Will Donald Trump’s call to profile Muslims offend voters?

Orlando, Florida, June 13, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

After the horrific mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando on June 12, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump reiterated his concern that Muslim immigrants in the U.S. could be a security risk.

The shooter, Omar Mateen, a U.S.-born citizen whose parents came to the United States from Afghanistan, pledged his support for the Islamic State, or ISIS, during the attack. Not only did Trump promise to suspend immigration from parts of the world tied to terrorism against the United States, he also charged that Muslim Americans were complicit in the shooting, stating:

They know what is going on. They know that he was bad. They knew the people in San Bernardino were bad. But you know what, they didn’t turn them in and we had death and destruction.

A few days later, he called for increased surveillance of American mosques, saying:

We have to maybe check, respectfully, the mosques and we have to check other places because this is a problem that, if we don’t solve it, it’s going to eat our country alive.

He later added that profiling of Muslims in the U.S. is “common sense.”

In its coverage of his reaction, The New York Times wrote, “he was wagering that voters are stirred more by their fears of Islamic terrorism than any concerns they may have about his flouting traditions of tolerance and respect for religious diversity.”

Many elected Republicans have distanced themselves from Trump’s remarks, but what about the American public?

I’m a political scientist who studies public opinion about policies related to America’s changing ethnic composition, and research I conducted a few years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks may shed some light on how Trump’s reaction to the mass shooting are resonating with the electorate.

Views on detention, internment

A Trump supporter, Virginia, June 10, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

In a nationally representative survey conducted in 2004, I asked respondents:

Since Sept. 11, some law enforcement agencies have stopped and searched people who are Arab or of Middle Eastern descent to see if they may be involved in potential terrorist activities. Do you approve or disapprove of this kind of profiling?

I also asked half of the respondents:

If there were another terrorist attack in the U.S. with Arab or Middle-Eastern suspects, would you support or oppose allowing the government to hold Arabs who are U.S. citizens in camps until it can be determined whether they have links to terrorist organizations?“

The other half was asked the same question but with "Arab immigrants” replacing “Arabs who are U.S. citizens.”

My questions asked about people who are Arab or Middle Eastern, while Donald Trump’s comments are targeted at Muslims. These groups are not the same. But I believe my survey results shed some light on how Americans view Trump’s comments because many Americans have trouble identifying the difference between these groups. Indeed, many Americans even confuse Sikhs, adherents of a religion originating in Southeast Asia, with Arabs and Muslims.

Overall, the results of my research showed broad support (66 percent) for increased searches of people who are Arab and Middle Eastern.

The results also showed that roughly one-third of Americans supported placing people in camps until their innocence can be determined: 34 percent supported interning Arab and Middle Eastern immigrants while 29.5 percent supported interning Arab and Middle Eastern American citizens. Most of this support came from whites, Republicans and people without a college degree.

According to my survey, the people who were more likely than others to support profiling were people who:

  • feared they or someone they know might be a victim of a terrorist attack
  • felt that whites are discriminated against, and
  • thought that in order to be a “true American” someone must be Christian, white, and born in America.

The aggregate level of support for internment was around 30 percent.

Among the six percent of respondents who strongly agreed that “true Americans” are Christian, white and born in America, support for interning Arab or Middle Eastern Americans was 73 percent.

Among the 25 percent of respondents who said it was somewhat important that Americans have these characteristics, support for interning U.S. citizens of Arab or Middle Eastern origin was 51 percent.

These findings are particularly relevant for our current election. Exit polls from the 2016 Republican primaries show that Trump has done particularly well among whites without college degrees who feel that they are being left behind.

Trump’s call to “make America great again” hearkens back to a mythical past that disaffected whites yearn for. There is likely an overlap between the whites in my study who resist defining American identity as inclusive of people with nonwhite, non-Christian and non-European origins and who think that white Americans are getting the short end of the stick.

Put simply, I believe the groups most attracted to Trump throughout the primaries are the same groups that were particularly likely to support ethnic profiling back in 2004.

Some portion of the electorate is made up of voters who welcome Trump’s rejection of pluralism and inclusivity in the name of national security. The question now is how big this group is – and whether they will turn out to vote. Will Trump’s stance mobilize opposition and increase the ranks of voters who support diversity and inclusion? We won’t know the answer to these questions until November.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.