Many people on both the left and the right are scratching their heads, trying to understand the puzzling appeal of Donald Trump to his supporters. For Dr. Robert Jones, the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, (PRRI) it’s no mystery — it’s a matter of understanding the role that religion, culture and the economy play in shaping the landscape of American politics.
Every year, PRRI conducts the American Values Survey, pulling together the opinions of some 2,700 Americans on the economy, racial discrimination, trust in public institutions, religious and political attitudes and other topics. The survey this year painted a picture of an electorate that is worried about the country’s future, anxious about cultural change and concerned about economic inequality. Among some segments of the electorate there is a strong sense of nostalgia for the past. Enter Donald Trump, promising to “Make America Great Again.”
We called Dr. Jones after the Mississippi, Michigan and Hawaii primaries on March 8 to help us understand why Donald Trump’s and even Bernie Sanders’s “surprise” victories were not so surprising after all.
Dr. Jones holds a Ph.D. in religion from Emory University, where he specialized in sociology of religion, politics and religious ethics. He earned an M.Div. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He writes a column for The Atlantic’s website on politics and culture and has a book coming out in July titled The End of White Christian America. The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Gail Ablow: So, Robert, do you think the results of the primaries in two very different states, like Mississippi and Michigan, can be explained by anxiety, nostalgia and mistrust?
Robert Jones: Well certainly to some extent. I think we’re seeing some of the same dynamics play out and I think we have a helpful snapshot in these two states, you know, one in the Deep South, one up in the upper Midwest and kind of part of the manufacturing belt. And what we see — somewhat remarkable — is Donald Trump winning in both places and I think part of his appeal certainly has been that America’s in bad shape and we’re going to make America great again.
I do think that the most important word in his slogan is that last word, “again.” And what our research is telling us is that Donald Trump has been able to convert what many pundits had been talking about as “values voters” in previous elections, white evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholic, white Catholic, voters, into what I’ve dubbed “nostalgia voters.” And what I mean by that is voters that are harkening back to a mythical golden age when working class wages paid a living wage, when conservative Christian values were more at the center of American culture.
Maybe one survey question that really gets to the heart of this: We asked Americans their opinions about whether American culture and way of life had changed mostly for the better or mostly for the worse since the 1950s. White evangelical Protestant Americans, for example, 72 percent say that American culture and way of life has changed mostly for the worse since the 1950s. So I think we have a real sense of harkening back to a different time and many white evangelical Protestant voters and even conservative white Catholic voters are sensing that a cultural and even demographic world that they saw themselves at the center of is now passing from the scene.
Ablow: But the 1950s were before lots of hard-won reforms like civil rights, voting rights, immigration legislation. They don’t think that these changed the country for the better?
Jones: You know, we can see very clearly in the voting pattern transformations, it was the Civil Rights Act in the mid-1960s that transformed what we used to talk about as the solid Democratic South into the solid Republican South that we see today. And it was a reaction against civil rights and that was played on by Republican strategists to move disgruntled white voters from the Democratic party where they had been for decades over into the Republican party. And we see the apex of this happening with Ronald Reagan and his kind of sweep of the South for the Republican party.
Ablow: So that’s who all these voters are? Or some of these voters are?
Jones: Well, it’s certainly it’s a lot, right? So we look at white evangelical Protestants who are heavily based in the South and the Midwest, 72 percent of them have this wistfulness for the 1950s. And when we ask other questions about immigration or about Muslims, which have also been key to the election so far, particularly on the Republican side, we see very similar attitudes. Two-thirds of white evangelicals say that immigrants are a burden on the country because they take jobs, housing and health care. Six in 10 say it bothers them when they come into contact with immigrants who speak little English. And nearly three quarters say that the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life. So it’s not everyone, to be sure, but the overwhelming majority of white evangelicals are certainly feeling high levels of anxiety over immigration and the changing demographics in the country.
I think one of the real challenges the Republican party’s going to face if Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket going forward is that he’s said so many things about, negative comments about Mexicans, negative comments about immigrants in general. He talks, every time he gives a speech pretty much he talks about building a wall and making Mexico pay for it. This is going to be a real challenge for the Republican party with Latino voters. We’re already seeing actually even some get-out-the-vote drives that are specifically aiming at Latino voters who aren’t registered to vote and saying, “You have to stop Donald Trump.” And there’s some evidence that that’s going to be a successful motivating force in the general election.
