Democracy Dies in Darkness

Politics

Poll shows clear disapproval of how Trump responded to Charlottesville violence

By Scott Clement, David Nakamura

August 21, 2017 at 7:23 PM

Twice as many Americans disapprove than approve of President Trump's response to the deadly Charlottesville protests led by white supremacists that ignited widespread political backlash against the White House, although a majority of Republicans offer at least tepid support in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Trump's handling of the racially charged clashes at the Unite the Right rally Aug. 12 erupted into a major flash point in his administration and earned him rebukes from members of Congress, military leaders and major business executives. The president equivocated in denouncing the hate groups and cast blame on "both sides" for the deadly violence, prompting criticism that he was fanning racial tensions.

The Post-ABC survey finds overwhelming majorities across party lines saying it is unacceptable to hold white supremacist views, while 9 percent overall say such views are acceptable.

The public is less united on a central criticism of Trump's remarks following the protests, with 42 percent saying he is putting white supremacists on equal standing with those who oppose these groups. Thirty-five percent say Trump is not equating the two, while the rest of those in the survey — 23 percent — offer no opinion.

The poll underscores the degree to which Trump's base has largely stuck with him during the most tumultuous week of his presidency, in which few Republicans in Washington defended his response to the protests and many criticized him for not pinning blame clearly on the white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.

Trump's overall approval rating of 37 percent in the latest survey is little different from his 36 percent mark in July and other polling before the protests, although it is still lower than the rating for his recent predecessors in the White House this early in their tenures.

The president offered a shifting series of responses to the mayhem in which James Alex Fields Jr., 20, an Ohio man who had reportedly espoused neo-Nazi views, allegedly slammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring 19 others.

After initially condemning violence "on many sides," Trump waited two days amid mounting political pressure before denouncing the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis in prepared remarks at the White House.

A day later, however, Trump reversed course during a defiant news conference at Trump Tower in New York and again blamed "both sides," criticizing liberal-leaning counterprotesters for acting "very, very violently." Those remarks provoked a widespread backlash, including the resignation of several members of two presidential business advisory councils that were promptly dissolved.

The president followed up by tweeting a defense of Confederate statues, saying their removal would be "foolish" and amount to a revisionist attack on the history and culture of Southern states after the Civil War. In doing so, Trump equated Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson with Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. The Unite the Right rally had been organized as a protest of the Charlottesville city council's decision to remove a Lee statue on public land.

A majority of self-identified Republicans — more than 6 in 10 — approve of Trump's response to the protests, according to the Post-ABC poll, while about 2 in 10 disapprove and the same share offer no opinion.

Overall, Trump maintains an 80 percent job approval rating among Republicans, a number little changed from recent surveys. But the percentage that approves "strongly" — just about half of the GOP — is down 10 percentage points from last month.

Some Trump allies voiced concerns that his effort to bring more discipline and better messaging to the White House with the addition of Chief of Staff John F. Kelly three weeks ago was already failing because of the president's unwillingness to change.

Trump's response to the Charlottesville protests disappointed top aides, although none offered public criticism or resigned in protest. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who is Jewish, denounced the white supremacist groups but said he supported Trump's response.

The chaos inside the West Wing comes as the White House is growing impatient for a major legislative success in the wake of Republicans' failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The administration has signaled interest in pursuing tax changes and an infrastructure bill after Congress returns from its summer recess, and Trump has continued to press Republicans to take another crack at repealing Obamacare. Lawmakers also are under a tight timetable to agree on a plan to raise the debt limit.

The departure of Trump's chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, late last week offered hope to some moderates that the White House would move away from some of its most divisive rhetoric and extreme policy positions. Bannon has returned to the helm of Breitbart News, which he once called a platform for the alt-right — a small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state.

Bannon, who clashed with other Trump advisers, was one of the few to enthusiastically endorse Trump's rhetoric after Charlottesville.

The Post-ABC survey found that roughly 1 in 6 Americans either support the alt-right or say it is acceptable to hold white supremacist or neo-Nazi views. This subgroup splits evenly in approving and disapproving of Trump's response to the protests — and approves of his overall job performance by 54 to 43 percent.

Beyond these groups, reactions to Trump's rhetoric are far more negative. Nearly twice as many political independents disapprove as approve of his response to the protests, 55 to 28 percent, while 84 percent of Democrats say they disapprove.

The poll found broad disapproval of Trump's Charlottesville reaction among racial minority groups. More than 8 in 10 African Americans and nearly two-thirds of Hispanics disapprove. Among whites, 49 percent disapprove, while 35 percent approve.

The partisan divide extends to whether Trump's response put neo-Nazi and white supremacist views on equal footing with opponents of these groups. Democrats say he has done this by a roughly 2-to-1 margin, while Republicans are a mirror reverse. Independents lean narrowly toward saying Trump has put white supremacists on equal footing with their opponents, by 42 to 36 percent.

The survey is among the first to measure support for the alt-right. Some 10 percent of adults support the movement, including similar shares of Democrats and Republicans. While it has gained greater attention after the Charlottesville protests alongside Nazi and Ku Klux Klan demonstrators, just about 4 in 10 Americans think the alt-right holds neo-Nazi or white supremacist views. About 2 in 10 say it does not, while another 4 in 10 have no opinion on the movement.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted Aug. 16 to 20 among a random national sample of 1,014 adults reached on cellular and landline phones. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.


Scott Clement is the polling director at The Washington Post, specializing in public opinion about politics, election campaigns and public policy.

David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.

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