THR Blog   /   November 7, 2016

High Hopes

The Vanishing Center of American Democracy Survey

Carl Desportes Bowman

I’m not Lloyd Bentsen and didn’t know Jack Kennedy, but I do remember the Frank Sinatra theme song for the Kennedy campaign. Its original lyrics about a little old ant and silly old ram who achieved the impossible because of their “high hopes” remind me of the idealized hopes of Barack Obama’s supporters in 2008 and Donald Trump’s this year.

Both groups march to a drumbeat of hope and change, but in very different directions. Obama’s followers believed he would end the politics of racial, class, and ideological division that they felt had characterized the Bush presidency. Obama’s soaring rhetoric promised an America that was no longer red or blue but united. By contrast, Trump promises an overhaul of the body politic. His self-styled brilliance in the arts of negotiation will supposedly fix the structures of trade, immigration, and finance that favor elites and minorities over the common person (particularly if that person is white, male, and working class).

Trump’s followers hope their man will restore America, but how do they envision the restoration?

A new survey by the University of Virginia Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and the Gallup Organization reveals that Trump supporters revere the idea of the United States. Two-thirds say it is the greatest country in the world, while four out of five say they are not just moderately, but “very patriotic.” Nearly three-quarters reject the suggestion that the founding fathers were part of a racist and sexist culture that harmed minorities and women, and even more dismiss the charge that police and law enforcement unfairly target minorities.

But a chasm separates their idealized portrait from what see in the country today. Nearly 90 percent, for example, say “our system of government is good but the people running it are incompetent.” Three-quarters say the nation is in a state of decline and that “the American way of life is rapidly disappearing.” Over half say that people like them are doing worse than twenty-five years ago, and half even claim “I feel like a stranger in my own country.” Moreover, the vast majority of Trump followers believe there are lies, damn lies, and politicians. Eighty-six percent have little confidence that government leaders tell the truth, and 88 percent say, “you can’t believe much of what you hear from the mainstream media.”

This dismal appraisal has only been sharpened by their conviction that America could again be “great.” But what constitutes greatness? First, rejection of the status quo. Almost all Trump supporters (95 percent) believe “we need a president who will completely change the direction of this country.” They long for a Reaganesque ideal of smaller government: Nearly three-quarters (72 percent) say that government currently does too many things that are better left to businesses, civic groups, and individuals; 78 percent say Washington threatens the freedom of ordinary Americans. So they reject increased government involvement in “private” life. Eighty-two percent, for example, want to see the Affordable Care Act repealed.

Additionally, they hope to strengthen the boundary between American insiders and outsiders. Sixty-three percent say immigrants are a burden who take away jobs, housing, and health care. Even more (78 percent) would like to see the number of immigrants greatly reduced. About three-quarters favor building a wall along the Mexican border (78 percent) and banning entry to all Muslims until terrorism is better understood (72 percent). Their hope for protection from unforeseen threats is tied to their views of guns and weapons. Two-thirds (65 percent) of Trump supporters believe the nation would be safer if more Americans legally carried weapons in public, compared to 22 percent of other Americans.

Yet they are not isolationists. Eighty-six percent say, “the United States is an exceptional nation with a special responsibility to lead the world.” But leadership here is nothing like the multilateral approach of the Obama administration. Trump supporters believe the United States has been too weak in dealing with other nations (87 percent) and should pursue its own agenda even when its allies don’t agree (80 percent). In fact, being strong and straightforward are prized virtues. Almost all Trump supporters (92 percent), for instance, claim that “political correctness is a serious problem in our country, making it hard for people to say what they really think.”

Just as Obama became a symbol of progressive diversity, Trump has become a symbol of longing for a pre-Obama America—a mythical time when America called its own shots, placed national self-interest first, manufactured its own products, controlled its borders, spoke a single language, practiced Christianity, kept government in check, and controlled the forces of dissent. This “restorationist” hope runs counter to the hopes of many professionals, elites, and minorities who continue to share Obama’s vision, even if they believe his accomplishments fell short. For them, Obama remains a beacon for a globally aware, ethnically diverse America where principles of progressive governance enhance the well-being of all citizens.

On election day, it may be attitudes towards Obama rather than the current candidates that best foretell the hopes and votes of two tribes of Americans. The survey found that 94 percent of those who view Obama favorably intend to vote for Clinton while 90 percent of those who view him unfavorably intend to vote for Trump. It wasn’t Obama’s plan to fan the flames of hope in such contrary directions, but it may be his legacy.