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John Lenges, a resident of Pinellas County who changed parties to vote Republican in 2016, and his sister Jeanne Coffin cheer at the conclusion of U.S. President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign kick off rally in Orlando, Florida, U.S., June 18, 2019.  Picture taken June 18, 2019.   REUTERS/Brian Snyder - RC1AE0E19DD0
Report

Ambivalent nativism: Trump supporters’ attitudes toward Islam and Muslim immigration

Editor's Note:

This working paper is part of a multi-year Brookings project—"The One Percent Problem: Muslims in the West and the Rise of the New Populists." Other papers in the series are available here.

Contents:

  1. Islam and the American Right
  2. Survey data on Trump voters’ attitudes towards Muslims and other groups
  3. Trump supporters’ views on Islam, national identity, and immigration in their own words
  4. Conclusion

Despite representing a little more than one percent of the total U.S. population,1 American Muslims have long been viewed with suspicion by their fellow citizens. This has been true since the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis in the late 1970s, but American attitudes toward Islam turned especially negative following the September 11 terrorist attacks, which many American commentators blamed directly on Islamic religious doctrines.2

Author

G

George Hawley

Associate Professor of Political Science - University of Alabama

The political right in the United States, on average, has exhibited more suspicion of Islam and Muslims than the political left, and many conservative media personalities have expressed considerable hostility towards Muslims.3 Other conservative political and intellectual leaders have called for religious tolerance, however. Thus, conservatives in the electorate have received mixed messages from elected Republicans and conservative opinion leaders. American attitudes toward Islam and Muslims became an especially important subject after Donald Trump was elected president on a right-wing populist platform that explicitly called for a ban on Muslim immigration. This paper examines Trump supporters’ views on questions of Islam, immigration, and national identity. Beyond asking whether Trump’s supporters favor exclusionary policies, I investigate how strongly these supporters feel about Islam, considering whether opposition to Islam is a critical part of their political worldview, or just one element of a broader nativism.

From the start of the War on Terror, President George W. Bush took many steps to assure Muslims in the U.S. and abroad that America was not at war with Islam. He visited a mosque shortly after September 11 and declared, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.”4 His administration did not seek to reduce immigration from majority-Muslim countries. The idea that Middle Eastern countries were capable of Western-style liberal democracy later became a key justification of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. In his second inaugural address, President Bush argued that all people desire and deserve freedom, noting that “the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul.”5

Important leaders in the conservative movement such as anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist also attempted to engage American Muslim communities during this period. On the other hand, many influential figures in the conservative movement embraced bellicose rhetoric about Islam and Muslims. Popular author and columnist Ann Coulter responded to terror attacks by declaring, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”6 Several prominent conservatives have consistently promoted the narrative that the war on terror is part of a larger struggle between political Islam and the West, and that an American defeat will set the stage for the Islamic conquest and subjugation of Western countries. Writers and activists such as Pamela Geller, David Horowitz, and Robert Spencer promote this idea. Glenn Beck, a popular conservative author and radio personality, recently published a book titled, It IS About Islam, which argued that intolerance and terror are the direct result of Islam’s core beliefs.7

Although some conservative commentators discuss the war on terrorism as being part of a much older battle between the Islamic world and what was once called Christendom, others frame the struggle as a defense of Western liberalism. Such conservatives point to examples of repression of religious minorities, sexual minorities, and women in majority-Muslim countries as reasons why Islam is incompatible with Western values. In other words, intolerance of Islam is necessary to safeguard other forms of tolerance.8

Conservative opinion leaders have not spoken with one voice on this subject. There is a broad consensus among conservative intellectuals and pundits that groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda are inspired by Islamic teachings, and it is therefore disingenuous to claim that Islam and terrorism are unrelated. However, many conservative writers have also noted that this applies only to certain varieties of Islam under certain conditions, and it is therefore a mistake to view all Muslims as potential terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.9

Throughout George W. Bush’s presidency, there was a disconnect between the rhetoric coming from the Oval Office and the hyperbolic anti-Muslim message voiced by much of the conservative media. Many conservative pundits also criticized President Barack Obama’s conciliatory comments toward the Muslim world, accusing him of embarking on an “apology tour” in Muslim countries, of attacking his own country’s behavior and excusing Islamic extremism.10 When President Trump took office, however, there was no longer any rhetorical distance between the White House and the more Islamophobic elements of the conservative movement.

