The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump spurred major shifts in public opinion on race, policing and protests — toward his opponents

President Donald Trump at the White House on Aug. 17, 2020. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In October, my colleague Catherine Rampell pointed out that on issues ranging from immigration to free trade to health care, Donald Trump moved public opinion like few presidents ever have — but in the opposite direction from what he intended. The record on race, policing, protest and crime is no different. The evidence is stunning: On police reform, protests, acknowledgment of racism in policing and the criminal justice system, and even on the death penalty, public opinion shifted during Trump’s time in office to a degree unheard of in these debates.

Let’s start with policing. Trump liked to claim he was the most pro-law enforcement president the country has ever seen. (In truth, as with most things, he supported law enforcement only when law enforcement supported him.) While paying some lip service to police reform after the George Floyd protests, Trump and his attorneys general phased out Justice Department investigations into problematic police departments and went so far as to argue that any effort to make policing more transparent and accountable would make the country less safe.

The public disagreed — more so as Trump’s term went on. A Gallup poll in July found 58 percent of the country thinks policing needs “major changes,” while just 6 percent said law enforcement doesn’t need reform. More surprising, for the first time in the poll’s history, less than 50 percent of respondents said they trusted the police. Ironically, because of the attack on the Capitol, support for police may now even be eroding among Trump’s base.

This shift is reflected on specific issues. For years, ending qualified immunity — the doctrine that makes it difficult to sue police officers for civil rights violations — was seen as such a fringe position that pollsters didn’t ask about it. Yet a Pew Research poll in July found that two-thirds of respondents supported its abolition, which the Trump administration adamantly opposed and congressional Republicans called a non-starter during debates over police reform last summer. Other recent polls have shown broad public support — often 70 percent or higher — for a panoply of other reforms, from ending no-knock raids to body cameras to making it easier to fire bad cops.

Finally, for much of his public life, Trump has championed the death penalty. In the last seven months of his term, his administration executed 13 people — more than the federal government had executed in the previous 60 years combined. Yet according to a Gallup poll taken in the midst of the execution spree, public support for the death penalty has fallen to 55 percent, its lowest point since 1972. Opposition is at 43 percent, the highest point since 1966. The 55 percent in support also drops to just 36 percent when respondents are given the option of life without parole, by far the lowest support since Gallup began asking that question in 1985.

Trump also managed to turn the public against him on issues related to race and protest. Between 2016 and 2020, the percentage of Americans who think police are more likely to use excessive force against Black people jumped nearly 25 percentage points, and between 2015 and 2020, the percentage of Americans overall who think unjustified police shootings are a systemic problem (vs. isolated incidents) jumped nearly 30 percentage points. During the George Floyd protests, poll after poll showed that large majorities of Americans were far more supportive of the protests than of Trump’s handling of them, usually by margins of 3 or 4 to 1. After Trump administration officials ordered the violent police action at Lafayette Square in June, one poll found an astonishing 25-point increase in support for the protests among Trump-leaning voters. Even Rasmussen, Trump’s favorite pollster, found that between 2015 and 2020, the public became more sympathetic toward anti-police brutality protests and less sympathetic toward police. Contrast this with the reaction to Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 when majorities of Americans thought the protests had “gone too far” and public sympathies were overwhelmingly with police.

Similarly, Trump often ridiculed the notion that racism is still pervasive in the United States and tried to eradicate diversity training from the federal workforce. Here too, public opinion moved away from him. A 2020 Gallup poll found that just 35 percent of respondents were satisfied with how Black people are treated in the United States. Between 2016 and 2020, Monmouth polling showed a 26-point increase among White people who think there is widespread racial discrimination in the United States.

Perhaps the most telling evidence for Trump’s effect on public opinion is perceptions of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. BLM isn’t a single entity so much as a proxy for the racial justice movement in general, but it has been a frequent target of Trump’s invective. Yet Civiqs polling finds that backing for BLM has increased by 10 points since April of 2017, while opposition has dropped three points. Overall support has dropped from the height of the George Floyd protests, mostly declining among Republicans, but it has leveled off since the fall. The most recent Pew Research poll on BLM, from September, put its approval at 55 percent, and nearly all polling shows a clear plurality of support. Trump, on the other hand, left office with a net average approval of minus-19 points.

Trump isn’t the sole reason the public shifted so dramatically on some of these issues. He obviously had nothing to do with the death of George Floyd, for example. But it seems likely that Trump’s incessant race baiting, the open bigotry among some of his supporters and incidents such as Charlottesville aided the overwhelming shift in public opinion that followed the protests. It’s easier to believe there’s systemic racism in policing when the self-described most pro-police president in history encourages and enjoys broad support from white supremacists. On policing, race and crime, as on so many other issues, the more Trump rallied his base behind his views, the more everyone else seemed to turn against them.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Large majority of voters give Trump a thumbs down

Radley Balko: Meet the police chief turned yoga instructor prodding wealthy suburbanites to civil war

Henry Olsen: New data shows both a hopeful and worrying portrait of race in America

Cristina Beltrán :To understand Trump’s support, we must think in terms of multiracial Whiteness

David Ignatius: Biden’s surprisingly successful first two weeks