While “both-side-ism” infects much of political punditry these days, ordinary Americans know exactly whom to blame: “Donald Trump is a major factor in people’s views about the state of the nation’s political discourse. A 55% majority says Trump has changed the tone and nature of political debate in this country for the worse.” This is viscerally felt by large majorities of Americans who say “Trump’s comments often or sometimes make them feel concerned (76%), confused (70%), embarrassed (69%) and exhausted (67%). By contrast, fewer have positive reactions to Trump’s rhetoric, though 54% say they at least sometimes feel entertained by what he says.” Even among Republicans, and Republican-leaners, 59 percent say “they often or sometimes feel concerned by what Trump says. About half also say they are at least sometimes embarrassed (53%) and confused (47%) by Trump’s statements.”
As we get into the details of the study, more troubling factors emerge. “A substantial majority (78%) says ‘heated or aggressive’ language directed by elected officials against certain people or groups makes violence against them more likely. This view is more widely shared among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents than Republican and Republican leaners.” Not surprisingly, large majorities expect respect from the other party’s officials, but far fewer demand the same from their own party.
There is confusion about what is offensive: “About half (51%) say it is easy to know what others might find offensive, while nearly as many (48%) say it is hard to know.” Contrary to Trumpers’ view of themselves as victims, they aren’t the ones intimidated about discussing Trump. “Nearly six-in-ten (57%) of those who approve of Trump’s job performance say they would share their views about Trump when talking with a group of people who do not like him. But fewer (43%) of those who disapprove of Trump say they would share their views when speaking with a group of Trump supporters.”
Social media companies come in for some of the blame. “Amid public debate about how social media companies should handle controversial content, about two-thirds of Americans (66%) say these companies have a responsibility to remove offensive content from their platforms; 32% say they do not have this responsibility.”
And finally, sometimes by wide majorities, Democrats more than Republicans find some insults and slurs are never acceptable. When it comes to “acceptability of ridiculing one’s opponent (59% of Democrats say this is never acceptable vs. 40% of Republicans), calling them stupid (70% vs. 51%) or saying their policy positions are evil (42% vs. 26%),” Democrats are more respectful than Republicans. Even when it comes to shouting over an opponent or insulting an opponent’s appearance, Republicans register less objection than do Democrats.
This may be because Trump has given Republicans license to be rude and insulting, or it may be because there is a large gender gap in the parties (women are much more likely to be Democratic). And maybe in the age of Trump, women are fleeing the Trump GOP precisely because they dislike the insults, slurs and demeaning conduct and rhetoric.
Ironically, Republicans and Democrats alike insist “it is very important for elected officials to be honest and ethical (91%), to be knowledgeable on the issues (89%) and to admit when they are wrong (82%). Roughly two-thirds say it is very important for elected officials to treat opponents with respect (68%) and to be willing to compromise with them (65%).” Republicans, it seems, are in deep denial about the president they fervently support.
In sum, most Americans want better discourse, more honesty and more civil conduct, although they are less willing to recognize the problem on their own side. Unfortunately, Republicans seem to have lowered their standards to tolerate a president who is everything — boorish, cruel, dishonest, rude — they once claimed to despise. Democrats would do well not to imitate Trump but to give the country an alternative to the man who has done more to debase American politics than anyone in my lifetime.