Trump’s comments about Islam during and after the 2016 presidential election were decidedly different from those of his predecessor, and from previous Republican presidents and presidential contenders. He openly attacked President Bush’s strategies in the war on terror, declaring for example that the invasion of Iraq was predicated on lies.11 He also broke with other Republicans by calling for a complete ban on Muslim immigration to the United States. In his public remarks, he gave no indication that he shared President Bush’s view that liberty and democracy in majority-Muslim countries was the solution to the problem of terrorism. Although he did not say so explicitly, he indicated that terrorism was predominantly an immigration issue, one that could be resolved by admitting fewer Muslims into Western countries. This was consistent with the nativist themes of his campaign.

The resurgence of white nationalism plays a part in this larger story of change within the Republican Party and the conservative movement more generally. The so-called Alt-right, a mostly-online white nationalist movement, became increasingly prominent during the 2016 presidential election.12 Energized by Trump’s nativist talking points, the extreme right was unusually active in mainstream presidential politics—the extreme right had previously shown little interest in Republican presidential front-runners. Bolstered by massive media coverage, and a deliberate attempt by the Clinton campaign to connect to the movement to the Trump campaign, for a time it appeared that the Alt-right was a large and growing political movement.13

Following a disastrous attempt to transition from the Internet into a real world, culminating in a deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, the Alt-right largely collapsed.

Following a disastrous attempt to transition from the Internet into a real world, culminating in a deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, the Alt-right largely collapsed.14 Subsequent empirical research indicated that few white Americans shared the Alt-right’s foundational principles, indicating it always had a low ceiling of potential support.15 Thus, the more mainstream element of Trump’s base, which is skeptical of large-scale immigration but not necessarily white nationalist, is currently a more consequential political group, and is the focus of this paper.

Survey Data on Trump Voters’ Attitudes towards Muslims and other Groups

Some commentators, especially anti-Trump conservatives, have suggested President Trump’s political movement is distinct from other varieties of conservatism. Particularly on questions of race, ethnicity, and religion, Trump’s rhetoric was unquestionably more divisive than that of other Republican candidates in the 2016 presidential primaries. However, it is not immediately obvious that Trump supporters were significantly different from other elements of the GOP’s base.  A 2017 poll found that more than 60 percent of Americans supported the president’s partial ban on migration from several majority-Muslim countries—a much larger percentage of the public than voted for President Trump.16

Although both parties contain elements that are fearful and intolerant of Muslims, and these feelings predate the 2016 election, it does appear that Trump’s base was particularly opposed to Muslim immigration. Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck examined the correlates of early support for Trump. They found that Trump supporters systematically differed from other Republicans in their views of Islam. They found that Trump performed much better than other GOP candidates among Republicans who had an unfavorable view of Muslims prior to the election campaigns. 17

The 2016 American National Election Study (NES) provides additional useful data. That survey included 446 respondents that claimed to have voted for Donald Trump in the Republican primaries, and 413 respondents claiming to have voted for a different Republican in the primaries. The survey also included a battery of “feeling thermometer” questions. These questions ask respondents to rate their feelings for groups and individual. A score of zero represents a very “cold” or unfavorable opinion, whereas a score of 100 represents a very “warm” or favorable opinion.

When we disaggregate Trump supporters from other Republican primary voters, and look at the mean scores for both groups, we see that the difference between Trump’s base and the rest of the GOP is not always substantial. Although, in most cases, Trump voters held more negative views on demographic groups than other Republicans did, these differences were typically small. For example, we find little evidence of anti-Semitism among Trump’s base. Trump voters’ mean feeling thermometer toward Jews was 73.4—almost as high as the mean score among other Republicans (75.6). Trump supporters also differed from other Republicans in their feelings toward whites by less than half a percentage point. We similarly see a very modest difference between the two groups in feelings toward gays and lesbians.

Muslims are not the lowest scoring group for either category, for both Trump supporters and other Republicans, “illegal immigrants” are the lowest rated demographic group.

