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Continuity or Change? Contextualizing the Role of Polarization and Racial Attitudes in the Trump Era


Donald Trump is commonly believed to deviate from traditional Republican norms and ideals, both in terms of his policy platform as well as his boorish, often explicitly racist personal conduct. These claims have come from media and from Republican Party elites, both past and present. But was his outsider status, in terms of lack of prior political experience, unorthodox policy positions, as well as personal style, reflected by marked shifts in public opinion? Were Trump voters motivated by a new set of predispositions compared to prior Republican voters? In this dissertation, I argue that Trump is better interpreted as a continuation of preexisting Republican trends than as a rogue outsider who capitalized on a wholly distinct electorate motivated by a unique profile of attitudes and preferences. Rather, I argue, Trump is best interpreted as a continuation of Obama era trends. In Chapter One, I trace the legacy of polarization and racial attitudes in modern American politics. In Chapter Two, I trace the waning of the New Deal coalitions from 1980 to 2016, examining the demographic profiles of support for Trump and contextualizing them as trends that predated his campaign. Chapter Three, I assess whether Trump benefited from a different set of predispositions among the mass public relative to his predecessors in the prior four elections—specifically, those related to racial attitudes and political polarization. In Chapter Four, I assess how two difference indices of racial attitudes, one that emphasizes outgroup animosity (racial resentment) and one that incorporates ingroup solidarity (ethnocentrism) impact presidential approval, in order to assess whether both exert equal and similar influence on white voters’ presidential approval over the last 5 cycles. In Chapter Five, I assess the extent to which, should we see shifts over time in the nature and influence of racial attitudes among white voters over this period of time, these shifts can be traced to white Republicans becoming increasingly racially conservative during the dawning of the Trump era, or whether it is white racial liberals who are driving the divergence of public opinion. Ultimately, I argue, Trump inherited a highly racialized landscape; he did not introduce racial attitudes into an otherwise racially harmonious and civil landscape and disrupt the status quo, nor did he capitalize on a wholly new set of racist predispositions among the white electorate.

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