Stunning survey gives grim view of flourishing anti-democratic opinions
Those who buy into former President Trump’s lies over the 2020 election and those who watch the far-right channels that amplify his rhetoric are increasingly embracing anti-democratic opinions and even contemplating political violence, according to a new poll.
The poll from the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute paints a troubling portrait of a growing segment of the public that is increasingly unmoored from reality as it embraces conspiracy theories about child abduction and stolen elections.
It found a deep divide between those who trust right-wing media outlets and the rest of the nation — and even a divide between those who trust Fox News and those who trust outlets like One America News Network and Newsmax.
The poll found about 3 in 10 Americans, 31 percent, believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, including two-thirds of Republicans and a whopping 82 percent of those who trust Fox News more than any other media outlet.
Among those who trust far-right outlets like One America News Network and Newsmax, 97 percent say they believe the election — which even Trump’s own cybersecurity and election security officials agreed was the safest and most secure ever conducted in the United States — was stolen.
One in 5 Americans believe in the core tenet of the QAnon conspiracy that “there is a storm coming soon,” while 1 in 6 believe the United States government is controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking ring.
The same share, 18 percent, say they agree with the statement that America has gotten so far off track that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”
The poll found 30 percent of Republicans agree that violence might be warranted, compared with 17 percent of independents and 11 percent of Democrats. Those who buy into the farthest-right media outlets are even more likely to contemplate violence; among those people, 40 percent agree.
“I’m not an alarmist by nature, but I’m deeply disturbed by these numbers. I think that we really have to take them seriously as a threat to democracy,” said Robert Jones, the founder and chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute.
The rising acceptance of political violence is playing out in courtrooms in Washington and across the country as rioters from the Jan. 6 insurrection face charges and, increasingly, prison sentences for their roles in the mayhem. One man who plotted to kidnap Michigan’s governor was sentenced to six years in jail in August. On Thursday, two members of a neo-Nazi group were sentenced to nine years in prison for a scheme to attack a rally of gun control supporters in Richmond, Va.
The FBI has reported in recent years that white supremacists pose a critical threat to the safety and security of the United States.
Jones said the growing share of Republicans and arch-conservatives who buy into the false and violent rhetoric are transforming one of America’s two major political parties into a party of racial and religious grievance, one that sees the ominous other encroaching on what it means to be an American.
Just 29 percent of Republicans say life has changed mostly for the better since the 1950s, before civil rights movements ushered in new protections and more rights for minorities, women and the LGBT community. The share of white evangelical Protestants and white Catholics who say life was better 70 years ago — when the average American made far less and lived for a shorter time than they do today — has also grown in recent years.
“There’s a kind of wistfulness and nostalgia, the power of the mythical past,” Jones said. “It is an ethno-religious identity, it is a white Christian America and specifically a white Protestant America that people are harkening back to.”
John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a former top official at the Republican National Committee during George H.W. Bush’s presidency, said the data reflected a wholesale reinvention of a Republican Party that once aspired to Ronald Reagan’s shining city on a hill.
“Back in the 1980s, Republicans aspired to be the party of hope and opportunity. Now it is the party of blood and soil. The culture war is front and center, and for many Republicans, it is close to being a literal war, not just a metaphorical one,” Pitney said. “Republicans have a nostalgia for an America that never really existed.”
The poll found Republican voters far more likely than Democrats to argue that religious or nativist traits are important to being an American: 9 in 10 Republicans, but only two-thirds of Democrats, say speaking English is important to an American identity. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans said both being born in America and being a Christian are important to being an American; more than half of Democrats said those traits were not important to an American identity.
Eighty percent of Republicans said America is in danger of losing its culture and identity, and 98 percent of far-right television viewers agreed; just a third of Democrats and half of independents said the same. More than half of Republicans, 56 percent, said things have changed so much in America that they often feel like a stranger in their own country; just 31 percent of Democrats agreed.
More than half of Americans, including 55 percent of independent voters and even 9 percent of Republicans, say the Republican Party today has been taken over by racists, while just 45 percent say the party is trying to protect America from outside threats.
Forty-four percent said the Democratic Party had been taken over by socialists, a number that has not risen in recent years.
Trump, who based his first campaign on a pledge to end “American carnage” and who rose to the pinnacle of the Republican Party at which he remains today by pledging to build a wall on the Mexican border, is not entirely responsible for the transformation of Reagan’s GOP, experts agreed. Instead, some said Trump took advantage of an environment of fear and angst that already existed, directed it toward the ominous other and became something of a metaphorical bulwark himself.
“Trump walked onto a stage that was already set. The set was painted, the props were there, he turned out to be considerably effective at using those props and strutting about that stage, but it’s not a stage of his creation,” Jones said. “He metaphorically presented himself as a wall against these changes, and he presented himself as the only thing standing between his followers and a changing America.”
The economic anxiety that some point to as the genesis of Trump’s rise certainly exists, though it is an angst that crosses racial and demographic lines and one that predates the pandemic. More than 8 in 10 Americans said costs of housing and everyday expenses are rising faster than their income, and 4 in 10 are concerned about their ability to pay for basic goods.
The shares of Black and Hispanic Americans who worry about paying for basic goods, rent and credit card debt are all higher than the share of white Americans. But 38 percent of whites said they, too, are worried about affording basic goods.
At a time when politicians — and Trump, most prominently — are pitting groups against each other, those anxieties manifest in the divides that are widening today, Jones said.
“Americans are feeling the economic crunches and they don’t just see it as a result of the pandemic,” Jones said. “That doesn’t help turn the flame down on these cultural conflicts, it exacerbates them. If people are feeling like the pie is too small and it’s a zero-sum game, that’s not a great place for political compromise or finding common ground.”
The Public Religion Research Institute poll was conducted from Sept. 16 to 29 among 2,508 adults over the age of 18. It carried a margin of error of plus or minus 2.1 percentage points.
–Updated at 11:26 a.m.