It’s been evident for a long time that Republicans — and supporters of Donald Trump, especially — take a more no-holds-barred approach to politics than Democrats do. They’re much more likely to say political violence can be justified, for instance. It’s also become clear that Trump being convicted of a felony isn’t a red line for the vast majority of them.
But for apparently the first time, we can affix a number to how many of them think that Trump breaking the law for political ends is okay.
About 3 in 10.
That’s the finding of a new Fox News poll this weekend. It phrased the question thusly:
Voters who supported Trump in 2020 were about twice as likely to endorse the break-rules-and-laws view as 2020 Biden backers. While 65 percent of Trump backers said a president should always follow the rules and the law, 30 percent said breaking rules and laws could be justified.
The split among Biden voters was 83-15 against breaking rules and laws.
The new poll builds on previous polling showing a greater appetite on the right for disregarding the usual guardrails.
The Public Religion Research Institute over the years has asked a similar question about whether a president should be “willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right.” In October, it found Republicans were about 20 points more likely to agree with that statement, and a majority of Republicans who viewed Trump favorably agreed. Back during the 2016 campaign, Trump primary supporters were significantly more likely to endorse that statement than supporters of other GOP candidates; Trump primary voters agreed with it nearly 2-to-1, 65 percent to 34 percent.
Where the new Fox poll breaks ground is in adding a significant phrase: “and laws.”
Respondents weren’t just being asked about violating some long-standing political or governmental norms, or testing the bounds of a president’s constitutional prerogatives; they were asked whether doing something illegal is theoretically justified. And while nearly two-thirds of 2020 Trump backers disagreed, that 30 percent is a huge segment of America.
(Unlike the 2016 poll, there doesn’t seem to be a substantial divide between Republicans who back Trump in the primaries and other Republicans; the number for Trump 2024 primary backers specifically is 28 percent — similar to Republicans overall.)
It’s valid to ask how much people actually, in their heart of hearts, endorse a president breaking the law. Perhaps many of those who would endorse a president breaking rules focused on that half of the question, ignoring the part about breaking laws. But the full question included breaking laws, and that didn’t seem to be enough to dissuade 3 in 10 on the American political right from aligning with the view.
It’s easy to see this manifesting itself in some significant ways in the months and years to come.
One obvious way is if Trump is convicted of trying to subvert the 2020 election and/or withholding classified documents. The GOP’s defense mechanism right now is mostly that Trump is innocent and/or being politically targeted. But if the evidence winds up being overwhelming, it’s not out of the question that many backers could reason that Trump was somehow justified in what he did — either because they wrongly believe the election was stolen or because he might have had some kind of good reason to keep those documents.
The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol is a good example of how that can play out. Confronted with overwhelming evidence of Trump supporters turning violent to overturn the election, many Republicans have talked themselves into the idea that the insurrection was in some ways justified or not so bad.
The other big way this matters is in what it could portend if Trump is elected again. Trump and his supporters have made little secret that they intend to pursue a more authoritarian second term. This suggests that a substantial portion of the party views going beyond the law as potentially necessary and justified. They could form a (potentially loud) base of support urging him on.
We should expect more polling where this comes from. And we should all keep a close eye on it.