The Optimism and Anxiety of Trump Voters

Many Americans who support the incoming president feel hopeful about the future. But even some who plan to attend his inauguration are wary about what he’ll do.

Supporters cheer for President-elect Donald Trump at an event on his post-election thank-you tour. (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters)

Joseph Richardson believes Donald Trump is already working to turn his campaign promises into a reality. “He started talking to companies about keeping jobs in the U.S. even before taking office, and when it comes to business I think people do listen because he’s very successful,” the 23-year-old Trump voter from Delaware said in a recent interview. High hopes for the incoming administration, though, haven’t necessarily translated into fuzzy feelings toward Trump himself. “At the same time, he’s kind of a jackass,” he added.

When Trump takes over the presidency on Friday, he will face a deeply divided nation, and may be on track for historically low approval ratings in office. Many Hillary Clinton voters, shocked and devastated by the outcome of the election, remain unwilling to rally around Trump. But the way his supporters feel about the future, and the candidate they elected to the presidency, may be more nuanced—and, in some cases, more surprising.

Interviews with Trump voters as well as recent polling data suggest that his supporters feel optimistic about the future and have high expectations for his presidency. There are indications, however, that a significant segment of Trump’s coalition is not entirely enchanted with his actions or public persona, while other Trump voters remain skeptical of the power of the incoming administration to improve the quality of life in America.

Ninety percent of Trump voters are optimistic about the next four years with Trump as president, an Economist/YouGov survey of American voters, conducted on the eve of inauguration, found. A majority of Trump voters—57 percent—rated the incoming president very favorably, and another 36 percent rated him somewhat favorably. But only 48 percent reported liking Trump “a lot” as a person, while 36 percent said they like him “somewhat.” Put another way: The vast majority of Trump voters like him personally to some degree, but even among his own supporters he is far from universally beloved.

Trump’s struggle to win over the American public as a whole—along with the generally positive, yet not entirely approving, views that Trump voters have of their candidate, is a fitting aftermath to what could be fairly described as a lesser-of-two-evils election. Trump and Clinton, after all, were historically unpopular presidential candidates. Had Clinton won the election, a similar dynamic would likely be playing out among Democrats since many of her supporters cast a vote for her primarily because they didn’t want Trump as their next president.

Still, if most of Trump’s voters don’t actually like him a lot as an individual, then what do they think are his flaws, do they have any concerns about the incoming administration, and what explains their optimism for the future all the same?

One reason for optimism among Trump voters is they wanted change, and they got it. Trump lacks political experience, and has never held political office, a quality that appealed to his supporters at a time when public trust in institutions remains historically low.

A number of Trump supporters I spoke with this week, many of whom were in Washington, D.C., for the inauguration, expressed optimism about Trump’s political outsider status, but readily admitted it creates a lot of uncertainty. “He’s just a different kind of president, and I’m looking at that as kind of exciting,” said Lynn Hargest, a Trump voter from Falls Church, Virginia, who hopes to attend Friday’s inauguration ceremony. “We’re all taking a chance. Even a lot of the Trump voters I know, we look at it like you’re taking a chance. We don’t really know what we’re going to get sometimes,” she added. “A lot of people voted Trump because they didn’t want Hillary. It wasn’t so much that they love him so much, but he does grow on you. He did grow on me.”

For some Trump voters, though, that uncertainty has caused anxiety. “The lack of experience is good and bad,” said Doug Baker, a 55-year-old Trump voter who traveled to Washington from North Carolina for the inauguration. “A new direction isn’t necessarily bad, but not knowing where the trip wires are, and who to rub right and wrong could be an issue.” When it comes to foreign policy, Baker feels particularly concerned about Trump’s inexperience. “We have to get along with China, with Russia, with what have historically been either adversaries or allies, depending on the situation,” he said. “What I’d really like to see is that the world says, ‘It’s okay,’ because everybody’s nervous right now. They’ve never seen this before.”

At the same time, the incoming president’s lack of political experience may make it easier for his supporters to view him as a blank slate, which could be appealing in its own right. “It seems very likely that many people who supported him are seeing him as they want to see him,” Kathy Frankovic, a YouGov consultant and former director of surveys at CBS News, said in an interview. Frankovic cited recent polling as evidence that his supporters may be projecting onto him their hopes about what kind of president he will be: In a January survey, 40 percent of Trump voters described him as a moderate, while another 41 percent described him as conservative.

Overall, most Trump supporters have high hopes for the next four years, and expect the candidate they voted for will be a successful president. In a Pew Research Center survey conducted in the immediate aftermath of the election, 88 percent reported feeling confident about the kind of president Trump will be, while only 10 percent had serious concerns. An overwhelming 97 percent predicted that his presidency would be a success over the next four years.

