Last week, I examined two of the three strands of conservative thinking — aversion to government and aversion to change — which Donald Trump melded together in his successful effort to capture the White House.
Here I’ll focus on the third — aversion to difference — which mostly lay dormant in recent years, until Trump ignited these passions, giving them a central place in his campaign.
While establishment Republicans urged the party to embrace America’s diversity and its immigrant communities, Trump attacked them, fanning the flames of inter-group hostility—and found a receptive audience.
Unfortunately, instantiating these feelings isn’t very difficult.
Experiments conducted by psychologists at Yale and UC Santa Barbara revealed that simply reminding people that the U.S. would become a majority-minority country by 2042 increased their political conservatism, their racial bias, their hostility toward immigrants and their support for Trump.
Data from our own survey just before Election Day underlined the role of these perceptions in dividing voters.
For example, a narrow majority perceive immigration as a cultural threat.
Fifty-five percent of voters believe “newcomers from other countries threaten[s] traditional American customs and values,” whereas 45 percent maintain that newcomers “strengthen American society.”
Responses to this question defined support for each candidate. Democrat Hillary Clinton won those who see immigrants as an asset by nearly 70 points, while Trump was victorious among those who see them as a cultural liability by a nearly 50-point margin.
Indexing these and similar questions produces even more powerful results. The nearly one-quarter of whites who are the most consistently anti-immigrant gave Trump a margin of over 80 points. The nearly one-third of whites most positive toward immigrants supported Clinton by a nearly 75-point margin.
The additional 27 percent who leaned toward an anti-immigrant stance gave Trump a 50-point margin, while those who leaned toward immigrants supported Clinton by a narrow eight points.
To be clear, the issues around immigration are not fundamentally focused on policy. Two-thirds to three-quarters of Americans have consistently supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, while less than 20 percent favor the mass deportations Trump advocated.
Rather than policy, the electoral debate centered on perceived threats resulting from immigration and diversity.
Consider the issue in terms of our national motto, E pluribus unum — out of many, one.
Democrats tend to focus on the e pluribus — the many — celebrating diversity, immigration and the attendant enrichment of our culture.
Trump focused on the one — the one nation — and fear of those who are different.
When exhibitions of diversity, difference and discord seem to overwhelm oneness, sameness and unity, this aversion to difference is activated in some.
By contrast, demonstrations of oneness, sameness and unity reassure them.
The reassurance that comes with unity was illustrated by Khizr Kahn’s moving address to the Democratic National Convention.
A Muslim and an immigrant, Khan was almost universally acclaimed after telling the story of his heroic son who donned the same uniform worn by every American in the military and died defending our (one) country.
Khan pulled the Constitution from his suit pocket, highlighting the oneness and sameness of the American people, united in war and by our commitment to a shared founding document.
It’s no wonder that Trump’s attack on the Khans generated almost no support. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found a mere 12 percent of Americans approved and 73 percent disapproved of the way Trump responded to the Gold Star family, including 59 percent of Trump supporters.
To defeat Trumpians, Democrats must not, and need not, forego our commitment to diversity or immigrants.
But we also need not revel in difference, and instead focus on our national unity.
We need not wave the flag of ethnic triumphalism.
We must honor both the many peoples and cultures that inhabit these shores, and the one nation we strive to become.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years.