Republicans used to think highly of the FBI. That’s not so true anymore — thanks in large part to President Donald Trump’s continued efforts to undermine the agency.
A SurveyMonkey poll for Axios released on Saturday found that just 38 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of the FBI, compared to 64 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Americans overall, which is odd for a party that purports to value law and order. Since last January, the proportion of Americans who feel favorably about the FBI has declined, while the proportion of Americans who feel unfavorable has climbed.
It is likely no coincidence that growing Republican skepticism about the FBI coincides with persistent efforts by the White House to sow doubts about the agency and undermine its authority. Trump this week — after vigorous objections by the FBI — declassified the now-infamous Nunes memo, a partisan document that alleges abuses of power by the bureau during its initial investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia. (That investigation is ongoing.) Trump has said the FBI’s reputation is “in tatters” and “tainted.”
Trump, who earlier turned a huge swath of Republicans toward more favorable opinions of Russia, has now turned his party against his own FBI. https://t.co/7S2ytskPoq— Axios (@axios) February 3, 2018
The Axios survey follows a HuffPost/YouGov poll released this week that also found confidence in the FBI has declined. According to that survey, 51 percent of the public says they have at least a fair amount of trust in the bureau, down 12 points from 2015. And that decline shows up mainly among Republicans and independents: The GOP’s trust in America’s main federal law enforcement agency declined by 22 points, and among independents it dropped 15 points.
That’s important because it’s a proxy for how the public is feeling about the Russian investigation, or rather, the agency conducting it. And the lower the confidence in the FBI, the easier it is for the president to discredit it.
The “Trumpification” of polling
As Vox’s Dylan Matthews recently pointed out, American public opinion has undergone a sort of “Trumpificiation” in recent months and years. Trump and the hyper-partisanship that accompanied his rise (and which he engendered) have changed the way Americans think about politics.
In the age of Trump, Republicans have warmed up to Russia and Vladimir Putin, while Democrats have begun to think about both more negatively. Republicans have also begun to think more negatively about free trade and have become more skeptical of the media; Trump supporters have turned against the NFL, following his attacks on anti-racist protests by players; and Republicans even changed their mind about the state of the US economy seemingly overnight.
As Matthews notes, political scientists have known for decades that presidents help form public opinion, especially among their supporters. Evidence has recently begun to accumulate suggesting that people’s opinions follow those of leaders they respect more often than vice versa.
But what’s different about Trump is in the implications of that ability: If the polling shows GOP voters are on board with his criticisms of the FBI, that’s one step closer to undermining America’s rule of law, which would be catastrophic.