Muslims are not the lowest scoring group for either category, for both Trump supporters and other Republicans, “illegal immigrants”18 are the lowest rated demographic group. However, Muslims are the group for which we see the largest gap between Trump supporters and other primary voters. Among Trump supporters, the mean score for Muslims was a cool 39.6, whereas other Republicans rated Muslims, on average, at 48.6, or nearly neutral.

This suggests that intolerance of Islam is one hallmark of Trump supporters, setting them apart from other Republicans in the electorate. There are strong limits to what we can infer from these kinds of survey data, however. These data tell us nothing, for example, about how strongly these respondents felt about Muslims. To gain a more nuanced understanding of this difficult subject, it was necessary to speak to Trump supporters, and ask them their views.

Trump Supporters’ Views on Islam, National Identity, and Immigration in their own Words

Surveys with a large number of observations are a vital tool for scholars of political behavior. These allow us to discern statistical patterns that may otherwise not be obvious to even the most perceptive political observers. However, studies that rely on in-depth interviews, using a smaller number of people, have an important place in the literature. Longer discussions with single individuals can provide new insights into what people believe and why. In this section, I discuss what I learned from individual interviews with President Trump’s supporters with varying levels of political involvement – ranging from ordinary voters to political professionals.

Views on American Identity

After gathering basic demographic information on each subject and discussing their general views on President Trump and his record in office,19 I began the more substantive part of the conversation by asking them a question about American identity and what being an American meant to them. Conservative intellectuals, media personalities, and political elites have typically described the American identity as being primarily built upon a cluster of ideas that define the American political culture. These ideas include a commitment to individual liberty, with roots in Anglo-Protestant traditions. Samuel Huntington articulated this definition of the American identity in his 2004 book, Who Are We.20

On the question of what it means to be an American, subjects in this study offered many different answers, but only one described the subject in exclusively legal terms, saying that being an American simply meant “being born here or being a naturalized citizen.”21An overwhelming majority of subjects suggested or directly stated that being a proper American required a commitment to certain principles. According to one subject: “To me at least, [being American] means that you believe in the principles that make us unique as a country: individual liberty, free market capitalism.”22 Another suggested that being an American means having an attachment to certain symbols and ideas: “Being an American means … having a deference for the flag, the Constitution, the Founders.” Another subject made a similar list, but also added that being a good American also required a commitment to the common good.23 To most of these respondents, the American identity was directly connected to ideological stances. One subject said this explicitly: “To me, being an American represents the acknowledgement and agreement with specific political philosophical principles and rejection of ideas that are antithetical to flourishing of our society.”24

Some subjects rejected the idea that American identity is bound to a set of ideals, however. According to one subject, “To be an American, one must have an actual connection to the land and its people. It is more than an idea.”25 This same subject indicated that there no longer is a set of values that Americans have in common. One of my younger subjects suggested that his identification with America was completely disconnected from any set of abstract principles: “I love America because it is my home. I don’t need another reason. I don’t need to [say it is] the best on an objective list, saying ‘we’re good at this or good at that.’”26

Two subjects emphasized their regional, rather than their national identity. One mentioned his deep roots to the American Midwest and its distinct culture several times.27 Another subject was deeply attached to the Appalachian region of the country and wanted to see its unique culture protected—she was particularly concerned that immigration represented a threat to her region’s traditional cultural mores.28

From these conversations I discerned no obvious consensus among Trump’s supporters regarding the key elements of the American identity. Many suggested being an American implied a broad commitment to certain principles, but they mostly defined these principles in broad generalities. A few rejected the notion that the United States is a “proposition nation,” defined by its political culture and ideals, but none explicitly described the American identity in exclusionary racial or religious terms, making it unclear how they would distinguish “true Americans” from others who live in the United States. When pushed, no respondents suggested Muslims were incapable of being Americans, but many suggested they were more difficult to assimilate.

Views on Religion and the American Identity

Religiosity has long been a key component of the American identity. Multiple British colonies that later joined the United States were established to provide a haven for groups of religious dissenters. Religious “Great Awakenings” were pivotal moments in American history. Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on American religious fervor. Although religious identification in the United States has dropped significantly in the last two decades, the United States remains much more religiously observant than most Western democracies.29

Although Christianity is a key element of the American identity, religious liberty is also a critical aspect of American political culture. People continue to debate what the principle of separation of church and state means in practice, but few Americans advocate for a state religion, or for explicit government efforts to promote or discourage a religious tradition.

