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A fifth of Trump supporters think he committed a serious crime

Juries will — or, perhaps, may — decide whether former president Donald Trump committed serious federal crimes. He faces trial in Washington, D.C., and Florida on felony charges, and, unless he’s reelected to the presidency or cuts a deal with prosecutors, those will result in verdicts adjudicating his guilt.

Most Americans, though, already think he has committed serious federal crimes. A poll conducted by Siena College for the New York Times found that more than half of registered voters thought he’d done so. That includes more independents, nearly all Democrats and even a fifth of Republicans.

It also includes a fifth of people who say they plan to vote for him in November.

In other words, a fifth of Trump’s support in a general election rematch against President Biden thinks their preferred candidate committed a serious crime.

A political observer airdropping into 2024 with no knowledge of the preceding 20 years or so would undoubtedly find this remarkable. How could someone viewed as a criminal earn so much support for serving as president? But we’ve all been here for the past 20 years and we know the answer: because he is the beneficiary of a fervent, loyal base of support and because he is the beneficiary of a media universe that has effectively muted the difference between him and his opponent.

A Fox News poll released this past weekend shows how that has worked. Respondents were asked to evaluate whether Biden and Trump were “honest and trustworthy.” Less than half said each man was; the overall difference between the two was only seven percentage points. Republicans were less willing to say Trump was honest than Democrats were to say that Biden was. Independents, too, were more willing to describe Biden that way. Among members of the opposite party, though, views of each candidate were in the single digits.

The Fox News poll (which, unlike the news channel’s coverage, can be considered reliably objective) also asked if each candidate was more inclined to do what’s best for himself or what’s best for the country. Respondents were more likely to say Trump focused on what was best for himself — but more than half of respondents (including independents) said that Biden, too, mostly did what was best for himself.

It is not new that Biden is viewed as being only slightly less tainted than Trump. A September Fox News poll also found that Trump was more likely to be identified as corrupt — but, again, not by much.

A lot of this is driven by views among Republicans, which generally sit at the polar opposite of views held by Democrats. Democrats, for example, see the charges Trump faces as legitimate. Republicans, by contrast, see the impeachment inquiry targeting Biden that way, which … ehhhh.

But the differences here are subtle overall and among partisans. The effort to portray Biden as ethically compromised has been largely, though not entirely successful. A fifth of Republicans think Trump committed a crime but will vote for him anyway, probably in part because they don’t care about the crimes Trump committed (like trying to retain power despite losing in 2020). In part, it’s probably because they have convinced themselves that Biden isn’t any better.

Here, Fox News (the pollsters) are in part measuring the effectiveness of Fox News (the right-wing media channel). Much of the network’s coverage last year centered on a now-discredited claim that Biden had taken a bribe. It has energetically promoted the impeachment inquiry as serious and legitimate. Coverage has been unwavering, as it usually is.

“Democrats do not build their own echo chambers the way Republicans do,” former Republican strategist Sarah Longwell said in an interview with the New Yorker. She added, “Having spent a long time on the Republican side, I am constantly flabbergasted by the inability of Democrats to prosecute a case against Republicans relentlessly, with a knife in their teeth.”

Trump’s politics have been rooted in whataboutism since the outset. For every allegation against him, he and his supporters have a “well, what about” counterexample drawing an often unfair comparison with someone on the left. The House Republicans’ effort to impeach Biden may not have been specifically initiated to reduce the implied condemnation of impeachment or even to cast Biden as unethical. There are a lot of Republicans, it seems, who are unable to recognize the flimsiness of the existing case.

Whether that outcome was intentional or not, those have been the outcomes. Criticizing politicians as unethical is, of course, a low-friction rhetorical path. But that this rhetoric has resulted in Biden being seen as only slightly less unethical than Trump is unquestionably a remarkable achievement for the right.

So much so that a fifth of those who support the likely Republican nominee view him as criminal. But, they would argue: at least he isn’t Biden.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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