Trump's message: Russia First or America First?
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One of the major themes of President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN analyst Kirsten Powers: Melania's jacket should read 'Let them eat cake' CNN's Cuomo confronts Lewandowski over 'womp womp' remark Sessions says FBI agent Peter Strzok no longer has his security clearance MORE and his administration is to put "America First," and this month’s Harvard Harris poll suggests the theme and some of the policies behind it have significant resonance with a public who sees America as a loser on the world stage and a victim of internationalist policies gone awry.

While the public remains deeply divided, in our poll fully 65 percent of the voters approve of the America First theme, and 55 percent believe that the president should govern on the basis of American interests as opposed to balancing it with concerns about the larger world.

Given recent developments, many voters may see Trump as more of a "Russia First" president and many reports very quickly dismiss Trump’s message, associating it with anti-Semitism because of an America First group founded at Yale that opposed entry into World War II. And yet John McCainJohn Sidney McCainDon’t disrespect McCain by torpedoing his clean National Defense Authorization Act Meghan McCain rips Trump's 'gross' line about her dad Trump's America fights back MORE ran his campaign on “Country First,” only a slight variation from the Trump message.


Trump, however, is on firm ground when he calls on our allies to pay their fair share of defense costs. Seventy-seven percent support Trump’s idea of making NATO members pay a larger share of mutual defense costs. And 74 per cent also believe in the basic idea of “hire American and buy American.” Underlying the support for these nationalist messages is the feeling that most Americans see themselves as losers in global trade. They don't believe that they have gotten the benefits of lower prices and most think they personally have been disadvantaged in the job market as a result of previous trade deals. Right or wrong, that’s the perception out there of most Americans when it comes to trade and the global economy.

Another source of this sentiment is the disillusionment of the public with American involvements overseas. While 71 percent see the country as driven by principle, they are split on whether America has in recent years done as much harm as good through its international actions. In short, the voters believe that America means well, but often winds up acting badly despite our best intentions.

Despite its overall resonance, the America First message has its limits. Most Americans (58 percent), for example, see climate change as a pressing issue. And 57 percent believe that the UN plays a constructive role in trying to solve problems, rejecting the idea that it is obsolete. The voters also reject using Russia as a wedge against Iran and China by a margin of two to one. They are wary of all these countries.

Another exception to America First is the public’s strong support for Israel. They believe that Israel should be the top priority for aid and see the Palestinians as more of a block to peace than the Israelis. They would not, however, move the embassy to Jerusalem. 

While 80 per cent of the voters say it's time to focus more on domestic rather than international issues, the public also sees ISIS and North Korea as significant threats to the country.  Russia, China and Iran are all seen as trying to expand their territory. And a solid majority believes Iran is violating the nuclear accord; most would ask Trump to void the nuclear accord.

In the past, Republicans have used patriotism and their perceived strength on national defense to win over voters with a pro-American theme. Trump’s message taps into something completely different, as it is based not so much on military superiority as on re-establishing our economic strength.

So Democrats would be wise to not ignore the Trump message. It is one of the few messages in the ether that cuts across party lines and is at the bedrock of Trump’s support among working class voters. And Trump has clearly tapped into widespread public sentiment with his constant refrain of Making America Great Again and putting America First despite the withering attacks on his presidency. As pollsters as prognosticators have learned the hard way, underestimate Trump and the power of his appeal at your peril. 

Mark Penn and Stephen Ansolabehere conduct the Harvard Harris Poll. Penn served as President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonThe case for a ‘Presidents’ Club’ to advise Trump After FBI cleared by IG report, GOP must reform itself Bill Clinton hits Trump administration policy separating immigrant families in Father's Day tweet MORE’s pollster for 6 years. Ansolabehere is Professor of Government at Harvard and runs the Harvard Center for American Political Studies (CAPS). The Harvard-Harris Poll is a collaboration of Harvard CAPS and The Harris Poll.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.