Photo: Jordan Gale for The New York Times

July 12, 2021

CGA Clinical Associate Professor John Kane’s Research on Activating Animus Garners NY Times Coverage

A just-published research article, “Activating Animus: The Uniquely Social Roots of Trump Support,” by John Kane, clinical associate professor at the NYU SPS Center for Global Affairs, and co-authors Lilliana Mason, associate research professor at Johns Hopkins, and Julie Wronski, associate professor at the University of Mississippi, was prominently featured in a recent New York Times essay, “Trump’s Cult of Animosity Shows No Sign of Letting Up.”

The researchers investigated the extent to which citizens’ animus toward (Democratically-aligned) minority groups drove political support for Donald Trump, whose incendiary rhetoric regarding such groups was unique in modern presidential politics.

What the article, which was recently published in the American Political Science Review, indicates is that while partisanship in American politics has become inextricably linked with social identity and deeply rooted sentiments toward party-aligned groups, out-group animosity can be a key factor underlying political support for particular politicians.

A crucial feature of the study is that it uses thousands of voters’ feelings across many years.  In particular, citizens’ animus toward marginalized groups in the U.S. was measured in 2011, long before Donald Trump’s campaign for political office, and the approval of Trump (as well as other politicians) was measured several years afterward.  Using the measure of animus, the authors find strong evidence that animus toward minority groups is strongly predictive of approval of Trump’s presidency, even after taking into account a large number of other factors (e.g., racial identification and partisanship).

This relationship, however, does not hold for approval of other Republican politicians—only Trump. The study, therefore, suggests that the 2016 Trump campaign was unique in its ability to tap into a reservoir of social animosity within the United States—which existed among Republicans, Independents, and Democrats—and transform it into political support.

An important implication of the research finding is that, given Trump’s success, future candidates may attempt to create a winning coalition based on activating group-based animosities through similarly explicit use of anti-out-group rhetoric. Based upon their research, Kane and his co-authors concluded that, if left unaddressed, existing hatred against marginalized groups in the US could continue to be harnessed and activated across parties and nonpartisans alike and significantly impact voters’ choices in the future.

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