When Donald Trump took office this year, he had the lowest approval rating of any modern, first-term president. People protested. Democrats spoke loudly of his faults. Pundits dissected his language use and lack of decorum. And yet all that talk has not swayed more people to join the left. In fact, criticisms of Trump and his policies might be so polarizing that the criticisms themselves are pushing some people to the right.
How do we know this? Psychological research suggests that when you see a message that goes against what you believe, in rare cases, it can persuade you to change your mind. But that same science shows that such arguments can often produce reactance – that is, your reaction to such arguments can make you even more steadfast and can backfire by pushing your attitudes in the opposite direction. Translation? You see a protest or hear a criticism but rather than being persuaded, you dig your heels in so deep you might even adopt defiant positions on issues you were previously neutral about. This is reactance. It can even lead you to oppose positions you didn’t have.
The anti-anti-Trump effect
So which is happening? Are people changing their minds, or digging in? In an Ipsos study, people were exposed to a series of photos showing different forms of resistance to Trump and asked to respond to several questions about Trump and his administration’s policies. Each person saw one of four randomly-selected sets of photos and captions showcasing real-life, recent events such as: Republican politicians resisting Trump’s policies; Democrat politicians opposing Trump’s policies; the general population protesting Trump’s policies; or a neutral photo image. Ipsos compared the reactions to each set of pictures with the reactions to the neutral control images. Using these specific methods, it’s possible to draw conclusions about cause and effect.
After looking at their assigned set of photos, people rated their overall approval of Trump, as well as their agreement or disagreement with the efficacy of resisting Trump’s early actions such as the executive action immigration ban, and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. They also indicated how likely they believed it was that the Trump administration worked with Russians to influence the 2016 election results.
Different pictures yield different reactions
Viewing images of group protests led to more negative attitudes toward Trump among liberals but had no discernible effect among conservatives or Independents. In other words, popular protests do not seem to affect the attitudes of Republicans or Independents – but those protests do bring Democrats together around a common cause.
Conservative approval for Trump was unaffected by all forms of opposition, however seeing photos of Republicans expressing their dissatisfaction with Trump reduced conservatives’ support for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. This suggests that Republican opposition could play a possible role in moderating strong attitudes from the right, at least toward some issues.
Perhaps most interestingly, Independents were most affected by images of Democratic senators speaking out against Trump. This form of opposition led Independents to have more positive attitudes toward Trump’s policies.
Finding this outcome among Independents but not conservatives is surprising. The lack of visible and vocal anti-Trump backlash among conservatives might reflect their already high level of support for the president. It also shows that their support is so solidified that nothing will change their minds. But the fact that Independents responded to Democrat opposition to Trump suggests that strong political statements can have paradoxical effects on the very people who are the intended targets of such arguments.
In short, seeing Republican opposition can cause conservatives to adjust their thoughts; group protests work to cement the support coming in from the left; and opposition from Democratic leadership polarizes from the middle in the president’s favor.
So is “The Resistance” helping Trump? Perhaps somewhat–though it depends on both the messenger and the audience.
Thomas Pyszczynski, a Distinguished Professor at University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, contributed to this piece. The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of Sharlynn Thompson, a social psychology researcher at University of Colorado, to the underlying research.