“Which comes closest to your view?” the pollsters asked, giving respondents two options. The first was borderline dystopic: “Our lives are threatened by terrorists, criminals, and illegal immigrants and our priority should be to protect ourselves.” The other was far sunnier: “It’s a big, beautiful world, mostly full of good people, and we must find a way to embrace each other and not allow ourselves to become isolated.”
Overall, Americans were more likely to choose the second option than the first. But among Republicans, a majority found themselves more drawn to the “threatened” statement — and among those who said they voted for President Donald Trump last year, fully two-thirds embraced that view.
Look, there are a lot of reasons one might choose the negative phrase over the more positive one. The latter is a bit over-the-top, for one, like something you might read on a sandwich board outside a small coffee shop in Santa Cruz, Calif. But that’s the point. People were asked which extreme they found more closely mirrored their own sentiments. And most Republicans chose the one about the need to hunker down in opposition to shadowy dangers, even as a “not sure” option was available. (Seventeen percent of people overall took that option; only 11 percent of Republicans did.)
We should note that the dangers expressed in that sentiment are enormously overstated. Crime certainly exists, but violent crime is still well below the historic highs seen 20 years ago — and down substantially even over the past decade. The threat of terrorism is also not invented, much in the same way that the threat of dying in a plane crash is not invented. (The question implies a reference to foreign terrorism, though experts might suggest people focus their fears closer to home.) And as has been discussed repeatedly over the past six years, immigrants in the country without documentation are less likely than native-born Americans to commit crime.
Some of this may be a function of pessimism after President Biden’s election. We know, for example, that views of how the country is progressing are often partisan, something shown in Economist-YouGov data.
In October, 62 percent of Republicans said the country was headed in the right direction, compared with 4 percent of Democrats. In the most recent poll, 55 percent of Democrats held that view, compared with 13 percent of Republicans.
So maybe this bunkering mentality on the right is a reflection of concern about where the country is headed as much as where it is. But then, this is also what Trump spent much of last year talking about. This was the threat he raised: Elect Biden, and the country will devolve into a crime-ridden nightmare. Trump said that this is what would happen if he lost, and then he lost.
Or maybe this is simply what Trump leveraged to win in the first place. His 2015 announcement of his candidacy reflected similar concerns about the purported threats posed to Americans and his presidency focused on confronting these boogeymen. Or maybe this is a reflection of the coronavirus pandemic’s isolating effects.
Regardless of causality, this is where we are: Most Republicans and a large majority of Trump voters ascribe to an everyone-for-themselves approach to gauzy dangers over a maybe-we-can-work-together worldview. A bleak enough finding that it’s worth elevating.