By Shibley Telhami, University of Maryland

*This memo is part of POMEPS Studies 24: New Challenges to Public and Policy Engagement. Click here to download the entire publication as a free, open access PDF and to see each of the individual memos.

Supporters of President Donald Trump, and many empowered by his electoral success and message, had been mobilized even before he won the general election, to put forth counter-narratives to those prevailing in the American mainstream. The anti-establishment mood, common to majorities of Americans, right and left, was seen as an opportunity to push alternate–sometimes extreme, even racist–views. Regardless of where Trump or his official advisors fall, those empowered by them will launch an assault on many of the prevalent mainstream ideas. We already see hints that this will include how they frame Islam and Muslims, and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

At some level, this is merely a function of a deep partisan divide on these issues that has been captured by polls over the past few years; in the primary debates, Democratic and Republican candidates expressed vastly different world views on the relationship between Islam and terrorism, suspicion of Muslims and support or opposition to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The Trump factor and extremist positions—such as banning all Muslims from entering the United States, coupled with the deep anti-establishment mood, further empowered extremist positions.

Focus on “Islamic terrorism” or even drawing links between the nature of the Islamic faith and terrorism is likely to become more common. So too will the assault on the need for a Palestinian state, whether Israel’s control of the West Bank is an occupation, and whether Israel has the right to annex parts of the West Bank into Israel.

The question is whether these efforts are likely to succeed in shifting American public attitudes during the presidency of Donald Trump.

To analyze the expected impact of Trump’s presidency on public attitudes of Islam and Muslims, and aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s important to understand the dynamics that significantly impacted public attitudes during the 2016 election year. I designed a poll that probed American attitudes on two specific aspects: favorable/unfavorable views of Islam and Muslims; and support for punitive measures against Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Four polls during the election year revealed extraordinary, progressive and unexpected shifts that cannot be explained by events during that year. Attitudes toward “Muslim people” became progressively more favorable from 53 percent in November 2015 to 70 percent in October 2016. Even attitudes toward Islam itself (generally more unfavorable than attitudes toward Muslims) showed significant improvement: favorable attitudes went from 37 percent in November 2015 to 49 percent in October 2016, reaching the highest favorable level since 9/11.

On Israel-Palestine, there was a large shift in the number of people favoring imposition of sanctions on Israel over its settlement policy. Support for sanctions or more serious action went up from 38 percent in November 2014 to 46 percent in November 2016.

Source: Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development Polls, Nov. 2015 conducted Nov. 4 – 10, 2015; May 2016 (Pre-Orlando) conducted May 20 -31, 2016; June 2016 (Post-Orlando) conducted June 24 – 30, 2016. University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, Oct. 2016 conducted Oct. 5 -14, 2016.

Source: Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development Polls, Nov. 2015 conducted Nov. 4 – 10, 2015; May 2016 (Pre-Orlando) conducted May 20 -31, 2016; June 2016 (Post-Orlando) conducted June 24 – 30, 2016. University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, Oct. 2016 conducted Oct. 5 -14, 2016.

Source: Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development Polls, Nov. 2014 conducted Nov. 14 – 19, 2014; Nov. 2015 conducted Nov. 4 – 10, 2015. University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, Nov. 2016 conducted November 18 – 23, 2016.

This kind of large shift does not normally take place in one year unless there are some extraordinary events taking place. In fact, there were some consequential events that would have led one to expect the opposite shift: terrorism in the name of Islam in San Bernardino and Orlando, as well as a heated campaign year during which the Republican candidates, and many of their supporters, voiced much anti-Muslim rhetoric. On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, throughout the election year, Republican candidates competed as to who was the strongest supporter of Israel and its Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Democrats lowered the profile of this issue during the campaign. So, how are these kind of shifts possible in a single year?

One hint comes from the partisan divide on these issues. Almost all the shifts came from Democrats and Independents, not Republicans. Among Democrats, the shift was significant enough to impact overall results. Favorable attitudes toward Muslims improved from 67 percent to 81 percent. Favorable attitudes toward Islam went from 51 percent to 66 percent. And support for sanctions/more serious action against Israeli settlements among Democrats went up from 48 percent to 60 percent. The gap between Democrats and Republicans grew from 16 percent to 29 percent.

Source: Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development Polls, Nov. 2015 conducted Nov. 4 – 10, 2015; May 2016 (Pre-Orlando) conducted May 20 -31, 2016; June 2016 (Post-Orlando) conducted June 24 – 30, 2016. University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, Oct. 2016 conducted Oct. 5 -14, 2016.

Source: Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development Polls, Nov. 2015 conducted Nov. 4 – 10, 2015; May 2016 (Pre-Orlando) conducted May 20 -31, 2016; June 2016 (Post-Orlando) conducted June 24 – 30, 2016. University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, Oct. 2016 conducted Oct. 5 -14, 2016.

Source: Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development Polls, Nov. 2014 conducted Nov. 14 – 19, 2014; Nov. 2015 conducted Nov. 4 – 10, 2015. University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, Nov. 2016 conducted November 18 – 23, 2016.