Barack Obama won about three quarters of Latino voters in 2012. And that’s a level that Republicans going forward can’t sustain — only getting a quarter of the Latino vote and win. The last estimates I saw were that if they were going to maintain that level, they would need to get 70 percent or more of the white vote in the country. Mitt Romney only got 59 percent, so that would be a historic win among white voters in the country, one that’s highly, highly unlikely.
Ablow: And do you think that these nostalgia voters, are they thinly veiled racists?
Jones: You know, I think it’s too easy to say, “They’re just all white supremacists.” I mean there are surely some, like David Duke and people who are self-avowed white supremacists who have endorsed Donald Trump. So there are certainly some among the ranks but as a social scientist, I try to be more generous to people’s motivations and try not to look for easy explanations for dismissing people’s concerns. And what I think here is rather than thinking of them as white supremacists and painting everyone with a big broad brush, I think it is more about anxieties and worries. I’ve mentioned race and changing demographics in the country but the other thing that should not be, really can’t be overstated is the landmark same-sex marriage ruling just last year that legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states. And that was another issue where evangelicals had doubled down opposing same-sex marriage, they lost the battle in the courts, but more importantly they know and have a real sense that they lost the battle in the court of public opinion.
And so I think feeling not only demographic shifts but also the cultural norms and values shifting around them in a way that may, I think, have them feeling at the margins of society is part of what’s fueling these anxieties.
One more thing I might just add here is that also these groups have been hit pretty hard economically and so white working-class Americans, for example, eight in 10 of them feel like the country is still in a recession. They have been hit pretty hard by jobs that pay by the hour [that] have been pretty stagnant or even losing value over time. So I think it’s a volatile cocktail of economics, cultural changes and demographic changes all moving in the same direction, fueling these anxieties.
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Ablow: For the demographic group who are concerned about same-sex marriage, for example, why Trump? He’s been married three times, he has his name on casinos, he’s currently being sued for fraud, why doesn’t his morality matter to these white evangelical or Christian voters?
Jones: I think it does and it doesn’t. I mean, we have some hints in the data that people who identify as white evangelical who attend religious services more frequently, for example, are a little less likely to support Trump than those who identify as evangelical and attend a little bit less. White evangelicals who are working class tend to support Trump more than those who are college educated. There are some real differences among white evangelicals here. But overall, I think what has been key is that Trump has not really taken the page out of the Christian right playbook and saying, “I’m one of you.” He hasn’t really made that appeal strongly. What he really has said is that, “I understand your anxieties and I’m the guy who can do something about it.” And I think it’s that kind of pitch to strength and pitch to say — he’s explicitly said, “I’m going to restore power to the Christian churches when I’m president.” And I think those kinds of appeals, people are willing to say, “Well, okay, he’s not one of us but he understands our anxieties and he’s strong enough and a man of action and is going to do something about it.”
Ablow: Some researchers, it wasn’t from your survey, but they suggested that Trump voters are searching for an authoritarian leader or others suggest that they’re anti-elite populists. Are these voters the same as the nostalgia voters or are they different groups that overlap?
Jones: I think they overlap. I mean, I think this idea of nostalgia actually fits pretty hand in glove with this research on authoritarianism. And I want to be really careful here, it’s easy I think to hear the word authoritarian and have an automatic pejorative ring to it. But what the measures in the social science literature that are getting at that’s called authoritarian are really about structure and order and traditionalism. And so I think that in the midst of so much social and demographic and cultural change, an appeal to restore order, to go back to a time when things felt like they held together and made sense, and I do think that people sort of look for a kind of authoritarian figure, particularly one who projects himself as someone strong, a person of action, who can get things done. And I think that has been Trump’s appeal: People are willing to say, “Okay, yeah, he’s not one of us. He doesn’t really share our values but at the end of the day he understands our concerns and he’s going to be a friend to us when he gets into the White House.”
Ablow: I don’t want to minimize the economic anxiety. Bernie Sanders has surprised people by winning Michigan this week. What does his success teaching us about those voters?
Jones: That’s right, I think Bernie Sanders has also been appealing to white working-class voters on the Democratic side of things. And what I think is that there is some commonality at least in the appeal that whereas you have sort of more traditional politicians talking about reforms to the system and changes to the system, but you have like Bernie Sanders being willing to say, “No, no, we’re going to change the system. We’re not just going to tweak it, we are going to fundamentally change it.” When he’s calling for things like free college education for everyone, like that’s not just a new Pell grant system, it is fundamentally changing the lay of the land. And I think that kind of appeal that particularly appeals to younger people who are looking for bigger changes and on a quicker timeframe and it also appeals to, again, these white working-class voters, many of whom feel like both parties have left them out. And I think that’s why we’re seeing Sanders upsetting Clinton in Michigan and winning Michigan. He’s tapping this sense of, in some ways it’s even despair really, and feeling like people have forgotten about their needs altogether — and he’s been able to tap into that.
