Lurking beneath the surface in the Republican Party, though, is something else: significant sympathy for the cause and even the actions of those who attempted an insurrection.
Multiple polls have shown that the vast majority of Americans and Republicans rebuke those who forced their way into the Capitol. A PBS NewsHour/Marist College poll last week showed 88 percent of all Americans and 80 percent of Republicans opposed their actions. And a new CBS News/YouGov poll Wednesday showed something similar: 87 percent overall and 79 percent of Republicans disapprove.
But the YouGov poll also showed more nuanced views of the situation among Republicans. It’s striking enough that 1 in 5 Republicans said they approved of the perpetrators — a number that would translate to many millions of Americans. But dig deeper, and you’ll find that even more say they believe the best about their intentions and even their actions.
The poll asked about words that people would use to describe the actions of those “who forced their way into the U.S. Capitol.” Fully 43 percent of Republicans agreed that “patriotism” was a word they would use, while half — 50 percent — agreed that “defending freedom” was another.
The Marist poll showed something similar. It asked whether people thought this was “mostly a legitimate protest” or “mostly people acting unlawfully.” The GOP was again split evenly, with 47 percent saying the storming of the Capitol was mostly legitimate.
Worth emphasizing: This question was specifically about those who “broke into the U.S. Capitol” — not about the broader rally that preceded it. And regardless of what percentage of those who broke into the Capitol participated in the violent acts, their mere presence there might well have been illegal. Federal law prohibits one from “knowingly enter[ing] or remain[ing] in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority to do so,” including “with intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions.”
The question from there is how much the Republicans responding to these polls have actually consumed the details of the scenes last week. We’re still learning plenty, including via allegations made by lawmakers over the past 24 hours. And just like there is an entire media ecosystem that fed people enough misinformation about the election results to convince them to take such drastic action, much of that ecosystem is downplaying the severity of what happened last week.
But there is also an undercurrent of “by whatever means necessary” coursing through all of this. The CBS/YouGov poll for instance, shows 26 percent of Republicans say “it can be acceptable for people to use force or violence to try to achieve political goals, if they feel it is necessary.” That’s double the number of Democrats (13 percent) who say the same.
Given those attitudes, it shouldn’t be any wonder there were enough people to take part in this particularly ugly chapter in American history. Nor should it be surprising there is little momentum behind Trump’s impeachment inside the broader GOP. Fully 84 percent of Republicans don’t say he should resign or be removed from office, and 60 percent say that’s because he did “nothing wrong.” Layer that on top of the idea that this wasn’t truly that bad — or that it was mostly legitimate and even patriotic, at its core — and there will be little urgency to hold Trump accountable for it.
All the caveats of polling apply here; the polls weren’t particularly accurate in the 2020 election, and we should approach them accordingly. But even if these numbers are off by a few points, that’s still a substantial chunk of the Republican Party base that say these things. It’s certainly a commentary on our political moment in time.