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Evan Horowitz | Quick Study

What does Trump’s success as anti-immigration candidate say about US?

Donald Trump spoke during a campaign rally in Atlanta. Branden Camp/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s high-flying campaign has been fueled by a fervent opposition to immigration, from his now-infamous words about how Mexico is sending criminals and rapists to the United States through his various promises to build a wall along the Mexican border, deport unauthorized immigrants in large numbers, make it harder for companies to hire high-skill immigrants, and temporarily block Muslims from entering the country.

What does Trump’s unexpected success as the anti-immigration candidate say about America? Has the United States, once a bastion of hope to the world’s most desperate, become a society on lock-down?


Actually, Trump seems out of step with Americans at large. A growing majority believe that immigration should either be kept at its current level or increased. And a well-respected international survey has found that Americans don’t just tolerate foreigners; they really trust them.

How do Americans feel about immigration?

For several decades, Gallup has been asking Americans to share their feelings on the subject of immigration, and never before has their been such a strong pro-immigration consensus.

As of last summer, 25 percent of Americans said the country should accept more immigrants, with another 40 percent supporting the current approach. That leaves just a third of respondents advocating tighter immigration restrictions, a number that’s been declining in recent years.

Contrary to the caustic rhetoric of the campaign trail, then, US residents feel pretty good about immigration. If this seems surprising, remember that Trump isn’t getting anywhere near a majority of voters. He’s winning with a minority of a minority — something like a 30 percent share of likely Republican voters.

No question, Trump’s supporters see things differently. According to the Wall Street Journal, 81 percent believe that immigration hurts the United States more than it helps, which is an incredible concentration of anti-immigration sentiment.


Is the US less immigrant-friendly than the rest of the world?

It’s tricky to compare opinions or beliefs across countries, given the range of languages and cultural histories. But the World Values Survey makes an attempt, interviewing thousands of people in dozens of countries and comparing the results.

Among the questions are several attempts to gauge people’s comfort with immigrants and foreigners. Questions like: How much do you trust people of another nationality? On these sorts of questions, the US looks extremely tolerant.

When compared with the rest of the world, the people of the United States have a rare capacity to trust people from other countries, and a generous sense that the promise and perils of economic life should be shared between citizens and immigrants alike.

Here’s how the US stacks up, when it comes to the trust residents place in people from other nations.

And when asked whether local citizens should get a leg up in tough economic times, only about half of Americans say yes, which is strikingly low compared with the global average, putting the US among the top 10 on this measure of international solidarity.

What does this mean for Trump?

Maybe nothing. It’s entirely possible to win a presidential primary with the support of a passionate minority, and Trump seems to have found one.

But the general election is different. Head-to-head against a Democratic rival, Trump would need a much broader coalition. And with surveys suggesting that America is a very tolerant place, full of citizens willing to maintain or expand immigration, it’s hard to imagine he could build such a coalition with his anti-immigration message.


This is one reason pundits and political analysts sometimes talk about Trump’s “ceiling,” the maximum amount of support he can get, given how unpopular his positions are outside the universe of Republican primary voters.

But maybe it would be better to borrow one of Trump’s own favorite images and say, instead, that if he continues to buck public opinion with a staunch opposition to immigration, his campaign is likely to hit a wall.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the US. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.