Special feature: American public opinion on aid in the Trump era

Aug 29, 2017

WASHINGTON — In this series on the history of development, we are examining more than 60 years of polling on opinions toward aid to better understand effective messaging, common misperceptions the public has about development, and some myths the development community has about public opinion. In part one, we explored the often surprising history of how the American public has viewed aid programs. In part two, we examined how messaging shapes the way the public reacts to assistance.

So now comes the question on most readers minds: what does this wealth of polling data tell us about the public’s opinion of foreign assistance during the Trump presidency? And perhaps more importantly, what can and should the development community do about it?

Foreign aid and America First

Despite a core platform of smaller government, it is not fair to say Republicans are historically against foreign aid. Republicans usually bash aid when they are out of the White House and embrace it when they are in. In fact, some of the largest jumps in aid spending came under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The relatively positive legacies of programs started under Bush, such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the President’s Malaria Initiative, continue to resonate with congressional Republicans, particularly conservative internationalists such Senators Bob Corker, John McCain and Lindsey Graham. These are strong messengers with the potential to sway public opinion.

But Donald Trump is an anomaly like the U.S. foreign aid program has never seen before. He is the first sitting Republican president ever to propose such major cuts in international development, and more importantly he does not seem to believe there is inherent value in investments designed to increase the number of free-market democracies around the globe — a longstanding and bipartisan pillar of American values and strategy abroad. Trump’s worldview, packaged under the “America First” doctrine, is perhaps best seen as driven by a “zero-sum” calculus. In sharp contrast, international development as an endeavor is built around an understanding that effective human development is “win-win.”

In his first major foreign policy speech outlining a new strategy on Afghanistan, Trump denounced nation-building, but recommended “the integration of all instruments of American power — diplomatic, economic and military — toward a successful outcome.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also expressed striking indifference to the form of government that the Afghan people embrace. Then just days later, the administration announced it was withholding $100 million of aid to Egypt, and delaying another $195 million in funds due to lack of progress on human rights concerns. All of which paints a very confusing portrait as to how the administration will approach soft power around the globe.

It feels like public opinion toward aid could go several ways under Trump. First, if congressional Republicans remain on Trump’s side, it could simply become polarized along party lines with Republicans supporting deep cuts, Democrats opposing them, and independents genuinely queasy by the scale and speed of the cuts. There are a good number of issues that seem to be falling in this pattern, but thus far leading Republicans on foreign policy in Congress and elsewhere have been opposed to gutting assistance programs. Current and former military leaders have also stepped out in clear defense of diplomacy and aid, often being more vocal on the topic than the secretary of state.

Former USAID Deputy Administrator Jim Kunder discounts the idea that debate over aid will simply become a partisan political issue. “No, not as long as military personnel understand its utility, and they do. And not as long as religious and humanitarian-oriented communities in the United States, which span the partisan spectrum, see value in foreign assistance, and they do.”

What may be more likely is that the issue of aid becomes divided less along party lines, and more along pro-Trump versus anti-Trump lines, with his core 30-40 percent of supporters embracing sweeping cuts and potential reorganization no matter what the cost.

Given that views toward aid often mimic confidence in government numbers, this may also produce some unusual contortions. Those Trump voters, whose confidence in government was at a nadir in the Obama years, might suddenly feel better about aid because it is their guy distributing it and they feel reassured it is not “going to people who hate us.” In other words, foreign aid may be seen as tolerable among those people who have objected to it the most — if it is Trump’s foreign aid. We have seen vivid examples of this phenomenon in other areas. Immediately after the election, Republican voters’ confidence in the economy soared and that of Democrats plunged, even though it was exactly the same economy as in the weeks before.

There is also real risk for foreign aid being, involuntarily, tied to the confidence in government numbers. Trump has begun his presidency with historically low approval numbers, and his administration has already been plagued by a series of major missteps and bubbling scandals. If the bottom drops out of Trump’s approval ratings among Republicans, faith in government numbers could hit new lows, with the perception of aid wrapped around the chain of a sinking ship.

Equally true, USAID in particular — with a reorganization looming and a president who has openly expressed views hostile to its core operating principles — is particularly vulnerable. It is not well positioned to navigate any self-inflicted wounds or scandals at the current time, and a rash of bad press could have an unfortunate snowball effect at the current moment.

The other possibility is that Trump’s presidency will usher in a high-profile, high-stakes battle about the merits, efficacy and lasting value of America’s international development programs. For development advocates to prevail or even hold their ground in this battle, they will need to generate bipartisan support, make their case in compelling and relatable terms, and appeal to the better interests and values of voters and representatives alike. As InterAction President Lindsay Coates commented, “I think that the great cohort of the American public that cares about what takes place beyond our borders is being mobilized, and that includes faith-based groups, implementers, NGOs, for-profits, some big civil society constituencies, and even the U.S. military. There is a great deal of energy right now."

Lindsay Coates in the president of InterAction.

Read the full article at Devex.com.