Research News

Trump’s ethnocentrism will bring voters to the polls, pro and con

Ethnocentrism is carrying Donald Trump to the Republican nomination for president, although it may condemn him to defeat in the November election, says Vanderbilt University political scientist Cindy D. Kam.

Ethnocentrism is the tendency to partition the human world into in-groups and out-groups: into “us” against “them.” These groups might be based on nationality, race-ethnicity, or religion, or any other salient social category.

“Donald Trump is an excellent case of ethnocentric rhetoric,” says Kam, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt. “Anytime he speaks it’s usually about us against them. For example, thinking about protecting the country against Muslims (and) thinking about building a wall between the United States and Mexico.”

Kam and co-author Donald Kinder applied the term “ethnocentrism” to politics in 2009 in their book Us Against Them: Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion (The University of Chicago Press), and their findings prove consistent today. They found that ethnocentrism informs a wide range of policy opinions, including support for war, opposition to foreign aid and opposition to immigration.

Trump must move to the middle

Cindy Kam (Vanderbilt University)
Cindy Kam (Vanderbilt University)

The rampant ethnocentrism in Trump’s words likely accounts for much of his popularity and unprecedented rise as the Republican Party nominee. Trump might try to move to the center on some issues after he gets the nomination and needs to attract more moderate voters in the general election. But then he would risk losing his ethnocentric base.

“When it comes to the general election, ethnocentrism will not carry Donald Trump to the White House,” Kam says. “I predict that he will have to moderate some of his stances.”

Trump helps election turnout

Ethnocentric voters find Trump’s rhetoric appealing. Less ethnocentric voters find it offensive. Either way, “it has gotten ordinary people talking about politics in a way I don’t think we’ve seen in quite a while,” Kam says. “I think campaigns like these are moments for the country to come together and not just pick who is going to be elected into the White House, but to think about who we are as a country and what our values are.

“[lquote]One thing about Donald Trump is that he’s given people a lot to talk about,” she says.[/lquote]

Trump may motivate a good many voters who want to ensure that he doesn’t win, Kam says. During the primary season, these voters haven’t had a formal outlet to express their frustration with him.

“The media has focused on his rise within the Republican constituency among some core voters, but there’s a whole set of people who find his ethnocentric rhetoric to be quite repelling,” Kam says. “And if he ends up being in the general election, they will do their darnedest to make sure he doesn’t get elected.”