President Trump’s often-controversial foreign policy pronouncements, which have generated criticism abroad, have produced sharp divisions within the Republican coalition, with the party badly split on the issues of trade, immigration, climate change and the value of U.S. alliances, according to a new poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
The council’s survey finds that Trump’s most fervent supporters solidly support his views on these issues, but Republicans with less favorable impressions of the president are far less enthusiastic and are more closely aligned in their attitudes with the overall population.
The survey also underscores the degree to which Trump, despite the bully pulpit of the White House, has been unable to shift public opinion in his direction on foreign policy issues. In fact, the opposite has occurred. Public attitudes have moved away from a number of the positions he espoused during his campaign and since.
Compared with a year ago, Americans are more positive about the value of trade and see immigration and refugees as less of a threat to the country. More people than a year ago, although not a majority, describe climate change as a critical threat to the country, though fewer are positive in their view of the Paris climate agreement.
Trump’s most controversial views have yet to find widespread support. As the council notes in its report, “The results [of the survey] suggest their attraction remains limited . . . Aside from the president’s core supporters, most Americans prefer the type of foreign policy that has been typical of U.S. administrations, be they Republican or Democrat, since World War II.”
In office, the president has walked back from some of his most controversial pronouncements. Those shifts have put him somewhat closer to the views of the overall population. But the survey also highlights the degree to which things he said during the campaign captured the sentiments of a portion of the electorate, and how they continue to embrace his worldview.
The survey is one more example of how Trump’s candidacy and presidency have split the Republican coalition. Last week, those same divisions shaped the Alabama Republican Senate primary campaign. In that contest, former state Supreme Court justice Roy Moore, running as an anti-establishment outsider, defeated incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, who enjoyed the support of the president and the GOP establishment in Congress.
On foreign policy matters, two of Trump’s signature issues have been trade and immigration. He has talked tough on trade, railing against multilateral free-trade agreements and arguing that they have destroyed U.S. jobs and benefited other countries far more than the United States. He has called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) one of the worst trade deals.
On immigration, he has repeatedly talked about the threat to the country, whether from undocumented immigrants coming from Mexico and Latin America across the U.S.-Mexican border, or those seeking refuge from conflicts in the Middle East.
In both cases, there is more support today for positions at odds with Trump’s views than a year ago. On three measures of trade — whether it is good for the economy, good for consumers “like you” and good for creating U.S. jobs — Americans are more positive than they were in 2016.
The view of trade as being good for job creation has risen from 40 percent agreeing in 2016 to 57 percent agreeing today. Perceptions about the value of trade to the U.S. economy have risen from 59 percent to 72 percent. On how trade affects consumers, 78 percent say it is good, compared with 70 percent a year ago.
However, a majority of Americans agree with the president’s view that trade and outsourcing are more responsible for job loss than automation, although Republicans are much more likely than Democrats or independents to express that viewpoint. At the same time, 60 percent of Democrats say the president’s policies are likely to do more to harm American workers than to protect them, while more than 8 in 10 core Trump supporters say those policies will benefit workers. The Chicago Council defined this group as those with a “very favorable” view of Trump.
On immigration, 37 percent of Americans say “large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the U.S.” pose a critical threat to the country. That compares with 43 percent a year ago and represents a new low in polling by the Chicago Council since 1990. On a related issue that has long sparked controversy in the immigration debate, 65 percent of Americans say undocumented immigrants should be provided a path to citizenship, with or without conditions. That compares with 58 percent a year ago and 50 percent in 2013.
On both questions, however, there are significant partisan differences. Republicans are about three times as likely as Democrats to call immigration a threat.
Notably, 15 years ago, a year after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the views of Republicans, Democrats and independents were almost identical — and positive — on the question of whether immigration posed a threat to U.S. vital interests over the coming decade. The biggest changes have come among Democrats and independents, whose concern has steadily decreased.
The survey reveals wide differences among Republicans on trade and immigration issues. For example, 53 percent of all Americans say that NAFTA is good for the U.S. economy, including 49 percent of non-Trump Republicans (those who have a less than enthusiastic impression of the president). But just 20 percent of Trump Republicans (those with a very favorable impression of the president) say the agreement is good, while 76 percent say it is a bad for the economy.
A similar pattern, although not so large, exists on immigration. The survey finds that 62 percent of non-Trump Republicans say undocumented immigrants should be allowed to apply for citizenship, with or without a penalty. That is close to the population at large. But among Trump Republicans, more than 4 in 10 say they should be required to leave the country.
This year, Trump announced that the United States would pull out of the Paris climate agreement. The Chicago Council survey began sampling opinion after that decision and found that more than 6 in 10 Americans were in favor of remaining in the agreement. That is down from 71 percent in 2016, one of the few cases in which attitudes have shifted toward Trump’s position.
The reason for movement in Trump’s direction is that Republicans overall are significantly more negative about the agreement today. A year ago, 57 percent of all Republicans supported U.S. participation. Today that is down to 37 percent — with 53 percent of non-Trump Republicans supporting the agreement but just 23 percent of Trump Republicans saying the same.
Trump’s campaign rhetoric on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alarmed U.S. allies. He described the alliance as obsolete and complained that few NATO partners were spending what they should on defense. As president, he initially appeared reticent to commit his administration to support NATO’s Article 5, which calls for common defense if any members are attacked. Eventually, he made a statement of support.
Today, almost 7 in 10 Americans say they see NATO as “still essential to U.S. security.” That is a slightly higher level of support compared with a year ago. Notably, that view is shared by majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents. Even 54 percent of core Trump supporters regard NATO as essential to security.
But there are significant differences over how the United States should respond if NATO allies do not step up their defense spending commitments. A majority of Americans say the United States should use persuasion and diplomacy to achieve that goal, but a majority of core Trump supporters favor threats to withhold the commitment to defend NATO partners until they spend more on defense.
This is another case in which non-Trump Republicans part company with Trump’s core supporters. Slightly more than 4 in 10 Republicans who see the president as “somewhat favorable” or worse support withholding the U.S. commitment to defend NATO allies, compared with 6 in 10 Republicans who are enthusiastic about the president.
Trump has espoused an “America first” worldview, and his core supporters nonetheless want the United States to assert itself internationally. A bare majority of core Trump supporters say the United States should play a dominant role in the world, while a majority of Americans overall say they prefer that the United States play a shared role with other nations.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll was conducted online from June 27 to July 19 among 2,020 adults with GfK’s Knowledge Panel, an online survey panel whose participants were recruited through random sampling methods. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.4 points, which is higher for subgroups.