Conservative Ideology, Racial Resentment, & President Trump – An Interview With Dr. Hans Noel

At a time of political divisiveness and ideological battles, President Trump’s approval ratings have continued to decline since taking office. It is readily apparent the United States is in a political and ideological transition, yet too few discussions on the underlying forces influencing these changes.

Here we discuss the state of American ideology, how this has shaped the current political environment and potential triggers for ideological favoritism. Dr. Hans Noel, Associate Professor at Georgetown University and author of Political Ideologies and Political Parties in America shares his thoughts below on American ideology.

Dr. Noel argues that ideology in American has become increasingly one dimensional over the last several decades. This ideology, while not always synonymous with party affiliation, has shaped the current party coalitions. He argues that ideology spreads from political thinkers to politically attentive Americans, teaching them what policy position goes with what.

For instance, if one were to believe in man made climate change, that ideological seed would influence the individual to prefer other things that liberals prefer, say abortion rights or a higher minimum wage.

It is clear ideologies played a cornerstone role in the recent presidential election. As noted by you and many others, although President Trump does not reflect traditional conservative ideologies, his appeal is largely ideological.

With such an apparent contrast in ideological principals between President Trump and the party he represents, who do you think drives political ideological change? Is America changing in their ideologies and President Trump happened to capitalize on a blinded Republican Party? Has Trump introduced a new variable in ideological options that provoked the public’s change?

Great ideology creates great times. – Kim Jong Il

The first thing is I think Trump himself isn’t ideological at all, although he is affecting ideology. He is very inconsistent on a lot of things. In this way, he’s like a lot of moderates. He’s not really “in the middle,” but he’s not consistently conservative or liberal.

If there are any guideposts for him, they are some kind of nationalism. This is “America First” and “Make America Great Again.” This is anti-trade and anti-immigration. He is also strong on law-and-order, which meshes if you think the people breaking the law are anti-American.

He might fall short of a complete enthno-nationalism of many of his supporters, but the Trump political brand now embraces all of that. It’s white, masculine, Christian. It fits with Steve Bannon’s fascination with the Camp of the Saints (a novel about non-white immigration overwhelming the west), for example, and the language of a “clash of civilizations.” (referencing a book by Samuel Huntington).

This nationalism has a lot of connections to conservatism. A lot of conservatives might agree with some or all of it, others reject most of it. This is because conservatism, like liberalism, is a coalition of many things. We use terms like social conservative and economic conservative and so forth. Conservative thinkers as far back as the 1950s actively worked to synthesize these different strands. This is what we call “fusionism.” In synthesizing things, some strands win out over others. Minimal government restraint on business is one strand, and it comes into conflict with anti-trade policies demanded by nationalism. In that fight, nationalism has lost out.

What Trump and the Trump camp are doing seems to be reconfiguring the coalitions, so that nationalism wins in places where it hadn’t before, such as immigration and trade. He’s not interested in minimal government, which most conservatives view as their central principle.

For many conservatives, what they get from Trump is what they want. Less immigration. A stronger police force. His less conservative interests have not been nurtured (e.g. trade). Other conservatives are not happy and are saying so.

For most voters, conservatism isn’t so much an ideology as an identity, and Trump has done very well in tapping that identity. In the end, those voters never really adopt all the tenets of the ideology, but to the extent that they do, now they are getting a different message. This may reshape conservatism to be more about nationalism and less about free enterprise.

I have some research with Dan Hopkins that suggests that politicians who oppose Trump are seen as more moderate, even when they are objectively not moderate, like senators Jeff Flake and Ben Sasse.

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The quote above, and many global societal, medical, and economic trends agree that we live in an incredibly fortunate time. As people see prosperity spread around the world, social advancement, and better health how has that impacted the general public’s ideology?

Is someone more likely to shape resentment or bitterness in their ideological view while seeing external prosperity? Here I’m thinking of the Midwest laborer that has seen their livelihood shipped overseas with no likelihood of returning in the same fashion. Has he/she become more ideologically self-centered and closed for this reason?

The relationship here is hard to sort out. People definitely care more about relative success than absolute success. But it’s more than that. Objective conditions aren’t what matters as much as what people perceive to be threats and opportunities. If the success of other people in other countries is perceived as a threat to the United States, then some people will respond to that threat.

What do you tell people who are struggling? Do you tell them that even though it may not be their fault, they only thing to do is to get trained for a new job? Or do you tell them that (undeserving) immigrants and foreign factories are taking their jobs away from them? The truth is far more complicated, but trade and immigration aren’t irrelevant. This can lead people to believe they are struggling economically worse than they are.

This isn’t to say that the Midwest laborer isn’t struggling. But that could be mobilized in different ways. A view that immigrants and minorities are getting some undeserved benefits, what social scientists call “racial resentment” is going to channel that frustration in different ways. That’s what the evidence suggests has happened, including this study I was involved with.

Who wins the ideological war between President Trump and the traditional Republican party? There is a clear shift in the ideology of many Americans, which aligns with President Trump. However, there are many traditional Republican party members that resent what their party has turned into. How does the Republican party evolve in future elections and which ideological pathway wins out?

Political ideology can corrupt the mind and science. – E. O. Wilson

A lot will depend on what happens in 2020. There is a view in political science that you can classify things into “political time,” and that Trump indicates the end of the Reagan era. I’m not completely sure that’s right, but there is no question he was disruptive. Typically, presidents win re-election, which would mean seven more years of Trump. That would leave a lasting mark.

But Trump is not typical. He might even face a primary challenge. Even if that challenge is not successful, it would be an indicator of Trump’s popularity. (The last two one-term presidents we’ve had also faced primary challenges to their renomination – Carter in 1980 and Bush in 1992. I don’t think the challenges caused them to lose; I think they were challenged because they were weak.) If Trump loses in 2020, or worse, if he’s not renominated, then his brand of conservatism will weaken.

But his brand was never completely absent. And it won’t go away easily. Conservatism (like liberalism) will continue to evolve. It was evolving without Trump. He merely sped things along and nudged it in a particular direction.