Most of my subjects identified as Christian. One was an atheist, another identified as Jewish, but stated that he was not very observant. Two subjects simply described themselves as non-religious but sympathetic to Christianity. I asked all respondents questions about their religious identity, how religion was intertwined with the American identity, and their thoughts on the possibility of the United States ceasing to be a majority-Christian nation.

Most respondents expressed concern about the decline of Christian practices and identification. Many feared that America would become a fundamentally different nation if it lost its ties to Christianity. However, they also acknowledged that religious identity and practice was declining in the United States. Responding the question of whether it is important that America remains a majority-Christian nation, one subject said, “I don’t know if a secular culture is sustainable for more than a couple generations. I guess we’ll find out.”30 Several subjects suggested that the United States would feel like a very different country if it ceased to be predominantly Christian, as one subject put it: “I would no longer feel at home in America if it were no longer a majority Christian nation.”31

Several subjects acknowledged that the American Founding Fathers were not all conventional Christians, but they noted that they were operating in a culture that was overwhelmingly Christian, and Christian ideals were embedded in the culture. Most suggested that American political culture would be different—and worse—if Christianity were to further decline in the United States.

When discussing the subject of religious change, no subject expressed concern about the growth of Islam or suggested Islam could become a dominant religion in the United States. Every subject focused entirely on the growth of secularism. They treated this as a much more salient topic than the growing number of non-Christian religious minorities.

Views on Islam

Although most subjects insisted that they were unwilling to make blanket statements about an incredibly large and diverse faith, most also admitted that the thought of a growing Muslim population in the United States made them uncomfortable. Many also echoed some of the anti-Islam ideas expressed by the more Islamophobic elements of conservative media. Throughout these conversations, subjects often argued that Muslims rejected the concept of separation of church and state, that they are inclined toward separatism and the implementation of Sharia law, and that they rejected key American values. According to one subject: “Muslim values, to the extent they are embraced, are deeply antithetical to American values, i.e. gender equality, religious pluralism, extolling dissent and the ability to freely criticize anyone and anything.”32Another subject said that problems associated with Muslim immigration were the result of Muslim beliefs and a lack of will to properly assimilate Muslim immigrants: “Islam has never found reform from moderates, so the only hope is assimilation, and there is no push for that in America or the West at this time under multiculturalism.”33

The subjects who expressed the most concern about Islam due to their understanding of Islamic tenets were also more likely than other subjects to acknowledge the diversity within Islam.  This indicates that respondents concerned about Islam sought out some basic information about the religion. Two subjects, for example, said they were skeptical that Muslims could integrate well into Western democracies, but also acknowledged that a total ban on Muslim immigration would be too broad—they both pointed to the example of Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, and has no history of exporting radical Islamic terrorism to the West. Another subject noted that historically there has been a relationship between immigration and terrorism, but this is not necessarily connected to Islam. She noted, “People forget about the massive waves of anarchist violence that came on the tails of massive immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century.”34 She implied that mass immigration can lead to terrorism, even if the newcomers share the majority religion, or have no religion.

Some subjects that supported limitations on Muslim immigration indicated that they were not bothered by Islam as such. Instead, they viewed Muslims as simply being too culturally alien to assimilate well into American culture. As one interviewee put it: “The problem, as I see it, lies in admitting large numbers of a fundamentally disparate people into a region.”35 Another subject echoed these remarks, noting, “Having mass immigration of a foreign population that’s of a separate religion—and takes it seriously—than the native country that’s accepting the immigrants, I think that would have serious consequences…I think in many ways make it worse.”36 He went on to note that this was not because one religion was objectively better than another, but they are too different from one for their adherents to live harmoniously in the same space. Others indicated that Islam itself is a problem; one subject stated plainly that “Islam promotes violence.”37

One subject indicated that the problem with Muslim immigration was more racial and ethnic than religious, “My opposition is more to non-European immigration to the US than it is to Muslim immigration as such.”38 This subject admitted that he was more bothered by the fact that most Muslims are not white than that they practice a different religion. According to him, the racial and ethnic distinction alone made assimilation a challenge. This was the only subject that made a blatant racial argument during these conversations. In fact, no other subject brought up the subject of race at all unless they were stating that their views had nothing to do with race.

