movement in light of Trump’s election. Trump voters might, for example, feel that immigration is now less of a threat, or that international trade will now be good for American workers, because Trump is in office. But still, a majority of “core” Trump supporters still believe that trade mostly benefits countries other than the U.S., and a supermajority (80 percent) believe that immigration is a critical threat to America. Democrats, presumably not Trump fans, saw the largest decline on this question from 2016, with only 20 percent identifying immigration as a threat this year compared with 27 percent last year.

On the subject of America’s most famous free-trade pact, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the survey highlights where core Trump supporters and non-Trump Republicans diverge. Core Trump supporters are overwhelmingly opposed to NAFTA, with 72 percent saying it’s been bad for America compared with 23 percent saying that it’s been good. Non-Trump Republicans, meanwhile, are slightly supportive of the deal, with 49 percent saying that it’s been good for America compared with 44 percent who say that it’s been bad.

There is a substantial divide on the question of immigration’s “threat” between Democrats and Republicans (61 percent of whom see immigration as a threat). It seems clear that some of this movement in favor of trade and immigration can be seen as a reaction against Trump rather than confidence in him.

When asked about the benefits of globalization, another of Trump’s frequent rhetorical targets, 64 percent of Americans believe it is “mostly good” for America, roughly unchanged from last year’s survey. But here again we can see a Trump effect—Democrats are slightly more inclined to see globalization as good this year compared with last year, while slightly fewer Republicans and Independents agree.

More Americans are now inclined to see climate change as a threat—46 percent, the highest figure ever seen in the Chicago Council poll for this question. Most of that increase has come from Democrats (69 percent now see climate change as a threat compared with 57 percent last year) and Independents (46 percent to 35 percent), while Republicans are actually slightly less worried about the issue (16 percent compared to 18 percent last year). Again, there seems to be a clear reaction against Trump on this issue among Democrats and Independents.

Where the biggest gap begins to open up between core Trump supporters and Republicans who are not core Trump supporters is on questions related to America’s foreign alliances. In particular, while 60 percent of Republicans overall believe that America’s NATO alliance is “essential,” only 54 percent of core Trump supporters share that view—Republicans who are not core Trump supporters would likely poll closer to the 64 percent of Independents who view NATO as “essential.” Overall, 69 percent of Americans view NATO as essential, a smaller but still clear increase over 2016, when 65 percent felt the same way. Core Trump supporters were far more likely than other groups (60 percent, compared with only 40 percent of non-Trump Republicans) to agree with Trump’s view that America should “withhold its commitment to defend NATO members until NATO allies actually spend more on defense.”

Addendum

After this piece was published, the Chicago Council released additional survey results specific to the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). The survey shows that, overall, 60 percent of Americans support America’s continued participation in the JCPOA against 36 percent who do not. That figure is unchanged from 2016 and has remained remarkably consistent since the Chicago Council began asking about the interim nuclear deal with Iran back in 2014—62 percent of Americans supported the deal that year, and 59 percent in 2015. Interestingly, there was a bit of movement on the JCPOA among Republicans as compared to last year. In 2016, most Republicans were opposed to the deal, 52 percent compared to 46 percent in support. This year’s survey shows them nearly split at 48 percent each.

With President Trump rapidly approaching the October 15 date when he’s expected to decertify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA and put the deal’s survival in grave risk, it might behoove the White House to give these results a close look.

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Derek Davison

Derek Davison is a Washington-based researcher and writer on international affairs and American politics. He has Master's degrees in Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Iranian history and policy, and in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied American foreign policy and Russian/Cold War history. He previously worked in the Persian Gulf for The RAND Corporation.

One Comment

  1. You take Chicago Council Survey, I’ll take Pew Research Center. Currently, 52% say free trade agreements between the United States and other countries are a good thing for the U.S., while 40% view them as a bad thing, according to a recent survey by Pew Research Center. In October, during the campaign’s final weeks, just 45% expressed positive opinions of free trade agreements. Current views of free trade remain less positive than they were in May 2015, when 58% said these agreements were good for the U.S.

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