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The psychology of how Trump divides and distracts us

Trump may have low approval ratings. But he still has power over hearts and minds. 

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Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

This is one of the most astonishing charts on public opinion in 2017, detailing how much power Donald Trump has over the minds of millions of Americans.

It’s not a poll on a critical issue for our democracy, like health care or taxes. It’s about the NFL, and how the president, nearly overnight, turned it into one of the most divisive brands in the country, as the New York Times reported.

The polling firm Morning Consult found that in a span of three weeks, the share of Trump voters saying they viewed the league unfavorably spiked from around 20 percent to around 60 percent.

It’s a reminder that a year into his presidency, Trump still has immense power to sway public opinion that is fueling culture wars, divisiveness, and incivility in the United States. This power will remain even as his approval rating hovers near 40 percent.

As we reflect on a year of his presidency and listen to his State of the Union speech tonight, and its platitudes of American togetherness, remember this: We can expect more divisive rhetoric in the years to come.

Donald Trump is a “toxic meme” generator

What happened during the NFL protests this fall was a perfect example of Trump’s power to influence public opinion among his supporters.

A common Trump tactic is to take something nonpolitical, or not always obviously political (like the NFL), and use it to turn people against one another. This isn’t to say there’s nothing worth debating or caring about in the NFL protests. Trump just amps up the conversation in a way that’s sure to pit people against each other.

When increasing numbers of black NFL players started taking a knee during the national anthem in protests, Trump called on NFL team owners to fire the players. He drew a clear line in the sand: Patriots, loyal Americans, should disdain the NFL for not taking action. The polling above suggests his supporters are getting the message.

As Yale professor Dan Kahan puts it, Trump is a “toxic meme” generator.

Toxic memes are stories or ideas “that are predictively likely to trigger the sense that it is us against them,” Kahan explained last year at a scientific conference. “The special danger of Donald Trump,” he said, “is that he can drag issues across this line. He’s the president of the United States. He’s going to get publicity for these kinds of statements, ones that he knows will end up dividing people.”

(Another example: when Trump criticized the Muslim parents of a fallen American soldier during the Democratic National Convention. He took what’s normally sacrosanct, a Gold Star American family, and made them a political target.)

After Trump directed a massive amount of attention toward the NFL protests and became so outspoken about it, a Reuters poll found 82 percent of people who identified as Democrats disagreed with the president, saying football owners should not fire players who kneel during the national anthem. Twenty-nine percent of Republicans said the same.

The issues at the heart of the NFL protests — about police brutality and ongoing systematic racism against African Americans — were important. But Trump turned the moment into a provocative distraction that skirted any real reckoning with the issues.

Overall, Trump has tremendous power to sway public opinion in his base

Could the NFL have accumulated such negative opinions among Trump supporters without Trump egging them on? Perhaps. But it’s hard to deny Trump’s power in swaying opinions among his base. (And many in his base may not even be aware that their minds are changing on these issues.)

And if you look at polling data, you can find several examples of how Republican voters seem to have changed their beliefs since Trump began his campaign for the presidency.

In 2015, just 12 percent of Republicans held a favorable view of Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to Gallup. Now 32 percent of Republicans like him, the firm found in a February poll.

Or take the issue of free trade: Historically, conservatives have been in favor of it. But from 2015 to 2017, Republican support of free trade dropped from 56 percent in 2015 to just 36 percent in 2017, according to Pew.

Overall, Republicans are more accepting of a president with a checkered moral past. According to a Public Religion Research Institute/Brookings poll, in 2011, 30 percent of white evangelicals agreed that leaders who commit immoral acts in their private life can behave ethically in office. In 2016, 70 percent said the same.

And today, although Trump’s support from evangelicals is dropping, 61 percent still approve of the job Trump’s doing. Also consider how evangelical leaders have come to pardon Trump for his alleged affair with a porn star while his wife Melania was pregnant.

(Vox’s Dylan Matthews has a great rundown of all the ways Trump has changed public opinion on both sides of the partisan aisle. Of note: Support for immigration has increased among both Democrats and Republicans.)

Donald Trump is a living, breathing political science experiment

Michael Barber and Jeremy Pope at Brigham Young University designed an experiment see if Republicans would blindly follow their leader.

They wondered: Are Trump’s supporters ideological, or will they follow him wherever his policy whims go? Right after Trump’s inauguration, they ran an online experiment with 1,300 Republicans. Some of these participants learned that Trump was in support of liberal policies; others saw that Trump was in support of conservative policies.

“On average, across all of the questions that we asked, when presented with a liberal policy, Republicans became about 15 percentage points more likely to support that liberal policy” when they were told Trump supported it, Pope said. They follow their leader.

“The conclusion we should draw is that the public, the average Republican sitting out there in America, is not going to stop Trump from doing whatever he wants,” he said.

What political scientists don’t know: Is there a limit to this power? Can the tide turn and Republicans stop following the opinion and culture war cues of their leader? In the next few years, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to find out.