Several subjects suggested that Muslim immigration was a bigger problem for Europe than for the United States. One said that this was primarily due to “geographic reasons,” arguing that “the U.S. has to worry more about immigration from Mexico, and Europe has to worry more about immigration from Africa and the Middle East.'”39 One subject suggested that, compared to Europe, the Unites States does a better job assimilating Muslim immigrants and incorporating them. Having travelled extensively through the United States and Western Europe, his impression was that the significant Muslim population in states like Minnesota were much better integrated into their local communities than the Muslim population in France, which he perceived as much more segregated from mainstream French cultural and political life. Another subject made a similar argument:

“I think the American experience with immigration has left us better prepared to integrate large numbers of newcomers from very different cultures, and of course, we get a lot from Latin America, which isn’t all that different from the United States. European societies are more homogeneous, rooted and cohesive, and they didn’t have much mass immigration until fairly recently. It doesn’t look like they know how to deal with it.”40

Most subjects indicated that they had few personal experiences with Muslims, and thus their knowledge about American Muslims and Islam as a religion primarily resulted from media they had consumed. One respondent said he has lived near a sizable Muslim population for over eight years, and was even neighbors with an influential local imam, but he nevertheless never got to know his Muslim neighbors in any meaningful way.41

Despite, for the most part, rejecting the idea that religion should be explicitly considered when making immigration policy, most of these subjects were suspicious of Islam and thought large-scale immigration from majority-Muslim countries is a problem. However, based on these conversations it was also clear that few of them spend much time thinking about Islam as a religion or Muslims as individuals. As one subject put it, “I’m kind of ambivalent about Islam itself. I don’t really find it personally appealing. It seems kind of puritanical. I don’t know what to make of its treatment of women. I don’t think it’s really a ‘religion of peace’ in the same sense that Christianity is. Otherwise, though, I don’t necessarily find its teachings objectionable.”42 For most subjects, the issue did not seem especially salient, and was not a key element of their overall views on immigration. Despite rhetoric and policies from the White House, few subjects suggested that Muslim immigrants topped their list of concerns, even when they strongly favored new immigration restrictions.

When asked about treatment of Muslims in the United States, none supported restrictions on Muslims’ religious liberty—such as a ban on headscarves. Although many expressed concerns about allowing many Muslims into the United States, none indicated that Muslims in the country should be denied the right to individually practice their religion.

Although no subject wanted to restrict individual expressions of religious faith, two expressed concerns about Muslims setting up their own legal systems, in which their communities would be governed by religious rather than secular law. Such fears are not surprising, given that conservative commentators and politicians have expressed alarm over the ostensible Muslim demand for independent Sharia law courts for many years, despite scant evidence of any major effort to introduce such policies to the United States. These fears have led states across the country to implement or consider legislation banning the practice of Islamic law in courts.43 Among subjects of this study, however, none expressed fear that Islamic laws would ever become dominant in the United States.

Views on Immigration and Religion’s Role in Immigration Policy

As Trump supporters, it is unsurprising that most subjects expressed restrictionist views on the immigration question. Several indicated that immigration was the single most important policy issue today. Immigration is connected to anxieties over racial, political, and religious change. According to one subject, immigration is such a critical issue because it is directly tied to so many other contentious topics: “Immigration is the lightning. It’s the thunder. It’s a galvanizing and emotional issue because it does call into question every one of those previous threads that you and I have already touched on: threads of nationalism, threads of Christianity, threads of religion, threads of comity, of assimilation, of a common heritage, common history.” One subject indicated that economic concerns informed her views on immigration, “The globalist presidents of both parties have shafted the working-class Americans because since 1972, we have not experienced an increase in pay…and this is a push by globalists to replace us with illegal cheap labor.”44

All respondents expressed complaints about current U.S. immigration policies, though few expressed support for radical changes, such as a total moratorium on immigration. No respondents expressed disappointment with the Trump Administration’s failure to make progress on a border wall. One subject who called for reductions in immigration directly stated that he does not care if a border wall is ever constructed. When asked how they would change U.S. immigration policy, most suggested that a merit-based system would be superior to the current policy. As one subject put it, “Some new blood is generally good for a nation, but I think immigration rates should be one-tenth of what they are now, and it should be skills-based.”45 Two subjects pointed at the Canadian system, noting that Canada makes decisions about potential immigrants using a point system that rewards higher education and skills. Most respondents also insisted that they were not opposed to immigration, but they insisted that immigration be legal and orderly.

