Most Americans continue to support the nationwide protests against racial injustice, but with President Donald Trump issuing an ever-more-combative barrage of attacks, new polling shows that some Republicans have grown wary of demonstrators' demands and retreated toward saying that racism is not in fact a big problem in the United States.
At the start of June, many polls showed the emergence of a rare consensus around calls for racial justice and changes to policing, with a majority of Republicans joining other Americans in saying that racial discrimination is a big issue for the country.
But a Monmouth University survey released Wednesday found that at the end of last month, just 40% of Republicans still said racism was a big problem, a drop of 15 percentage points from four weeks earlier.
And while close to 4 in 10 Republicans told Monmouth researchers at the start of last month that protesters' anger was justified, that number fell by more than half in the new poll, with just 15% of Republicans saying so. A majority of Democrats and independents continued to say that the demonstrators' grievances were fully justified.
Sekou Franklin, a political scientist at Middle Tennessee State University, said, "It's very difficult for a conservative Republican who gravitates toward Trump to then embrace the idea that racism is an urgent issue that we need to deal with, because Trump is driving a wedge between those people and the protesters out in the street."
"But attitudes shift back and forth," Franklin added. "I think the concern among many activists and social scientists is with the moderate observer, who's now more sympathetic to the protesters. Will that person's attitudes shift back over time?"
Overall, a wide majority of Americans across age, gender and race said they thought the Black Lives Matter movement had brought attention to real racial disparities in the country - and most said they expected the current protest movement to have a positive impact on race relations.
Republicans were the only major subgroup to be about evenly split on the legitimacy and likely effects of the protests. Forty-nine percent of Republicans told Monmouth researchers that Black Lives Matter had shined a light on real problems; 47% said it hadn't.
But even if many Republicans have been receptive to Trump's messaging, that does not always mean they express satisfaction with his style. Just 43% said that his handling of the protests had made things better, while another 45% said it had either made things worse or had no impact.
Glen Bolger, a longtime Republican pollster, said that he saw some Republicans' heightened aversion as the natural result of what they are seeing in the news. "It's becoming a partisan issue, and that's clearly a shame, but there's not a lot of sympathy for the people who are blowing things up or looting stores" or taking down monuments to the country's founding fathers, he said.
But Bolger said Democrats had shown a surprising ability to avoid being painted as extreme on one particular issue: calls to "defund the police."
This has become the major rallying cry at protests, with activists pushing for a scaling-down of the police presence in municipalities across the country and a greater investment in social services. While some Democrats - including Joe Biden, the party's presumptive nominee - have distanced themselves from the language, many prominent progressives have proudly embraced it.
Trump and other Republicans have seized on this phrase, believing that most voters will find it alienating and extreme. More than half of the Trump campaign's television budget from the past week was spent on a single advertisement depicting an empty police station under a Biden administration, according to Advertising Analytics.
Over the past seven days, the campaign has spent $3.1 million on an ad that shows an answering service in the future responding to a 911 call, with scenes from eruptive protests taking over the split screen. The ad appears to illustrate a dystopian nightmare, resembling imagery from Fox News more than from the Biden campaign platform.
But the Monmouth poll's results, along with similar data from other surveys, don't bode well for this messaging. An overwhelming share of Americans told Monmouth's interviewers that when they heard protesters say "defund the police," they understood it as a demand to change the way police departments operate, not as a push to eliminate the police altogether.
Seventy-seven percent of all Monmouth respondents - including three-quarters of white Americans and two-thirds of Republicans - said this, while less than 1 in 5 said they thought "defund the police" meant getting rid of police departments.
"I think ultimately that is not as clear-cut a message for Republicans as we might have hoped, because the Democrats have kind of stepped back and clarified that," Bolger said.
Franklin, who identified himself as a longtime supporter of the movement to defund the police, said he had been surprised at the lack of "major pushback" against protesters' cries. "To the credit of activists around the country who have been working on the defund movement," he said, "they've effectively been able to dissect municipal budgets and make it explicitly clear how much money goes toward police departments, and how much money can go toward public health and other first responders."
With the public now mostly viewing "defund the police" as a call to shift funds, rather than get rid of departments altogether, the terms of the debate on the left have shifted. "The defund movement is distinct from the abolition movement," Franklin said, noting that many protesters do indeed seek to abolish traditional police departments altogether and replace them with a system built entirely around models of restorative justice.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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