The candidates’ response to the Orlando attack says something deep, not just about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but about the electorate itself.
In the aftermath of that attack, Trump and Clinton both appeared before supporters to outline their strategies for combatting terrorism at home and abroad. Speaking from Cleveland, Secretary Clinton called for “unity and solidarity” and argued that an “open, diverse society is an asset in the struggle against terrorism, not a liability.” Speaking from New Hampshire just a few hours later, Donald Trump doubled down on his calls to ban immigrants from “areas of the world where there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States” because “many [immigrants] have [the] same thought process as this savage killer.” The stark differences in the tone and substance of each candidate’s speech reflect not just the individuals who made these remarks; they reflect as well an American public intensely divided on questions of national security, immigration, and cultural change.
A recent Brookings Institution survey on refugees from the Middle East finds that 69 percent of Americans support the proposition that the U.S. should accept refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries after they have been screened for security risks. This includes a super-majority (77 percent) of Democrats, 36 percent of whom say they support the proposition “strongly” and 41 percent of whom support it “somewhat.” Just 38 percent of Republicans support the proposition, with a strong majority (63 percent) reporting that they are somewhat (20 percent) or strongly (43 percent) opposed.
Over the course of his speech, Mr. Trump reiterated his pledge to ban immigrants on the basis of their nationality. He charged that Mrs. Clinton would “massively increase” the population of Syrian refugees, a population which constitutes a “better, bigger version of the legendary Trojan Horse.” This message soundly resonates with Mr. Trump’s base, as 63 percent of Republicans and 77 percent of Trump supporters say they oppose refugees from Syria and the Middle East. But I suspect it will prove less effective with the majority of Americans (69 percent) who support U.S. acceptance of these refugees. A CBS News poll fielded in the wake of the Orlando attack underscores the potential political pitfalls of Trump’s anti-immigrant message, finding that a firm majority (58 percent) of Americans—including 62 percent of independent voters—does not believe that the United States should ban Muslim immigrants.
The Brookings poll on refugees on refugees from the Middle East helps to clarify the position of those opposed to admitting refugees from Syria and the Middle East. Of those opposed, almost half (46 percent) cite concerns about terrorism, while 41 percent identify the economic burden refugees place on society. Just nine percent of respondents adopt the explicitly islamophobic position that they object to refugees from Syria and the Middle East because they are concerned about having more Muslims in the United States, even if they are peaceful.
A new PRRI-Brookings immigration survey indicates that anxiety about demographic and cultural change may also animate concerns about immigration. Attitudes about the proper levels of immigration into the U.S. vary considerably depending on an immigrant’s region of origin. The level of immigration coming from Europe and from predominately Christian counties is most often said to be “too low” (14 and 15 percent, respectively) or “just right” (67 and 68 percent, respectively). Americans express far greater concern about the number of migrants from the Middle East, Central American and Mexico, and predominately Muslim countries, with 33, 46, and 34 percent of Americans respectively saying the level of immigration from these regions is too high.
These results dovetail with findings that 21 percent of Americans are concerned by the prospect of the U.S. becoming a majority non-white nation, a significant eight point increase over the 14 percent of Americans who said the same in 2013. The degree to which Americans feel uneasy about racial and ethnic change varies considerably across socio-economic background and political affiliation. Close to one in three (28 percent) white working-class Americans express concern about the U.S. becoming a majority non-white country, compared to 16 percent of white, college-educated Americans. Supporters of Donald Trump are more uncomfortable with the idea than is any other group, with more than one third (34 percent) saying they are bothered by the prospect of the U.S. becoming a non-white country.
Finally, asked whether the American way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence, a slim majority (55 percent) of Americans agree, including nearly three quarters (74 percent) of Republicans and eight in ten (83 percent) of Trump supporters. Here too, views about external culture threats are sharply divided by social class, with more than two-thirds (68 percent) of the white working class agreeing that the American way of life needs protection, compared to fewer than half (47 percent) of white college-educated Americans.
Although questions about U.S. policy on refugees from the Middle East are often debated as matters of national security, for a sizable swath of the American population, these data suggest that cultural anxiety plays a significant role animating current objections to refugee absorption.