Several subjects indicated the issue was also ultimately about numbers. Few expressed a desire to close off the United States from the world, but most indicated that present numbers were too high to maintain long-term cultural cohesion. As one subject noted, “If you bring in massive amounts of people, and I say massive, if you were to have half the population who are not of this culture, you wouldn’t have this culture, we would have another culture.”46

Although most subjects supported reducing immigration and expressed misgivings about Islam, no respondents supported the idea of a strict religious test for immigration. Only one subject endorsed President Trump’s campaign promises to ban immigration from majority-Muslim countries – though even that subject suggested there should be exceptions. Several subjects viewed Trump’s rhetoric about banning Muslims as an ill-advised political act. As one subject put it: “It was a largely empty gesture that caused more harm than good.”47

Most subjects expressed significant ambivalence about these subjects. On the question of whether religion should be a consideration when it comes to immigration policy, one respondent said the following:

“To be sure, America was created with the expectation that it would be a Christian country.  But it was also created with a commitment to a robust freedom of religion and not having a nationally established church.  I think that immigration policy conditioned on religion is a threat to both of these commitments.”48

However, despite offering reservations about a religious test for immigration, most subjects suggested that potential Muslim immigrants require extra scrutiny. The general sense among these subjects was that Muslims are a difficult group to assimilate, and for that reason their numbers should be limited, and they should be vetted more carefully than other immigrant groups. Few subjects provided an explanation for how this could be done without violating the principle of government neutrality on religious questions. A few indicated that limiting immigration from majority-Muslim regions of the globe would be the most viable means of doing this but stopped short of supporting a total ban.

Surprisingly few respondents indicated that terrorism was a major source of their attitudes on immigration. Several noted that this seemed to be a larger problem for Europe than the United States. Others pointed out that the terrorism in the United States is not limited to Muslims. This attitude did not always indicate a greater tolerance toward Muslims, however, as some of these respondents said that they were not especially concerned about terrorism, but they were nonetheless skeptical that large numbers of Muslims could be successfully integrated into American life.

Conclusion

From these conversations, I conclude that immigration is a top concern for these Trump supporters, but they are not primarily concerned with Islam per se, nor are they particularly concerned about Islamic terrorist organizations. This is likely different from what we see in Europe, which is much closer to majority-Muslim countries and accepts a larger number of Muslim immigrants. My subjects’ suspicions about Muslims were often tied up with broader concerns about immigration from culturally and linguistically different groups who threatened America’s cohesion. They suggested that Muslims were a particularly difficult group to assimilate, but many indicated that they were more concerned about immigration from Latin America, which provides a greater number of immigrants, documented and undocumented. According to one subject: “I think the biggest threat right now is from Central America, and that border, the southern border.”49

Many expressed concerns about America’s changing religious landscape, but most focused their attention on rising levels of secularism, rather than growing religious diversity because of non-Christian immigration. This is once again likely due to the relatively small number of Muslims and other non-Christian religious minorities currently living in the U.S.

Most of these subjects noted that their views on all these issues were longstanding. Thus, President Trump’s actions and rhetoric did not change their attitudes in one direction or another. Although President Trump tapped into these feelings, and made them a part of the national conversation, he did not create them.

Most simultaneously wish to uphold the principle of religious freedom and are concerned that a large Muslim population will undermine American unity.

These conversations demonstrated the complicated and sometimes contradictory attitudes that these Trump supporters have about Islam and immigration. Most simultaneously wish to uphold the principle of religious freedom and are concerned that a large Muslim population will undermine American unity. A majority said that immigration can be a good thing, but they worried that immigration rates are currently too high, and that the U.S. is not selecting immigrants based on their ability to contribute to the country. Although many subjects expressed nativist, exclusionary, and Islamophobic attitudes, their language was typically less hyperbolic and extreme than what comes from the White House and from many conservative media outlets.

These interviews additionally provide insights into the difficulties faced by right-wing populist and nativist politicians who would like to put exclusionary principles into practice. Many Americans acknowledge that they want to maintain a certain religious or ethnic balance in the United States, and they are particularly uncomfortable with a growing Muslim population. However, most also hold sincere commitments to liberal democratic principles, making them uneasy with the kinds of draconian measures that would significantly slow or reverse ongoing demographic changes.

