Will Trump's Supporters Ever Blame Him?

The psychology of how voters assign responsibility for policy failures

Win McNamee / Getty / Happy Stock Photo / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

When President Trump’s plan to repeal Obamacare fizzled, his supporters seemed to blame anyone but him.

Soon after the House of Representatives pulled its health-care bill late last month, NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro asked two Trump voters, “who do you blame for what just happened?”

“I mean, the president sold himself as a deal-maker ... We have a Republican president, a Republican Congress. Yet they couldn't close the deal. Do you blame President Trump?” Garcia-Navarro asked.

“No,” responded the Trump voter, Becky Ravenkamp. “I don't think blaming anybody is the solution. I think part of what we're seeing is that the Republicans are starting to get their wings. It's going to take them a little while to figure out how to come together and how to create policy.”

Stat News heard similar responses when its reporters fanned out across Trump Country. The president’s supporters said things like, “We just need to give President Trump time,” or “He did all he could, I think.”

In Little Rock, Arkansas, a retired nurse named Ramona Bourdo, told Reuters, "He can't wave a magic wand. I've not lost confidence in him."

And it’s not just health care. The AP found Trump voters across the country applauding his refugee ban even though it was in legal turmoil. One Trump voter in Durant, Oklahoma, where the president’s proposed budget cuts would hit especially hard, told the Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson he thinks we should “let it go and see what he can do.”

Trump is escaping his supporters’ wrath for now, but his string of high-profile policy flubs raises the question, what would spur his fans to turn on him? Will Trump’s supporters—especially newly converted Republicans—ever  blame him?

It’s possible, political-psychology experts say, but it likely won’t happen for at least a year, and he would have to do something that affects his supporters in a very negative way.

First of all, liberals and conservatives alike are quite reluctant to blame presidents they voted for. As the psychologist Robert Abelson put it, beliefs are like possessions, and people generally want to hold on to theirs. It makes a difference how “sophisticated”—informed—and “reflective”—open minded—a given voter is, but people tend to ignore facts that don’t sit well with their political identities.

We do this in two ways, says University of Oxford professor James Tilley. In the first, selective evaluation, we go easier on the decisions made by our own leaders and parties—think of Obama voters who can never admit there are problems with Obamacare. In the second, selective attribution, we acknowledge there are problems, but we blame it on someone other than the leaders we like—Obamacare was a Republican policy, after all!

In a study, Tilley found this second process—selective attribution—is stronger. People are more willing, in other words, to find someone else to blame than they are to squint and try to see their party’s bad policies in a rosier light.

And who do Republican voters blame when the entire government is stacked with Republicans? Why, Congress, naturally. Sure, some House members and senators might belong to your same party, but at least you aren’t responsible for their electoral victories—some schmucks in Janesville are. “If you voted for Trump quite recently, you’re not going to want to say he cocked everything up,” says Tilley. “But here’s a guy, Paul Ryan, I didn’t actually vote for him, but here’s a chance to blame someone else.”

Indeed, people seemed much more willing to blame Congress for the American Health Care Act than they were to blame Trump. Stat’s interview subjects thought the GOP put together the bill too hastily, while one Republican man in Kingston, New York, told the New York Times, “I liked the idea of repealing Obamacare, but I thought the Republicans would actually have a plan.” Not Trump, that is; The Republicans.

Americans might be less likely to hold the government responsible for things than Brits are, Tilley says, since America relies on the private sector for some things, such as health care, that are responsibilities of the state in other countries. (This is one reason why governments love to privatize things, he says—it’s so much easier to the duck blame when it’s Anthem, rather than the Department of Health and Human Services, that won’t pay a colonoscopy bill.)

One thing going for Trump is how divided the American public has become. Thomas Rudolph, who researches political psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, explains that over the years there’s been an increase in something called trait polarization. “In 1980, you would still think the Republican nominee [for president] was intelligent even if you were a Democrat,” he said. “That has changed.” Now, Trump’s most hardcore Republican supporters are likely to think he’s the smart, capable one, and that Democrats are a bunch of horrible idiots—and vice-versa for ardent liberals. (Of course, both Trump and Hillary Clinton are “very accomplished people,” Rudolph said.) Regardless, this level of partisan rancor increases the odds Trump’s supporters will stick by him, since they see few attractive options on the other side.

There’s typically a few-month honeymoon period for new presidents, Rudolph says. But their policy failures have a cumulative effect, he added, so “a few years from now, he could start losing support even among people who like him.”

Months from now, things might get really bad. When policies start to affect people in very clear, direct ways—premiums go up, jobs dry up—eventually “the person who gets the blame is the president, whether he deserves it or not,” says Kevin Arceneaux, a political scientist and director of the Behavioral Foundations Lab at Temple University. That’s why Obama was blamed for Obamacare—and why Trump’s strategy of blaming Obama for the law might not work for long.

“Calling it Obamacare works while [Obama]’s in office,” Arceneaux said, “but once he’s not in office, that will lose its punch among those [independent] floating voters. Their question will be, ‘why haven’t you fixed things? I don’t see Obama anywhere around here.’”

Even among his supporters, that is, Trump’s hall pass has a time limit, and the clock is ticking. As one Trump supporter put it to the Post, the president has 10 strikes before he’s out, in her mind: “I have high hopes for Trump, but if he’s going to be cutting these kinds of programs, that’s going to be [strike] one.”