Would a re-election of Donald Trump affect racism outside the United States again?
Over the last four years, President Donald Trump’s “America first” policy has affected the rest of the world by championing unilateralism. He pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, of UNESCO, and lately of the World Health Organization. Although the United States has not yet officially withdrawn from the Paris agreement on green-house-gas emissions, President Trump has announced his intention to do so and has implemented policies that contradict the objectives of the treaty. Those policies have or will have tangible consequences for other countries across the world.
Even before the consequences of his policies materialized, President Trump’s election may have had a more insidious but faster effect worldwide by emboldening those of us who hold bigoted views on race issues. The concern emerged in the days following his November 8, 2016, election. The Guardian warned that “the most dangerous consequence of Trump’s victory may be its contagion effect on Europe.” Al-Jazeera worried that ‘Trump’s electoral victory has been a wake call for all democratic nations to consider the solidification of the global right-wing and discriminatory politics in Europe and beyond’.
Considering his programme, those concerns seem grounded. Two prominent proposals of Donald Trump’s electoral campaign had a unambiguous racist or xenophobic dimension: the construction of a wall separating the US and Mexico and a ban on Muslims from entering the U.S. His surprise win might thus have legitimized racist opinions. Evidence suggests that it did in the United States. The election of Donald Trump was followed by a spike in the number of hate crimes and online harassment targeting minorities (Hauslohner 2016; Levin and Grisham 2017; Muller and Schwarz 2019; Potok 2017). Did Donald Trump’s election have the same effect in Europe?
In a paper published in the British Journal of Political Science, Marco Giani, from King’s College, London, and I addressed the question by leveraging the fact that the field work of the European Social Survey, an international survey on beliefs, values, and attitudes on a whole series of questions, was ongoing in thirteen countries at the time of the election. Among many, the survey featured two questions that asked respondents in the same terms to gauge their position on immigration. The only difference between the two questions was that the first question asked about migrants of the same race as the majority of the country and the second question asked about migrants of a different race. The difference between the answers to the two questions therefore provides a measure of avowed racism. We compared the responses recorded in the weeks before and after Donald Trump’s election. As the timing of the interview of respondents was exogenous to the election, respondents who were interviewed just before the election and just after can be considered as randomly drawn. They therefore only differ by the fact that those interviewed after the election knew its outcome while the others did not. The study can therefore reveal the causal effect of the outcome of the election. We do observe that the gap between the answers to one question and the other increased in the aftermath of the election. Specifically, the probability of answering the two questions differently increased by 2.3 percentage points within an interval of ±15 days around the election of Donald Trump. In a nutshell, respondents expressed more racist ideas. As the study specifically measures the impact of the announcement of Donald Trump's election, regardless of his campaign and decisions, the total effect of Donald Trump could be greater.
As Donald Trump is running for his re-election, one may wonder what its outcome entails for us. To answer that question, one must think about the mechanism that caused the results observed in 2016. Our interpretation is that the surprise election of Donald Trump affected social norms on reporting sensitive attitudes. In a world where the social norm of racial neutrality was mainstream, racially biased respondents may have been concerned to report their racial bias to an inquirer whom they were meeting face to face. They may have coped with that concern by insincerely reporting no bias. However, the election of Donald Trump, a candidate with racially biased views, signalled that the social norm of racial neutrality was less mainstream than previously assumed. Consequently, the expected social cost of expressing racist attitudes decreased, making them ceteris paribus more likely to be reported. Bursztyn, Egorov and Fiorin (2017) report similar evidence. What we observe could thus have been driven by racially biased respondents revising downward the probability that the enquirer they were talking would negatively react if they expressed racist views.
The interpretation is backed by what we observed for other US presidential elections around which the field work of the European Social Survey was ongoing (see Figure 1). Barack Obama’s first election had the opposite effect of Donald Trump’s. In addition, Barack Obama’s second election and the second election of George W. Bush had no effect on reported racism. Those findings are in line with the assumption that Barack Obama’s first election signalled an increase in the social desirability of racial neutrality and therefore lowered the probability of reporting racially biased attitudes, whereas elections confirming the incumbent did not provide novel information about social norms and hence did not affect the report of racially biased attitudes.
Racial issues were undeniably under the spotlight during the latest campaign, following the Black Lives Matter movement. The two candidates also assumed radically different positions on the issue. How the election will affect racism therefore likely depends on its outcome. If our interpretation is correct, and Joe Biden wins by a surprisingly high score, his win may signal that bigoted views are not as widely accepted as believed since Donald Trump’s election, prompting respondents to refrain from expressing them. A short win by either candidate may have limited effects. Although the scenario seems unlikely according to the latest polls, a landslide second win of Donald Trump could entrench bigoted views. To paraphrase their president, American voters have a GREAT responsibility…
Bursztyn L, Egorov G and Fiorin S (2017) From extreme to mainstream: how social norms unravel. Working Paper No. w23415. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.
Cherkaoui M (2016) Donald Trump’s presidency: new dawn or dooms day? Al-Jazeera reports. Available from http://studies.aljazeera.net/en/reports/2016/11/donald-trumps-presidency-dawn-dooms-day-161127110643744.html.
Giani M, Méon P-G (2019). Global Racist Contagion Following Donald Trump’s Election. British Journal of Political Science 1–8.
Hauslohner A (2016) Hate crimes rose the day after Trump was elected, FBI data show. The Washington Post, 23 March.
Levin BH and Grisham K (2017) Hate crimes rise in major American localities in 2016. United States Department of Justice Hate Crime Summit, Washington, DC, 29 June.
Müller, K. and Schwarz, C., 2019. From hashtag to hate crime: Twitter and anti-minority sentiment. Available at SSRN 3149103.
Potok, M., 2017. The Trump effect. Intelligence Report, 162, pp.32-35.