After the ballots are counted: Conspiracies, political violence, and American exceptionalism

Findings from the January 2021 American Perspectives Survey

February 11, 2021 | Daniel A. Cox

Americans have experienced one of the most turbulent postelection periods in recent memory. The 2020 presidential election was marked by record turnout amid new voting procedures in many parts of the country, a response to the coronavirus outbreak. In all, more than 155 million voters cast a ballot in the presidential election.[1]

Despite losing to Joe Biden by six million votes, Donald Trump refused to concede the election, instead launching unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud over social media. Trump’s continued insistence that Biden had not won a legitimate contest and that his opponents were trying to steal the election from him culminated in Trump’s supporters attacking the US Capitol.

The January 2021 American Perspectives Survey finds evidence that Americans are divided over not only how they feel about the 2020 election but also how they perceive the legitimacy of Biden’s win. Political conspiracy theories, including QAnon, have not disappeared after Trump’s defeat, and a significant number of Americans condone the use of violence in the face of political failures. At the same time, most Americans remain committed to the idea that the US is special and unique, even as pride in the country has fallen.

Political Turbulence After the 2020 Election

Americans express more positive than negative feelings about the outcome of the 2020 election, although the most common feeling Americans express is relief. Even as he leaves the political stage, Trump retains considerable influence among GOP rank-and-file voters. But he faces considerable challenges in launching a comeback; a large share of the public holds him responsible for encouraging the assault on the US Capitol. And Americans broadly support investigating the former president for possible wrongdoing that occurred during his administration.

Feelings About the 2020 Election Outcome

Despite record-breaking voter turnout in 2020, relatively few Americans believe the 2020 presidential election was the most important election in their lifetime. Overall, 28 percent of Americans believe the 2020 election was the single most important contest in their lifetime. Thirty-eight percent say it was more important than other recent elections, but not the most important. Twenty-eight percent believe it is no more important than other elections, and 4 percent say it is less important than most other elections.

There is a yawning partisan divide in views about how important the 2020 presidential election was compared to other recent elections. Close to half (46 percent) of Democrats believe the 2020 presidential election was the most important of their lifetime, a view shared by only 26 percent of Republicans.

Americans generally report more positive than negative feelings about Biden winning the 2020 election. More than half (51 percent) of Americans report feeling relieved (36 percent) or excited (14 percent) about Biden becoming president. Thirty-four percent of Americans had a negative reaction to Biden’s win, including feeling disappointed, angry, or frightened. About one in 10 (13 percent) Americans express ambivalence or indifference to the election outcome.

Not surprisingly, feelings differ considerably across the partisan divide. The vast majority (94 percent) of Democrats feel positively about the 2020 election outcome, but significantly more report feeling relieved than excited (58 percent vs. 36 percent, respectively). Nearly three-quarters of Republicans say they feel frightened (41 percent), disappointed (26 percent), or angry (6 percent). However, more than one in 10 (11 percent) Republicans report feeling relieved that Biden is now president.

Legitimacy Questions

Most Americans believe that Biden’s victory over Trump in the 2020 presidential election was legitimate. Approximately two-thirds (65 percent) of the public say Biden’s victory in 2020 was legitimate, while nearly one-third (31 percent) say it was not.

Nearly all Democrats (98 percent) and roughly three-quarters (73 percent) of independents believe Biden’s 2020 election victory was legitimate. This is a minority view among Republicans. Nearly two in three (66 percent) Republicans say Biden’s election win was not legitimate.

There are stark divisions by education level among Republicans. Three-quarters of Republicans who do not have a four-year college degree challenge the legitimacy of Biden’s election, while college-educated Republicans are divided, with roughly as many accepting the legitimacy of Biden’s win as denying it (50 percent vs. 48 percent).

Donald Trump and the Future of the GOP

Although some Republican leaders criticized Trump for his role in the assault on the US Capitol, he remains personally popular among rank-and-file Republicans. Nearly eight in 10 (79 percent) Republicans have a favorable opinion of Trump, while one in five (20 percent) view the former GOP president negatively. In contrast, a majority of Democrats (95 percent) and independents (63 percent) have a negative view of Trump.

Notably, feelings about Trump run much more strongly among Democrats than Republicans. There are more Democrats who view the former president negatively than Republicans who feel positively about him. More than eight in 10 (81 percent) Democrats have a very unfavorable view of Trump, compared to 36 percent of Republicans who have a very favorable view of him.

Despite positive feelings about Trump among Republicans overall, most report that their allegiance is to the GOP and not the former president. Sixty-three percent of self-identified Republicans say they consider themselves to be more of a supporter of the Republican Party rather than a supporter of Trump (63 percent vs. 37 percent). This represents a sharp shift from the fall, when polls suggested that Republicans were more committed to supporting Trump than the party.

Trump’s position is stronger among his voters, but even among this group, more identify with the GOP than with him personally. Among voters who supported Trump in the 2020 election, more than half (53 percent) say they view themselves as a Republican Party supporter rather than a Trump supporter, while less than half report that they consider themselves a Trump supporter (47 percent).


A Closer Look: Is Trump Losing Influence in the GOP?

In early January, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey revealed a significant drop among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in identifying with Trump.[2] In late October 2020, a majority (54 percent) of Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters said they considered themselves to be a supporter of Trump rather than the Republican Party. In early January 2021, these voters were divided in their allegiances. Close to half (46 percent) said they saw themselves more as a Trump supporter than a GOP supporter, while just as many said the opposite (46 percent). The January 2021 American Perspectives Survey, using an identical question, finds even less willingness among Republicans—a category that excludes Republican-leaning independents—to identify with Trump.