As on almost all issues, partisan divisions intensified during a highly divisive election year—including on Islam and Muslims, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And the more one side emphasized the issue (as happened with Trump on Islam and Muslims) the more the other side took the opposite position. This was also true on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, where Republican candidates invoked Israel and its Prime Minister more than any other country or leader during their primary debates; all the while, even as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was not a priority, Democrats remembered the role Netanyahu played against Obama’s signature foreign policy issue, the Iran nuclear deal). So, sharp partisanship during a particularly divisive election year provides some of the explanation for the shift.

But there was another related aspect that intensified reaction. Because Middle East-related issues touched on Americans’ top priority issue (fighting ISIS, which ranked first across the political spectrum throughout the year), the stakes for politicians and opinion leaders were especially high. For Democratic politicians, ceding the narrative to Republicans on these issues meant losing the election battle. Everyone had a greater incentive to put forth a counter-narrative, from the leading candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, to President Barack Obama. This counter narrative, re-enforced by sympathetic opinion leaders, added more weight to the sharp divide and may have had impact not only on Democrats but also on Independents.

Sure, there are demographic trends favoring the Democrats on these issues: expanding segments of the American public, such as millennials and Hispanic, Asian, and African Americans, tend to have more favorable views on Islam and Muslims and tend to be somewhat less supportive of Israel. But the impact of these trends cannot be felt in one year, which suggests that the dynamics articulated above are the principle causes.

So what does this suggest about the impact of Trump’s presidency on public attitudes?

As suggested earlier, there will almost inevitably be an assault on dominant narratives on both the Palestinian-Israeli issue and on Islam and Muslims. The question is: how will this play out? What’s the chance it will succeed in changing public attitudes? What could be learned from the past year?

At some level, despite the uniqueness of Donald Trump, there are some similarities with the time when the administration of George W. Bush took over after two terms of Bill Clinton. In the months prior to 9/11, Bush pursued a policy that pushed against many of his predecessor’s policies. He gave more license to Israel in its confrontation with the Palestinians, lowered that issue in American priorities, and many of his supporters advocated a view of Islam and Muslims that’s more compatible with notions of civilizational clash. But, even though Democrats were on the defensive, it’s unlikely that the effort would have succeeded without the 9/11 disaster that enabled reshuffling of the political deck, and mobilized almost all Americans behind the White House in its immediate aftermath.

The success of a narrative campaign, led by groups and individuals empowered by the atmosphere created by the Trump presidency, (even if not directly sponsored or supported by his administration), is dependent on Trump’s own popularity and policy success and on the groups and leaders who have incentive to counter that narrative. What is already clear from the presidential transition and the first few days of the Trump administration is this: partisanship did not die, or even diminish immediately after the election. And polls show the president starts his term with unprecedented unpopularity.

Evidence suggests that during the election year, attitudes of most Americans toward Islam and Muslims improved overall precisely because Trump the candidate was seen to have the opposite view. Trump the president should have more sway. But he is starting at place where partisanship is not diminishing, and where his presidential rhetoric mirrors his words as a partisan candidate.

The incentive to counter Trump’s views could not be missed in the historic Women’s March the day after the inauguration. And Trump has managed to alienate not only the media, but also many members of Congress, by attacking the Washington establishment in his inaugural speech. In this environment, the impact of narratives pushed by groups that draw empowerment directly from Trump’s success could be limited–or even generate the opposite results.

But we are at the beginning of the administration, and things could change quickly. Government actions and policies are likely to set the agenda of the conversation in the coming weeks. Republicans control both the White House and Congress; while many congressional leaders are frustrated with Trump, they want to push their central issues, especially on Supreme Court appointments and Obamacare. Democrats are lacking a clear leader and, more importantly, the pulpit of the presidency. Crises are inevitable, and those could reshape public priorities and the national conversations, and presidents usually have advantages in their ability to exploit crises in their favor. Much depends not only on what America does, but also on what others do.

If only two months ago I had to predict the likely trends in American public attitudes after the election toward Islam and Muslims I would have expected some reversal of the favorable change that took place during the election year, while still expecting a deep partisan divide—regardless of who had won the election. A few days into the Trump administration, I now think the reversal could be limited. The partisanship is not diminishing and seems unlikely to be overturned without an extraordinary crisis; and the incentive for leaders and groups to advance counter-narratives to those of Trump’s supporters remains high.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the counter-narrative could be harder to come by. Much of the counter-Republican narrative on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came from Obama’s White House, strongly supported by rank and file Democrats. But congressional Democrats (now narrative leaders for the party) have been less in harmony with the rank and file on this issue, as demonstrated by the majority criticizing the anti-Israeli-settlement United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 that Obama allowed to pass. Here too, much also depends on what happens on the ground and whether it will raise the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Americans’ priorities.

The Trump era is like no other, in part because the president himself is like no other. But the very fact that he started his administration sounding more like a candidate than a president means that his ability to empower major paradigmatic shifts in American public attitudes will be limited, at least in the short term.

Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development and the Director of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Will Trump-Era Narrative Assaults Shift American Public Attitudes?