Politics & Policy

In Face of Controversy, Trump Supporters Stand By Their Man

Trump at a campaigns rally in Richmond, Va., in October. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty)

Straightforward. Awesome. President.

These are a handful of phrases supporters of Donald J. Trump used to describe the current GOP frontrunner in Frank Luntz’s focus group Wednesday evening. They were a group filled with emotion. For one man, a changing of the guard from Obama to Trump is the stuff of which political dreams are made. “I want Trump to look at Obama on Election Day and go, ‘You’re fired.’”

But in the wake of Trump’s call this week to ban all Muslims from entering the country, which has drawn rebukes from nearly every Republican in Washington, the question Luntz came to ask was obvious: Why are you still supporting Trump?

For the participants in Wednesday’s group, the more appropriate question was: Why not?

Luntz fielded the group’s responses on a variety of Trump’s most controversial statements, and, the participants — 27 Caucasians, one African American, and one Hispanic, ages 26–68 — could hardly contain their enthusiasm. “One at a time, one at a time!” Luntz interjected.

“They want to come here and blow up Americans,” one woman said, responding to Luntz’s query about her support for an all-out ban on the entry of Muslims into the country. It’s a Trump proposal that has garnered an all-out condemnation from the Right, with Paul Ryan calling it an affront to conservatism, Marco Rubio calling it “offensive and outlandish,” and Lindsey Graham calling it “race-baiting” and “xenophobic.”

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Another participant chimed in, “Trump is the only one who would come out and say something like this. No one else would say it. Who would say it?”

It was a window into a phenomenon that has left pundits, pollsters, and everyday Joes dumbfounded since Trump descended the escalator to announce his presidential candidacy in April. As his comments have increased in shock value — from remarks on Carly Fiorina’s looks to saying a Black Lives Matter protester should have been “roughed up” at a recent rally — his poll numbers have skyrocketed along with them or, at the very least, have stayed steady enough to maintain his position atop the GOP field. Though he’s lost his lead in Iowa — a recent Monmouth poll has him trailing Ted Cruz by five points — he enjoys a massive 20-point lead in South Carolina, per a Fox News poll, and the latest CNN poll has him with an 18-point lead in New Hampshire.

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Indeed, as Luntz probed the group about Trump’s preparedness for the presidency and raised questions about the appropriateness of some of his most outrageous remarks, the convictions of Trump’s supporters seemed only to deepen. After three hours of discussion and provocation from Luntz — the group also viewed a handful of Trump attack ads — only two participants said they had a lesser opinion of him. In fact, most praised him more effusively, suggesting that the collective pile-on from Democrats and Republicans alike may be at the heart of his support.

#share#Even Trump’s most controversial statements did not raise eyebrows among the group. Of the 29 participants, for example, only one man said that Trump’s proposal to ban the entry of Muslims into the country made him reconsider his support. “I have a Saudi exchange student living in my basement,” he said. “Muslim is a religion, you can’t do that.”

Twelve group members said they believed Trump’s claim that thousands of Muslims had cheered in the streets following the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. “I was there,” said one woman whose nametag identified her as Clarissa. “There were people cheering in the streets, visibly happy.” She admitted she wasn’t sure if they were Muslims.

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“Yes, there were pockets of Muslims cheering,” said another woman. “A pocket here, a pocket there, a pocket there. If you add them all up, I’m sure there were a thousand.”

Even those who were undecided about the veracity of Trump’s claim supported his general sentiment. “Even If they weren’t cheering for it . . . you know, I don’t remember seeing anyone cheering against it,” said a 26-year-old young man. “You didn’t see Islamists holding radicals accountable.”

A common refrain of the evening was that “There are two sides to every story.” It was leveled when Luntz asked about the Trump campaign’s alleged manhandling of a Black Lives Matter protester at a rally as well as at Trump’s past support for abortion and universal health care.

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For this group, there is virtually no second-choice candidate. Even their feelings for Texas senator Ted Cruz, who has intentionally maintained a friendly relationship with Trump in an attempt to cozy up to his voters, bordered just above apathy. Were Trump to leave the Republican party, his supporters said almost unanimously, they would follow.

“The establishment just died,” Luntz declared.

“Good!” shouted one man.

#related#The one issue for which the group, on the whole, condemned Trump was his mockery last month of a New York Times reporter with a physical disability. “There is no question he made fun of that reporter,” said one woman. Most of the group nodded in agreement. “I thought it was the worst moment of his campaign.”

There were some who defended even that. “It depends on who’s hearing it,” said one woman. “It’s cringe-worthy, yes, but stuff happens.” She had a prosthetic right hand.

A mere three people in the group were on the fence for Trump, but if anything was unanimous, it was a hatred of President Obama. As one man, a military veteran, put it, “I wouldn’t urinate on his leg if he was on fire.”

— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.


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