These conversations indicated that anti-Muslim attitudes in the United States are driven by a broader turn toward nativism, rather than a specific animus toward Islam. Although many of these subjects expressed overt prejudice towards Muslims, none of them indicated that their opinions on Islam were central to their political belief systems.  The September 11 terror attacks are no longer apparently salient, and with no recent history of Islamic terrorism on that scale, the issue no longer ranks as highly on Americans’ list of concerns. Most subjects in this study suggested that the United States should not allow a greater number of Muslims, but this was just one element of a broader desire to reduce immigration.

Appendix: Interview Methods and Subjects

In October of 2018, I conducted one-on-one interviews with sixteen Trump supporters, focusing on perceptions of Islam and Muslims. I also asked questions about politics and national and religious identity. It is important to know if people with different levels of political involvement exhibit different attitudes. For this reason, I spoke with people who were committed grassroots activists or worked professionally in politics, as well as people who were politically interested and knowledgeable, but otherwise not politically involved beyond voting. To recruit political professionals, I reached out to five different conservative political organizations and publications, asking for volunteers. Following my initial interviews, I asked subjects to recommend acquaintances who might be appropriate for the study (snowball sampling).

Over the course of this project I interviewed an employee at a center-right think tank, and employee at a conservative educational non-profit, a writer who ran a conservative website focused on immigration for several years, a professional political writer, a pro-Trump conservative academic, a student activist involved in campus political clubs, a social media activist, a grassroots activist with campaign experience, and a lobbyist for a major American industry. All other subjects were Trump supporters whose political activity did not extend beyond voting. I used Twitter to identify subjects less directly involved with politics, reaching out to people with accounts that indicated they were appropriate for this study.

My final sample was geographically diverse, although all but one of the political professionals I spoke with lived in the Washington, DC metro area. Other respondents lived in a mix of urban and rural locations. Five respondents were women. One respondent identified as mixed race, one identified as Indian, and all others identified as non-Hispanic white. Two respondents were born outside the United States. Although these respondents were not demographically representative of the United States, they were largely congruent with President Trump’s electoral base, which is overwhelmingly non-Hispanic white and majority male. All the political professionals and activists I interviewed had a college degree or were in college. Subjects ranged in age from early 20s to late 60s. Most respondents were long-time Republican voters, though one stated that she had previously been a Democrat and voted for President Obama in 2012. Another stated that she typically voted for third-party candidates, but she voted Republican in 2016.

Ideologically, most respondents described themselves as conservatives, if they offered an ideological label for their views. One described himself as a libertarian, another as a “right-leaning centrist.” A conservative writer described herself as an “international feminist,” which meant that she was very concerned with women’s issues, but she was more focused on the plight of women in developing countries than in the West. One of my subjects described himself as “dissident right,” which is a term sometimes used as a synonym for Alt-right, though this subject’s later responses did not indicate that he was a white nationalist or even particularly radical, which made it unclear how he defined that term. Only one respondent explicitly described himself as a populist, which he defined as follows: “I think [populism] means power in the hands of the people…with regards to the Trump presidency, it’s a focus on making trade fairer, and making sure that the average American gets a fair shot at the American Dream.”50

