When President Trump arrived in Harrisburg for his 100 days rally this past weekend, he seized on a message that has been central to his populist appeal: that the political and media establishment remains fundamentally out of touch with the concerns of average Americans. “Their priorities are not my priorities and they’re not your priorities,” said Trump. “Their agenda is not your agenda.”
As it happens, recent polling offers a chance to test that claim. Comparing the views of foreign policy elites with the public at large, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs actually found a broad consensus in favor of “establishment” opinions that Trump had questioned on the campaign trail, like support for NATO and an active U.S. role in the world. But there were a few crucial exceptions, where voters differed sharply from the consensus of the Washington foreign policy “blob”:
Opinion leaders were much more convinced than the public of trade’s ability to create jobs and were much less likely than the American public to prioritize protecting American jobs as a foreign policy goal. These differences highlight the potential appeal of candidates who emphasize trade’s detrimental impact on jobs, despite healthy public support for free trade and globalization.
Republican leaders and Republicans among the public starkly disagreed on the threat posed by immigration, with the GOP public far more likely to consider large numbers of immigrants and refugees entering the United States as a critical threat.
In other words, on the few foreign policy issues where there was a stark divide between elites and the public, Trump did appear more in tune with the public’s concerns. Consider, for instance, Trump’s signature issue of immigration. In 2016, 67% of self-identified Republicans considered mass immigration to be critical threat to U.S. security, but only 19% of Republican leaders felt the same way:
Or, to take another example: last year, only 25% of Republican opinion leaders felt that protecting American jobs constituted a “very important” foreign policy goal. By contrast, 78% of Republican voters agreed with that statement: a whopping 56-point disconnect between the GOP’s leadership and base.
In both of these cases, Trump was well-positioned to exploit the gap between elite opinion and popular concerns. That does not make Trump an-all knowing savant, but it does suggest why he may now be returning to the nationalist posturing of his campaign, renewing calls to build a wall and tear up free trade agreements even as he backtracks on other foreign policy heterodoxies (like declaring NATO obsolete) that have little grounding in public opinion. For better or worse, whether symbolically or substantively, Trump is likely to double down on core issues like trade and immigration where he enjoys a competitive advantage over an establishment he can depict as out of touch.