With the emergence of national protests focused on the treatment of black Americans by police, Trump’s two goals have come into conflict. Demonstrating unity with the police while exhibiting sympathy with protesters is a non-trivial challenge. It’s one that Trump has tried to navigate in an unexpected way: pitting the police against third-party agitators — specifically the loose-knit movement called antifa — instead of against the protesters themselves.
A poll from The Washington Post and our partners at the Schar School released on Tuesday shows that this strategy actually seems to be working to some extent, at least among Republicans. But it also shows an interesting development: While Republicans think Trump has handled the protests adeptly, they are also surprisingly supportive of the idea that endemic problems exist within police departments — problems that are at the heart of the protesters’ concerns.
For example, the poll asked respondents whether they felt that police had made the changes necessary to treat black and white Americans equally. More than three-quarters of respondents said that more changes were needed — as did nearly two-thirds of Republicans.
A related question asked whether the death of George Floyd after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck was a sign of broader problems in how police treat black Americans. Two-thirds of Americans said that it was. Republicans were more likely to say that it was an isolated incident — but views on that question were about evenly split among members of Trump’s party.
In response to another poll about views of police interactions with black Americans, longtime Republican pollster Frank Luntz marveled at how quickly views on this issue had changed.
“In my 35 years of polling,” Luntz said, “I’ve never seen opinion shift this fast or deeply.”
It’s not necessarily the case, though, that Republicans think that police have been out of line in handling the protests themselves. Most Republicans indicated that they believed the protests had been mostly violent, a belief that’s been reinforced on Fox News and by the Trump administration.
But Republicans also accept Trump’s framing of who’s responsible for that violence: individuals besides the police and the protesters.
So we get a remarkable response by Republicans to the moment. While Trump has regularly insisted on the need for police to crack down on violence and has, at times, described the protesters broadly as dangerous and in need of containment, Republicans are more likely to agree with his formal message and not his informal one.
A small majority of Republicans say they support the protests, including a quarter who say they support the protests strongly. Nearly three-quarters, meanwhile, say they approve of how Trump is approaching the situation.
The subtext here is interesting: Republicans are broadly supportive of Trump, far more than the public overall. But they also share concerns about police interactions with black Americans, and most back the Black Lives Matter protests. In other words, they’re more receptive to Trump’s position on the situation than the police position.
At the same time, Trump’s effort to focus on law and order still resonates with his party. Republicans are more likely than Americans overall to say that police are handling peaceful protesters appropriately and that police should take a harder line on incidents of vandalism and looting — Trump’s formal position on the matter.
There was one other interesting finding that bolsters Republican views of Trump. Offered the choice between a president who would focus on restoring security in the United States or a president who would address racial divisions, nearly two-thirds of Republicans said they preferred the former.
Luckily for them, that’s very much the president they’ve got.