Footnotes

  1. Becheer Mohamed, “New Estimates Show U.S. Muslim Population Continues to Grow,” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C., January 3, 2018, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/01/03/new-estimates-show-u-s-muslim-population-continues-to-grow/.
  2. For a longer discussion of these developments, see Fawaz A. Gerges, “Islam and Muslims in the Mind of America,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 558, no.1 (2003): 73-89.
  3. David D. Belt, “Anti-Islam Discourse in the United States in the Decade after 9/11: The Role of Social Conservatives and Cultural Politics, Journal of Ecumenical Studies 51, no.2 (2016): 210-223.
  4.  “’Islam is Peace’ Says President,” Remarks by the President at Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., September 17, 2001, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010917-11.html
  5.  “President Bush's Second Inaugural Address,” National Public Radio, January 20, 2005, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4460172.
  6. Ann Coulter, “This Is War,” Town Hall, September 14, 2001, https://townhall.com/columnists/anncoulter/2001/09/14/this-is-war-n865496.  
  7. Glenn Beck, It IS About Islam (New York: Threshold Editions/Mercury Radio Arts, 2015).
  8. For just one of many examples of this kind of argument, see Christopher Caldwell, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West (New York: Doubleday, 2009).
  9. For one example of this more nuanced view, see David Adesnik, “Yes, Islamic Extremism is Islamic, but That’s Just the Beginning of the Debate,” National Review Online, December 17, 2015, https://www.nationalreview.com/2015/12/slamic-extremism-islamic-terror-islam-linked/?target=topic&tid=2110.
  10. Affan Chowdhry, “Fact or fiction: Is Obama the ‘Apologist’ President?” The Globe and Mail, September 13, 2012, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/us-politics/us-election-blog/fact-or-fiction-is-obama-the-apologist-president/article4542089/.
  11. Jesse Byrnes, “Trump on Bush Going into Iraq: 'They Lied,'” The Hill, February 13, 2016, https://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/presidential-races/269410-trump-on-bush-going-into-iraq-they-lied.  
  12. George Hawley, Making Sense of the Alt-Right (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).
  13. George Hawley, The Alt-Right: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 183.
  14. Ibid, 142-45.
  15. George Hawley, “The Demography of the Alt-Right,” The Institute for Family Studies, August 9, 2018, https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-demography-of-the-alt-right.
  16.  “Most American Voters Support Limited Travel Ban: Poll,” Reuters, July 5, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-poll/most-american-voters-support-limited-travel-ban-poll-idUSKBN19Q2FW.
  17. John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck, Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), 87.
  18. Within the social sciences, use of the term “illegal immigrant” can be controversial. The less pejorative “undocumented immigrant” is now the preferred term. I use the former term here, as that is the language used in the NES.
  19. The question about President Trump was used to assess whether the respondent was a proper subject for this study. If volunteers expressed great hostility toward Trump and his variety of politics, they were not appropriate for further analysis.
  20. Samuel Huntington, Who Are We: The Challenges to America’s National Identity (New York: Simon & Schuster).
  21. Author’s interview with a Trump supporter, October 29, 2018.
  22. Author’s Interview with a conservative think tank employee, October 19, 2018
  23. Author’s interview with a Trump supporter, October 10, 2018.
  24. Author’s interview with a conservative blogger, October 10, 2018.
  25. Author’s interview with a Trump supporter, October 10, 2018.
  26. Author’s interview with a pro-Trump campus activist, October 9, 2018.
  27. Author’s interview with conservative educational non-profit employee, October 19, 2018.
  28. Author’s interview with a Trump supporter, October 29, 2018.
  29. George Hawley, Demography, Culture, and the Decline of America’s Christian Denominations (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017).
  30. Author’s interview with a Trump supporter, October 10, 2018.
  31. Author’s interview with a pro-Trump scholar, October 10, 2018.
  32. Author’s interview with a former conservative blogger, October 10, 2018.
  33. Author’s interview with a Trump supporter, October 12, 2018.
  34. Author’s interview with a Trump supporter, October 23, 2018.
  35. Author’s interview with a Trump supporter, October 10, 2018.
  36. Author’s interview with a campus political activist, October 9, 2018.
  37. Author’s interview with a Trump supporter, October 29, 2018.
  38. Author’s interview with a Trump supporter, October 10, 2018.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Author’s interview with a Trump supporter, October 10, 2018.
  41. Interview with a Trump supporter, October 12, 2018.
  42. Author’s interview with a Trump supporter, October 10, 2018.
  43. Ed Pilkington, “Anti-Sharia Laws Proliferate as Trump Strikes Hostile Tone toward Muslims,” The Guardian December 30, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/dec/30/anti-sharia-laws-trump-muslims.
  44. Author’s interview with a Trump supporter, October 29, 2018.
  45. Author’s interview with a Trump supporter, October 12, 2018.
  46. Author’s interview with a Trump supporter, October 15, 2018.
  47. Author’s interview with a pro-Trump academic, October 10, 2018.
  48. Author’s interview with a pro-Trump academic, October 10, 2018.
  49. Author’s interview with a Trump supporter, October 29, 2018.
  50. Author’s interview with an employee at a conservative educational non-profit, October 19, 2018.
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