To protect human rights abroad, preach to Trump voters

Photo: Mor/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

US President Donald Trump’s comfort with autocratic leaders is well known. He celebrated his “great relationship” with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose  deadly anti-crime campaign has attracted criticism at home and abroad; seeks to designate Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s political opponents as a “terrorist organization”; and supports Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite the prince’s leadership role in political assassinationrepression, and military atrocities.

These and other authoritarian leaders offer all manner of support to the US military. The Philippines, for example, hosts US military exercises and bases integral to American campaigns to combat terrorism and contain China; Egypt signed a peace deal with Israel and collaborates with the United States against Islamists; and Saudi Arabia buys piles of US weapons and is a staunch military ally, especially when it comes to Iran.

But what do ordinary Americans think about their country’s ties to some of the world’s most unsavory regimes? To find out, we hired YouGov, a leading online survey company, to conduct a nationally representative poll of 2,000 US adults, along with an oversample of 1,000 early supporters of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Our survey informed respondents: “In the fight against terrorism, some of America’s closest allies have been non-democratic governments [which] sometimes persecute their own citizens, but also provide support to the US military.”

Strikingly, 67% of the general population agreed with the pro-human rights statement.

We then followed this statement with an admonishment—“The United States should NOT ally itself with these non-democratic governments”—and asked respondents what they thought. Strikingly, 67% of the general population agreed with the pro-human rights statement. The sample included roughly 25% early Trump supporters, whose views were generally more conservative. If they had been excluded, the percentage opposing aid to authoritarian regimes would be even higher.

Trump’s affinity with undemocratic leaders makes greater political sense when we analyze the views of his political base. Among those respondents who voted for Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries, only 43% agreed that the United States “should NOT ally itself with these non-democratic governments,” far less than the US public overall.

At first glance, support for Trump seems to condition Americans’ opinions on authoritarians. All else being equal, the mere act of voting for Trump in the 2016 primaries—controlling for other factors—made respondents 28 percentage points more likely than Democratic primary voters to oppose shunning alliances with undemocratic governments.

Voting preference itself, however, is a product of other views. Numerous studies have shown that Trump supporters are more authoritarian in their personalities, more concerned with the declining number and status of whites in the United States, more resentful of African Americans, and more skeptical of immigrants, refugees, and Muslims seeking to enter the country. Although most commentary has focused on the implications of these views for domestic policy, there is reason to believe that authoritarianism and racial views also shape Americans’ foreign-policy attitudes.

Consider, for example, the authoritarian mindset, defined as a strong psychological need for order and security, along with a predisposition toward intolerance of difference in people, ideas, and behavior. According to political psychologists, Americans with authoritarian personalities tend to be more intolerant of policies aimed at easing the entry of immigrants and refugees into the United States.

This is especially true when they encounter racial diversity in their immediate environment, a condition social scientists call “normative threat.” Authoritarianism is triggered by conditions of racial diversity, and this, in turn, impacts Americans’ policy attitudes.

So does ethnocentrism—the propensity to divide the world into a virtuous in-group (“us”) and a nefarious out-group (the hated “them”). According to the political scientists Cindy Kam and Donald Kinder, white Americans who score higher on measures of ethnocentrism are also more prone to support US military action in the so-called war on terrorism. The enemies in this case, the “terrorists,” are a classic out-group: suspicious, shadowy, radical, and threatening.

To gauge the influence of personality traits and racial views, we relied on a “white vulnerability-resentment” index, which combined respondents’ perceptions of the extent to which whites are discriminated against in today’s United States, along with their resentment of African Americans. We also used an “anti-foreigner” index, which combined respondents’ views toward allowing refugees and new immigrants into the country, their opinion of Trump’s Muslim-entry ban, and their willingness to deport immigrants living in the United States illegally.

Our findings reveal that Americans’ views on race relations and foreigners seeking to enter the country are tightly associated with their attitudes toward US foreign policy.

The results were clear: voter preferences mattered very little after accounting for racial views and personality traits. Respondents who scored at the maximum on the vulnerability-resentment and anti-foreigner indices were 42 and 71 percentage points more supportive of US alliances with authoritarian governments, regardless of if they voted for Trump or for another candidate in the 2016 primaries.

Our findings reveal that Americans’ views on race relations and foreigners seeking to enter the country are tightly associated with their attitudes toward US foreign policy. The more racially embattled American whites feel at home, the more likely they are to support US ties to authoritarians abroad, regardless of human rights considerations.

There is some good news for rights activists, however: if a religious figure makes the case against dealing with dictators, and authoritarianism is presented as a cause of extremism, support for human rights grows.

This became clear when we divided our nationally representative sample into multiple groups and provided each with a different mix of arguments for ending US alliances with dictators, with different types of people making this argument. When we told Trump supporters—55% of whom said religion was “very important” in their daily lives—that “religious leaders” had said “authoritarian governments produce breeding grounds for extremists who often attack the US,” they were 28% points more likely to oppose aid to authoritarians.

Even the most racially threatened white Americans—early Trump voters—can be persuaded to adopt more human rights-friendly stances with the right arguments and messengers.

The take-home message is mixed for those seeking a human rights-friendly orientation for U.S. foreign policy. On the one hand, racial resentment is deeply rooted in American society, and racial attitudes have become an increasingly strong predictor of other political attitudes, such as those toward authoritarian regimes. And as racial diversity increases, it increasingly becomes a trigger for those individuals who are intolerant of difference, causing them to shift to the right on a broad array of domestic and foreign-policy issues.

On the positive side, two-thirds of Americans oppose US alliances with dictators, even when those rulers offer support to the US military. And even the most racially threatened white Americans—early Trump voters—can be persuaded to adopt more human rights-friendly stances with the right arguments and messengers. Human rights activists and religious leaders must therefore play a more central role in advocating for a more humane U.S. foreign policy.

Religious leaders and experts are viewed as credible by large segments of the population, and many of them share at least some of the ideals of human rights activists. Human rights groups must develop the know-how to engage with progressive, pro-rights figures within a wide range of US faith communities. To be sure, secular human rights organizations and faith leaders are not likely to agree on everything; issues such as the right to have an abortion, for example, will most likely still divide them. But there will be some grounds for common cause—including the immorality of U.S. aid to regimes that abuse human rights abroad.


This piece was originally published in Foreign Policy (August 21, 2019).