Of course, even voters who feel confident in Trump’s ability to lead the country may occasionally feel doubt creep in. “Right now, everyone’s mad at him, the Russians, the Chinese, everyone, but they’re all being played,” said Jane Booth, a Trump supporter who also traveled to Washington from North Carolina. “He’s playing them, and there’s going to be a big ‘I told you so,’ in a year or two,” she said confidently, before her voice trailed off and faltered slightly. “Hopefully,” she added, suddenly sounding less certain. “I hope there will be.”

For Trump voters who believe the status quo under President Obama has been grim, the possibility of a shakeup of epic proportions may be a welcome relief. In a post-election PRRI/The Atlantic survey, 52 percent of Trump voters said that they feel like the country has changed so much, they often feel like strangers in their own land. Another 66 percent said they viewed the election as the last chance to stop America’s decline. “I really don’t like what I see culturally,” Hargest said, adding that conservatives have felt silenced in recent years. “Sometimes when you change things too quickly, people don’t like that. And I think it went a little too far one way with the political correctness, and now people are rebelling, basically.”

“The sentiment that things are going badly really ran through the whole campaign, and not just economically but culturally,” Robert Jones, the CEO of PRRI, said in an interview. “Trump voters aren’t necessarily convinced he’s their savior, but they believe that in all his unpredictability maybe something good will happen.”

Trump’s supporters now have a chance to see if he can deliver on his pledge to “make America great again,” though what exactly that means will undoubtedly vary depending on who you ask.

“I think it’s going to be more of a constitutional presidency,” said 32-year-old Kyle Young, a Trump supporter from New York who traveled to Washington for the inauguration. “I feel like we need to get back to the Constitution, we need to focus on what is in the Constitution, and honor and respect that.” When asked if he thinks Trump is well-versed in the Constitution, he replied: “I don’t think anybody is going to come into office perfect. It’s going to take a lot of learning because he’s an outsider,” but added that Trump has “enormous potential.”

Grant Waterworth, a 49-year-old Trump supporter from California, is hoping Trump can improve healthcare, and help to fix the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. “Our bridges are the worst,” he said. “I think what Trump’s going to do is really get this infrastructure built again. He’s going to rebuild it.”

At the same time, while Trump voters may be broadly optimistic he’ll make a good president, that doesn’t mean they think their own lives will necessarily change for the better. Slightly less than half of all Trump voters—at 49 percent—think the quality of life in their local community will improve in the future, according to the post-election PRRI/The Atlantic survey. Forty-five percent predicted there would be no significant change, and another 5 percent predicted life will actually get worse.

Some wary Trump voters hope he exceeds their not-so-high expectations. “I kind of just hope that Trump proves everyone with a negative view about him wrong, myself included,” 25-year-old Stephanie Glantz told me. She had traveled to Washington for the inauguration, which she described as “kind of a bucket-list thing,” but explained that though she voted for Trump, she doesn’t consider herself a supporter, mainly viewing her decision as a vote against Clinton. Glantz identifies as pro-choice and feels concerned that Trump could wind up appointing more than one justice to the Supreme Court. “He has the potential to change a lot of things, particularly in the area of women’s rights,” she said, “that’s the biggest thing that I’m worried about.”

Mike Calkins, a 48-year-old from Washington state who’ll be attending Friday’s ceremony, worries about Trump’s temperament. “He’s arrogant, so is he going to be able to work well with foreign ministers, and representatives of other countries? You have to be willing to work with someone, you have to listen to them, you can’t just shut them out,” he said. Still, Calkins feels “kind of optimistic,” about what Trump’s administration will do. “I think some of the things he says he needs to kind of bite his tongue on, and I don’t agree with all of his policies, but I think he can put together a good Cabinet, and that’s why I voted for Trump.”

The mixed feelings of some Trump voters in Washington this week highlight the varied and at times conflicting expectations of the individuals who make up the next president’s coalition. Trump’s supporters mostly seem optimistic about the future, even if they don’t know quite what to expect. And many feel confident he’ll succeed, though that doesn’t mean they see him as a perfect person or as a leader capable of bringing about dramatic improvement in their own lives. “People are perfectly capable of holding seemingly contradictory opinions about a person as a president and a person as an individual,” Frankovic said.

Once Trump assumes the presidency, it will start to become more clear what kind of change he will bring to the country, and how much. All presidents risk puncturing the high expectations of their supporters when they take office. But given Trump’s inability so far to win the approval of Americans who did not vote for him, maintaining the loyalty of his voters could be critical to create a bare minimum of public support for the decisions he makes in office, and give him hope for a second term. If Trump does not deliver the change his supporters want, they may back away from him, especially if they already harbor doubts over his qualifications. In an era of intense partisan division, though, his supporters might also double down on their support if they feel he faces unfair attacks and opposition. After all, they have remained loyal to Trump through many ups and downs already.