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Trump’s base did not elect him to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan

- January 4, 2019

President Trump has faced bipartisan criticism over his decision to withdraw troops from Syria. Most notably, Jim Mattis resigned as secretary of defense in protest.

Trump’s answer to the critiques? He tweeted: “I campaigned on getting out of Syria and other places. … Just doing what I said I was going to do!”

His allies on Fox News similarly defended the president’s withdrawal by arguing, “This is one of the reasons people voted for him.”

But Trump’s strongest supporters in the 2016 election were hardly isolationists. In fact, Trump supporters in the Republican primary were actually more hawkish about sending troops to Iraq and Syria than other Republican voters.

Four surveys show that Trump’s primary voters were more likely to support sending troops to the Middle East than Republicans who supported another candidate. In each survey, at least two-thirds of Trump’s primary voters favored sending troops to fight the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

Trump voters’ foreign policy views were even more distinct in the general election. The display below shows that Trump voters were consistently twice as likely as Clinton voters to support sending troops overseas.

Despite Trump’s rhetoric, it’s not surprising that his 2016 base was rather interventionist. Trump’s strongest supporters in the primary and general election were distinguished by their ethnocentric support for whites over minority groups. And Americans with such beliefs tend to have more-hawkish views about foreign policy in general and the “war on terror” in particular.

Nor is it surprising that Trump voters are now much more likely to support the president’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria than Clinton voters (59 percent to 18 percent respectively). Americans often change their opinions about foreign policy based on their views of the president who is guiding it.

But the complete reversal of Democrats’ and Republicans’ support for having troops in Syria underscores the key point: Americans rarely vote based on foreign policy. And Trump’s base certainly did not vote for him because they wanted him to withdraw troops from the Middle East.

Michael Tesler is associate professor of political science at the University of California at Irvine, author of “Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era” (University of Chicago, 2016) and co-author of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America” (Princeton University Press, 2018).