I noticed something watching President Trump’s official 2020 campaign launch on Tuesday night that I have noticed before. Oftentimes when Trump goes for applause lines in speeches, people applaud. But sometimes, they laugh. It’s not like a “that was funny” laugh; it’s more like a “I know that was ridiculous, but I’m in on the joke” laugh. And occasionally, it’s sort of a nervous, “that might have crossed the line” laugh.
And a new poll suggests there’s something to that.
The Pew survey shows that a majority of Republicans and GOP-leaning voters say they are at least sometimes “embarrassed” (53 percent) and “concerned” (59 percent) about the things Trump says.
Large numbers also say they are at least sometimes “exhausted” (41 percent), “angry” (37 percent) and “insulted” (32 percent). Twenty-two percent say they are sometimes “frightened” by Trump’s comments.
The numbers are basically unprecedented. Pollsters have asked in the past whether people are embarrassed by Trump, but the numbers haven’t been as high. A February 2017 McClatchy-Marist College poll showed that 12 percent of Republicans said they were embarrassed by Trump’s conduct, for instance. Other polls have asked whether people are “proud” or “embarrassed” of Trump, and Republicans overwhelmingly pick “proud.”
But those questions were binary, in which Republicans, perhaps understandably, chose the Trump side. Pew appears to have elicited people’s true feelings by asking a more nuanced question. And given the choice between “often,” “sometimes,” “rarely” and “never,” many Republicans choose at least “sometimes.”
The poll also suggests a reason Republicans may not be so forthcoming with their true feelings about Trump’s rhetoric: They don’t think they can freely share their political views. Thirty-seven percent of Republicans and Republican leaners say Republicans in their community are very comfortable to freely and openly express their political views.
The numbers are particular depressed in areas carried handily by Hillary Clinton in 2016. But even in swing districts decided by fewer than 10 points, 23 percent of Republican leaners say their fellow partisans are very comfortable expressing their views — as compared with 36 percent of Democratic-leaning voters in the same areas.
There has often been a larger sense of political persecution in the Republican Party, and layering Trump’s extreme and often norm-busting rhetoric on top of that is liable to cause people to clam up. Some have wagered that might even cause polls to undersell his true level of support. (Though there’s little evidence that’s what happened in 2016, even as polls in some key states missed by significant numbers.)
But it could also work the other way, by making people who like Trump but also have reservations about his rhetoric not even want to engage. Pew seems to have pulled them out of their shells a bit. And the results suggest that Republicans at the very least feel they’re in on the joke — and sometimes legitimately worry about what the president they support is saying.