Ablow: Tell me about this growing demographic group that you’ve identified as the religiously unaffiliated. What have you learned about their concerns and what’s going to make them a force in elections?
Jones: Well, I think we’re still waiting for this group to be a force in the elections. They have absolutely become a group to be contended with in the general population. So for example, today if we do the typical social science division of religious groups in the country, today the largest religious group in the country is religiously unaffiliated Americans. They make up 23 percent of the country today. So we’ve been talking about evangelicals, evangelicals only make up 17 percent of the country today. So they’re larger than evangelicals, they’re larger than Catholics. And they keep growing. It’s largely fueled by younger people among whom more than a third are religiously unaffiliated. The challenge here is even though they keep growing as a proportion of the population, they tend to turn out at much lower levels in both midterm elections and presidential elections. So for the last three — two presidential cycles and a midterm election cycle — even though they’ve been 20 percent or more of the population, they’ve only been 12 percent of voters. And so there’s an untapped potential here of these religiously unaffiliated voters.
Ablow: And yet there’s all this playing to evangelical Christian voters. Why are they so important?
Jones: Well, they’re drastically important, particularly on the Republican side of politics. I mean, one consequence of this — what political scientists have actually dubbed the great white shift in the 1980s, with Southern white Democrats becoming Southern white Republicans, has been that white evangelical Protestants in the South have become almost a wholly owned constituency of the Republican party. So they have, in the last four or five election cycles voted, about eight in 10 have voted for Republican candidates. And in a state like Mississippi that just voted this week, if you look there, more than three quarters, 76 percent of Republican primary voters identified as white evangelical Protestants. So they made up an overwhelming number of primary voters in states like Mississippi, South Carolina, even Iowa, where we’re looking at two thirds of the Republican primary electorate in Iowa were white evangelical Protestants. So they’re hugely important mostly on the Republican side of politics.
Ablow: And yet you have book coming out titled The End of White Christian America. How can you say white Christian America’s over if they’re so important to the Republican party?
Jones: One of the things I trace in the book is I look back on the last hundred years and then in particular the last few decades in the book. And one of the striking things is the decline of just demographics. 1993 was the last year that the country was a majority white and Protestant. Just as Barack Obama was being elected in 2008, 54 percent of the country was white and Christian, so if you took all Christian groups together that were white, they still made up a majority. By the time Obama’s term is over, our last data is showing that number is now 45 percent of the country. So we’re seeing quick demographic changes happening over just the course of a generation or two that is really significant. And then we’re also seeing, I think, a real decline in the cultural clout, first I think among the more liberal mainline Protestant white Christian world that had its apex in the ‘60s and then the decline even of the more conservative Christian right that had its apex in the ‘80s and into the ‘90s and maybe had one last hurrah in the 2004 election but since then have not really been able to wield the political clout to sway general elections. So they’re still very powerful within the Republican party but are becoming a smaller proportion of both the general population and the electorate and certainly aren’t being able to play the decisive role that they used to play in the general population.
Ablow: So given all your data, what might we expect from the voters in the general election?
Jones: In the general election, I think we will still see this basic alignment of white Christian voters on the Republican side of politics that have tended to support Republican candidates in the last four, at least the last four presidential election cycles. And then on the other side, this coalition of nonwhite Christian voters plus the religiously unaffiliated plus non-Christian religious voters, like Jews and Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims, on the other hand. And that has been a fairly settled pattern in the last few election cycles, one that I think that we’ll see again. The real difference will be that the proportions of these coalitions keep changing every four years so that unless something changes in the Republican playbook, the demographics are shifting to give Democrats an advantage as they’re relying less and less on a strategy that depends on piling up supermajorities of white Christian voters.
Ablow: So who are Donald Trump’s voters?
Jones: In a nutshell, I think these voters are best understood not as values voters, not even as Tea Party voters, but as nostalgia voters, these voters that are looking back to — they’re culturally and economically disaffected voters that are anxious to hold on to a white conservative Christian culture that’s passing from the scene. I think that’s the core of who his supporters are. I think it’s highly doubtful that there are enough of those voters out there to get him across the finish line no matter who the Democratic nominee is in the general election. But there may be enough of them, and it looks like there are, to get him across the finish line to be the Republican nominee.
Ablow: Thank you very much.
Jones: Thank you.