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How do you persuade Trump supporters to oppose the ‘big lie’?

Reminding them of their patriotism helped bolster their support for U.S. democracy, including the peaceful transfer of power after an election

The House committee investigating last year’s attack on the Capitol started public hearings last week, continuing its inquiry into the “facts, circumstances, and causes relating to the January 6, 2021, domestic terrorist attack upon the United States Capitol Complex.” Central to this investigation are questions about whether then-President Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to attack and disrupt the certification of the election, potentially overturning the result.

Some might argue that Trump’s Jan. 6 speech to his supporters reflects his broader pattern of dismissing presidential norms — including the peaceful transfer of power, which is central to democracy. Before the 2016 election, for instance, Trump would not publicly commit to accepting the results as legitimate if he lost. He made similar comments before the 2020 election, raising questions about whether he would cede power.

Our research in fall 2020 investigated which factors might affect whether American voters would support or oppose Trump remaining in office if he lost — which would violate fundamental democratic principles. Political scientists have long studied public support for democratic norms and procedures, such as allowing disliked groups to hold rallies.

Since political partisanship has been rising over the past decades, some observers have voiced concerns about Americans’ support for authoritarian views, particularly among Republican Party voters. Some research, for instance, finds voters with authoritarian mindsets were more likely to vote for Trump. Other research suggests voters who are more likely to support authoritarianism may be less likely to support democratic norms.

What influenced Trump supporters

Given this research, we wondered whether Americans who approved of Trump’s performance as president would be more likely to support him remaining in office, even if he lost the 2020 election. Since many Trump supporters have seemed unwilling to engage with information critical of him, we were interested in testing what messages might influence their support or opposition for violating democratic rules. In particular, we wanted to see whether being prompted to think about their American patriotism might increase their commitment to beliefs about democracy — and counter any impulse to support overthrowing the election results.

Valuing democracy, after all, is one of the core principles of American citizenship and belonging. Symbols of American democracy can inspire and activate feelings and beliefs about abstract concepts like “democracy.” Could the simple act of making respondents think about American patriotism lead some Trump supporters to oppose any effort to overturn the 2020 election?

How we did our research

To answer this, we conducted a social science experiment on the Saturday just before the election. Our Oct. 31, 2020, sample of 1,433 U.S. adults was not representative of the nation, though we did recruit a demographically diverse group through an opt-in online survey. We used Prolific, a company that hires respondents to participate in research studies conducted over the internet.

We randomly assigned respondents to view one of three stimuli: an image of the American flag, accompanied by the national anthem; an article designed to evoke feelings of American pride; and a politically-neutral video of a fog bank moving over some hills. This design was part of a larger project with other elements.

Participants then answered a series of questions. First, they read the following statement and were asked, using a four-point scale, how appropriate or inappropriate this would be: “Donald Trump loses the 2020 election but refuses to leave office because he claims that he has credible evidence of illegal voting.” We also asked participants whether they supported or opposed “Donald Trump remaining president, if he says he lost the election because of voter fraud.” We combined responses to these questions and divided by two to form a single scale of willingness to let Trump decide whether he should leave office, ranging from zero to four. Four would indicate those who thought Trump remaining in office was both very appropriate and strongly supported it.

Cuing patriotism boosted support for democracy

We wondered whether the patriotic cues influenced Trump supporters’ opinions. We measured presidential approval by asking people to choose one of seven categories that ranged from “extremely approve” to “extremely disapprove.” We created a linear statistical model to estimate how the effects of the two patriotic cues differed according to how much respondents approved or disapproved of Trump’s performance as president.

Those who “extremely approved” of Trump had an average score on the scale of three out of four — but when we prompted people to think about their American patriotism, it reduced the score by about a half-point. People who approved less of the president were also less likely to support him violating democratic norms; for them, the patriotic messages did reduce their support for such violations, but by less. Among those who “extremely disapproved” of Trump — resulting in a score of zero — the patriotic cues had no effect, because they didn’t support him remaining in office, so it was impossible to reduce that support.

In other words, when we reminded Trump supporters of their commitment to patriotism, they were less likely to say he should remain in office if he lost the election. Interestingly, patriotic symbols had stronger effects among those who approved more of Trump’s presidency.

Our results suggest that one way to defuse Trump’s false claims of election fraud could be to appeal to American patriotism, reminding people that false claims run counter to the U.S. tradition of democracy and freedom.

Gregory A. Petrow is an associate professor of political science at the University of Nebraska Omaha.

John Transue is an associate professor in the School of Politics and International Affairs and holds a faculty appointment in the Center for State Policy and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Manuel Gutierrez is a visiting researcher in the Center for State Policy and Leadership at the University of Illinois-Springfield.