Americans Are Not Really That “Divided” About Donald Trump’s Conduct

Trump, wearing a white shirt and a MAGA hat, holds his hands with his palms up while in conversation with a man to his left.
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There are two buckets into which most discourse about public opinion regarding Donald Trump’s indictments can be sorted. One of those buckets is labeled “Republican primary,” and it’s where we can put the (accurate) observation that each successive indictment seems to boost Trump’s primary polling lead over Ron “I Have Never Seen a Worse Campaign or Candidate” DeSantis even further. (For what it’s worth, Semafor’s Dave Weigel is reporting that DeSantis “isn’t dead yet” in Iowa, so there’s that.)

The other bucket is labeled “divided America,” and it’s where the country’s headline-writing editors enjoy putting polls which allegedly show that the former president’s conduct divides a fretful, collectively indecisive United States along partisan lines. It’s a polarized country and we can’t agree on anything these days, on account of the polarization, yada yada—you’ve heard it all before.

On Wednesday, for instance, the Associated Press published the results of a new poll that it conducted with the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research under the headline “Americans are divided on partisan lines over Trump’s actions in election cases.”

But are they, really? While it’s true that about 50 percent of Americans will say in any given poll that they support Trump’s prosecution, and that 50 percent is only half of the country, half of people believing something does not mean that the other half believe its opposite. In August 1974, just before he resigned, only 57 percent of Americans told Gallup that Richard Nixon should be removed from office—but that does not mean that a polarized electorate was diametrically paralyzed by the question of whether Richard Nixon was a bum. (They believed that he was, and they were correct.)

So let’s look at the data in more detail. The AP asked Republicans, Democrats, and independent voters about Trump’s “alleged attempt to interfere in Georgia’s vote count in the 2020 presidential election” and his “role in what happened at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.” They were given the choice of describing his behavior as “illegal,” calling it “unethical but not illegal,” saying he did “nothing wrong,” or saying they didn’t know enough about it to answer.

Overall, about both Georgia’s vote count and “what happened at the U.S. Capitol,” 64 percent of American adults said Trump’s conduct was either illegal or unethical. And only 21 percent said he did nothing wrong in relation to Jan. 6, while 15 percent said he did nothing wrong in Georgia. If you boil things down to “what he did was bad” or “what he did was OK,” Trump is a loser by margins of 64–21 and 64–15.

Those would be pretty lopsided scores in the United States’ beloved sport of American football! And the numbers aren’t even that great for Trump among Republicans. A combined 42 percent of Republicans told the AP that Trump’s conduct in Georgia was illegal or unethical, while only 31 percent said he’d done nothing wrong. Regarding Jan. 6, 38 percent of Republicans said Trump behaved illegally or unethically, with 46 percent coming down on the side of “nothing wrong.”

To be fair, with more media exposure to the particulars of the case, it’s likely that responses on the Georgia question among Republican voters will end up matching responses on the Jan. 6 question, which is to say that a plurality of them will say Trump didn’t do anything wrong. That said, we’re talking about a narrow plurality, and another way to frame the numbers is that only a minority of Republicans themselves are to willing to say that Trump’s Jan. 6 –related behavior was appropriate. If anything, it’s the Republican Party that’s divided on this issue, not “Americans.”

There are limitations to what can be concluded from the data. The belief that Trump behaved unethically or illegally doesn’t translate directly into support for Biden, his presumed 2024 general election opponent; Trump and Biden matchups are currently more or less even. And about half of Americans, according to a recent ABC News-Ipsos poll, believe the prosecutions of Trump are “politically motivated,” which, to quote the 1996 feature film Romeo + Juliet, implies the existence of a sizable “pox on both their houses” tranche.

That said, the next time you read the phrase “Americans divided on Trump behavior,” you should mentally replace it with the phrase “Americans divided on Trump behavior like so: About half think it was criminal, a sixth or so think it was bad but not illegal, a fifth think it was fine, and the remaining [counting on fingers for 45 seconds] two-fifteenths have, blessedly, not read a news headline in decades, if ever.” Then you should go outside. Summer’s almost over!