Startling New Poll Finds Political Violence Gaining a Mainstream Foothold

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Two months after Donald Trump egged on his supporters as they violently marched on the U.S. Capitol, the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution decided to start asking Americans about their stomach for political violence. The way they measured this was asking if respondents agreed that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” 

That first time, in March 2021, pollsters found 15% of Americans agreed.

More than two years and eight surveys later, the pollsters found the support for that statement rising to 23%. It's the first time they found more than 1 in 5 Americans open to condoning political violence.

Put another way: the chaos unleashed on Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, is going mainstream. That has seismic consequences for the country in ways that neither party properly appreciates.

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A full one-third (33%) of Republicans say that violence may be the answer. That is ahead of the 22% of independents and 13% of Democrats who agree. But across the board, those numbers are trending in a dangerous direction: when first asked in 2021, 28% of Republicans saw the virtues of political violence, 13% of indies concurred, and 7% of Democrats shared that perspective. And among those who have a favorable view of ex-President Donald Trump, who sparked the failed insurrection on Jan. 6 to keep him in power, there is a threefold multiplier for the merits of violence, reaching 41% support among pro-Trump Americans.

This explains a few dynamics unfolding in U.S. politics at the moment. For one, most of the crowded Republican field of White House hopefuls have subscribed to some version of Trump’s Big Lie and profess—with dubious levels of sincerity—that Joe Biden actually was the loser in the 2020 election. Given the widespread support for such rubbish among Republicans, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for anyone but Trump to win the nomination in 2024. For another, participating in The Big Lie on Jan. 6 is not a disqualification in the ongoing and absurd search for a new House Speaker. Embracing the foolishness is good for fundraising and list-building while fact-checking it only earns the ire of the base if not primary challenges.

Read more: How the Threat of Political Violence Is Transforming America

The PRRI/ Brookings survey of more than 2,500 Americans unveils some other interesting cross-cuts of Americans, and white Christians fuel a lot of the reason for worry. Those Americans who think the United States has changed for the worse since the 1950s are twice as likely to justify violence (30% to 14%). White evangelical protestants are the most likely to justify political violence (31%) while non-evangelical and mainline protestants (25%) and Black protestants (24%) are close behind. Hispanic Catholics (21%) and white Catholics (20%) are the least violent-prone respondents. Church attendance is not a factor in any meaningful way among white respondents. Still, among every subset, the support for political violence is up.

Everyone thinks the country is going in the wrong direction. Some 59% of Democrats say so, 81% of independents agree, and 90% of Republicans think the same. In aggregate, 77%—3 out of 4 of your neighbors—think the country is on the wrong track. The numbers are the worst among white evangelicals (92%), white protestants (82%), and white Catholics (79%). Even among the most optimistic Americans, Hispanic Catholics are still saying the United States is going in the wrong direction to the tune of 64% and Black protestants put up 68% disapproval numbers. 

Consequently, almost 4-in-10 Americans agree that it’s time to pick a leader who gets things back on track, even if that means breaking the rules. Among Republicans, that number hits 48%, while Democrats trail by 19 points. Among Fox News viewers, that number reaches 53%—a slim majority, but one that cannot be ignored. By a significant margin, Hispanic Catholics are the most likely to agree with the rule-breaking-in-the-name-of-order posture, hitting 51%.

Another way to read these numbers: Americans appear increasingly fine with surrendering the rule of law if they believe it will make them feel safer. They don’t much like Biden or the job he’s doing: a meager 12% of white evangelicals approve of his work, with 30% of white protestants and 31% of white Catholics joining hands. Among all voters, Biden’s unfavorability numbers have grown from 45% in 2019 to 60% now. And his support is soft, at best; 59% of those who have favorable views of the President say he could lose their support and a staggering 72% of millennials say Biden could still lose their support.

Even so, Trump—and his legacy of egging on the Jan. 6 riots—draws worse numbers. Some 63% of Americans hold an unfavorable opinion of the ex-President. That’s offset in large measure by the 61% of white evangelicals who support Trump; he carries no other group with a majority. 

This trendline should be worrisome for those of us who like democracy to be like the bills put on auto-pay: it happens in regularly scheduled intervals with minimal reason to worry.

Among Republicans, 77% agree with the statement that democracy is at risk in 2024. But among them, 22% think a Trump re-election is a sign democracy is broken, while 64% think it’s a Biden second term that would spell ailments for the system. 

And then there’s QAnon. The pollsters asked about that, too, and found 29% of Republicans now say they subscribe to the theory that the centers of power are controlled by Satan-worshiping pedophiles atop a child sex-trafficking operation and that violence may be required to remedy it. That’s up from 23% two years ago. Among Black protestants, that share has doubled from 13% to 26%. Among all Americans, 23% subscribe to the manifesto popular in some corners of the Internet.

All of this can be hard to process, but as we head into the first presidential election year since Jan. 6, it’s difficult not to read these results as one political party gamely laying the groundwork for another disputed election that leans more on popular protest than legal challenges in the aftermath. Election denialism has in short order become part of the GOP's DNA, a requirement for elevation to leadership roles, and acceptably dealt with by violence. To put it another way, the current Republican Party is one in which a siege of the Capitol may be more efficient than canvassing. Given its chief architect’s 40-point-plus lead over his rivals for the party’s presidential nomination next year, the GOP may prove an irredeemable threat to the very system it seeks to lead.

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