For the president who won his election in 2016 after focusing on law and order (though not necessarily because of it), it’s a natural extension of his rhetoric, leveraging the recent protests, however awkwardly.
Americans aren’t buying it.
On Wednesday, Monmouth University released a poll looking at the protests and responses to them. Among the questions asked was a straightforward one: What do you understand “defund the police” to mean? More than three-quarters of Americans — and two-thirds of Republicans — understood it to mean what protest organizers intend: that it’s a call to change how police operate.
That is a remarkable finding, suggesting that even within his base the spin Trump and conservative media are deploying isn’t effective. Nearly three-quarters of whites without a college degree, perhaps the most reliable core of Trump’s support, said the slogan simply meant a change in police practices.
And this is a step removed from Trump’s argument. Even if respondents believe that the phrase indicates a desire to eliminate police entirely, that doesn’t mean they ascribe that desire to Democrats generally or Biden specifically.
The Monmouth poll more broadly offers an intriguing look at how Americans are responding to the protests and Trump’s response to them. For example, Americans are broadly pessimistic about divisions within the country.
And yet they’re also broadly optimistic about the future of race relations in particular.
While most Republicans say the Black Lives Matter movement has made racial issues in America worse, a plurality nonetheless believes that the movement has brought attention to real disparities in the country.
Most Republicans — and a vast majority of Americans — believe that racial and ethnic discrimination in the country is a problem, with 2 in 5 Republicans saying it’s a big problem.
Despite the sense of a broad divide, there’s more common ground on this contentious issue than it may seem.
The political ramifications for Trump are significant. It’s admittedly hard to suss out the overlapping motivations and considerations that come into play here. For example: Is increasing skepticism of Trump prompting more skepticism of his “defund” claims? Does causality move in the other direction? It’s not clear.
What is clear, though, is that Americans broadly see Trump’s response to the protests as having exacerbated problems. A plurality of Republicans think his handling of the situation made things better, but more than a quarter say he has made things worse.
Put another way, for every three Republicans who say that Black Lives Matter has worsened racial issues, one Republican says that Trump’s approach to the protests made the situation worse.
In recent speeches, he has promoted the idea that he’s focused on uniting the country while Democrats try to exploit and exacerbate divides. This is a dubious claim in general, and it’s one that Monmouth’s polling shows that most Americans reject. Even a plurality of Republicans sees the country as having grown more divided under Trump.
This highlights an ongoing problem for a president who won the White House four years ago in part by successfully attacking his opponent. His attacks on Biden, including on defunding police, aren’t landing. If he tries to go in the other direction — the guy who will bring Americans together — he’s not even going to convince his own voters.
The result for now? A nine-point deficit in national polling. The sort of deficit that would mean a new president in January.