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Why Republican Support For Peaceful Racial Justice Protests Was Short-Lived

After being acquitted on all charges related to shooting three men, killing two and injuring one, during protests against the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Kyle Rittenhouse told Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson that he actually supports the Black Lives Matter movement and peaceful protests

Rittenhouse has been heralded as a hero on the political right for his actions in Kenosha last summer, but his views on BLM and peaceful protests have now put him at odds with his fellow supporters of former President Trump.

Republican hostility towards BLM is well-documented. In fact, the movement has become such a target of right-wing animus that Civiqs’s daily tracking polls currently show only 3 percent of Republicans support BLM. But now many Republicans oppose even peaceful protests for racial justice. 

Polling from June 2020 found that most Republican voters supported the nonviolent protests that swept across the country after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. But as you can see in the chart below, Republican support for peaceful racial justice protests has plummeted since then. 

The dearth of polling on support for nonviolent protests between June 2020 and November 2021 makes it hard to pinpoint how quickly GOP support eroded, but the partisan dynamics in the chart above are unmistakable. While the overwhelming majority of Democratic voters still support peaceful protests of excessive police violence against Black Americans, Trump voters’ approval of nonviolent demonstrations for racial justice has waned considerably.

Moreover, the 29-percentage-point drop in Trump voters’ net approval of the peaceful protests from June 2020 to November 2021 was accompanied by an identical increase in the share of Trump voters who strongly disapproved. In four YouGov/Economist polls conducted last month, an average of 49 percent of Trump voters strongly disapproved of nonviolent protests in response to the deaths of Black Americans — a 29-point increase from the average of a similarly worded question that appeared in two June 2020 YouGov/Economist polls.1

Republicans’ growing hostility toward peaceful protests for racial justice isn’t the least bit surprising, though. In fact, there were signs all along that their support for such protests might be short-lived. Polling from June 2020, for example, showed a sizable partisan gap in how strongly Democrats and Republicans backed the protests with 73 percent of Democrats strongly approving of the nonviolent nationwide protests versus just 27 percent of Republicans.

I argued back then that a big reason for this partisan divide was fundamental disagreements about why so many people took to the streets to protest Floyd’s murder. A poll conducted at the height of the protests last summer found that Republicans were 44 points more likely than Democrats (67 to 23 percent, respectively) to say that the protests were primarily motivated by long-standing biases against the police, whereas 66 percent of Democrats versus 22 percent of Republicans said the protests were motivated by a genuine desire to hold police accountable. The same poll found an even greater partisan divide in views about racial biases in the criminal justice system, with 90 percent of people who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 saying the criminal justice system treats white people better than Black people, compared to just 25 percent of Trump’s 2016 voters.

When such a sizable majority of the party rejects evidence that racial biases exist in the first place, it was always going to be tough to sustain Republicans’ support of peaceful racial justice protests. Protests of pervasive anti-Black biases in the criminal justice system simply don’t fit in a party that views racial discrimination against white people as a bigger problem than the unfair treatment of racial and ethnic minorities in American society.

Republicans appear to be even more animated by racial grievances since Trump left the White House. Indeed, there’s now some evidence that public opinion about issues involving race and ethnicity fits the same familiar “thermostatic pattern” as ideological views about the size and scope of the federal government. That is, just as with a thermostat, Republicans are reacting to the Biden administration’s warmer positions on racial issues by growing cooler toward them. The backlash against critical race theory, Republicans’ growing support for deporting immigrants, and Trump voters’ mounting disapproval of BLM and nonviolent protests for racial justice are all part and parcel of a broader trend of Republican rising conservatism on race in the Biden era.

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  1. The four November polls asked: “In many cities around the country over the past several years, citizens started non-violent protests in response to the deaths of black citizens such as George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Jacob Blake. Do you approve or disapprove of these non-violent protests?” (Blake was shot seven times by police but survived.) The two June 2020 polls asked: “In many cities around the country, people have started non-violent protests in response to the deaths of African Americans during encounters with police. Do you approve or disapprove of these non-violent protests?” Both surveys allowed respondents to say they strongly or somewhat approved or disapproved, or were unsure.

Michael Tesler is a professor of political science at University of California, Irvine, author of “Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era” and co-author of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.”