A Trump Comeback?

Trump retains considerable support among Republicans, but his refusal to concede the 2020 election, his unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, and his role in the attack on the US Capitol could complicate his political comeback.

Many Americans hold Trump personally accountable for the attacks on the US Capitol. Nearly half (48 percent) of Americans believe Trump encouraged his supporters to break into the Capitol. Thirty-six percent of the public reject this as being untrue, while 14 percent say they are unsure whether Trump encouraged his supporters to illegally enter the Capitol building.

There are stark political divisions. Nearly nine in 10 (87 percent) Democrats believe Trump encouraged the attack on the Capitol, while only 15 percent of Republicans agree. About three-quarters (74 percent) of Republicans say this is untrue. Twelve percent of Republicans remain unsure about the degree to which Trump encouraged the attack.

Americans generally support conducting investigations of possible crimes committed during Trump’s presidency. A majority (55 percent) of Americans say it would be a good idea for federal and state authorities to investigate potential crimes Trump may have committed while president, including a majority of Democrats (93 percent) and independents (58 percent). Less than half (42 percent) of Americans—and the overwhelming majority of Republicans (82 percent)—say this would be a bad idea.

Voter Fraud, Conspiracies, and Political Violence

Trump did much to promote conspiracy theories and misinformation while president. But even as he exits the political stage, many of these political conspiracies continue to find receptive audiences. The January 2021 American Perspectives Survey also revealed that a significant number of Americans appear comfortable with the idea of using violence to address political failures, and across the political aisle, there is widespread agreement that the current democratic system is not working for ordinary people.

Voter Fraud in Recent Elections

Amid ongoing false claims that the 2020 election was rife with voting irregularities, a large share of the public believes there was widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Nearly three in 10 (29 percent) Americans say the statement that “there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election” is mostly (14 percent) or completely accurate (15 percent). More than half (52 percent) of Americans reject that voter fraud was pervasive in the 2020 election. Nearly one in five (18 percent) Americans are uncertain about the accuracy of this claim.

The unsubstantiated claim of voter fraud is widely held among Republicans but rejected by most other Americans. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Republicans believe in widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, a view shared by only 22 percent of independents and 2 percent of Democrats. A majority of Democrats (88 percent) and independents (56 percent) say there was not widespread voter fraud, as do 23 percent of Republicans.

Americans expressed much greater agreement about the existence of fraud in the 2016 presidential election.[3] Overall, one in five (20 percent) Americans believe there was widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election, while a majority (54 percent) say this is not accurate. There is far less partisan disagreement about election fraud in 2016; 18 percent of Democrats, 20 percent of independents, and 27 percent of Republicans believe there was evidence of election fraud.

Political Conspiracies: QAnon, the Deep State, and Antifa

Although conspiracies have long been part of American public life, in recent years, online-based political conspiracy theories have gained traction among certain segments of the public.[4] The QAnon conspiracy theory has received considerable attention in the news, while other theories have emerged in response to particular events, such as the claim that antifa, the anti-fascist activist group, was mostly responsible for the attack on the US Capitol rather than Trump supporters.

The QAnon conspiracy theory includes a constellation of connected claims, but one core element is that Trump has been fighting a global ring of child traffickers with links to the political left.[5] The public widely rejects this belief. Only 15 percent of Americans believe that “Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that include prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites.” However, only 42 percent of Americans reject this conspiracy as being inaccurate, while 41 percent report being uncertain about it.

There are considerable partisan differences in beliefs about the accuracy of this claim. Nearly three in 10 Republicans say the claim that Trump was fighting a global child sex trafficking ring is mostly (17 percent) or completely (12 percent) accurate. Roughly as many Republicans (30 percent) reject this claim as inaccurate, while 43 percent report being uncertain about it. Very few Democrats (7 percent) and independents (12 percent) believe this claim is accurate.

From the earliest days of the Trump presidency, some supporters have argued that a group of unelected government officials was working in concert to thwart the Trump administration. Few Americans believe this claim, although a significant number are unsure. Less than one-third (29 percent) of Americans believe a group of government officials was working in secret to undermine the Trump administration. Approximately one in three (34 percent) Americans believe there is no truth in this claim, while a similar number (35 percent) express uncertainty about its veracity.

The belief that antifa, the anti-fascist activist group, was responsible for the attacks at the US Capitol is another claim that continues to receive support despite the lack of evidence for it. Thirty percent of the public say the claim that antifa was responsible for the violence at the US Capitol is mostly (18 percent) or completely accurate. Half (50 percent) of Republicans, 28 percent of independents, and one in five (20 percent) Democrats say antifa was responsible for the attack on the Capitol.

Political Violence and Democracy

There is a great deal of skepticism among the public about how well democracy reflects the interests of everyday Americans as opposed to the wealthy and well-connected. The view that the political system is rigged against conservatives and people who hold traditional values is also widespread, particularly on the political right.[6] Despite the prevalence of these views, few Americans endorse taking violent action to address political problems and concerns.

There is bipartisan agreement that the American system of democracy is failing to address the concerns and needs of the public. Nearly seven in 10 (69 percent) Americans agree that American democracy serves the interests of only the wealthy and powerful. Seventy percent of Democrats and 66 percent of Republicans hold this view.

The belief that the political system works against the interests of conservatives also finds considerable support among the public. Nearly half (48 percent) of Americans believe the political system is stacked against conservatives and people with traditional values. Roughly as many Americans (47 percent) disagree with this statement.

Americans with more conservative political views strongly endorse this view. Seventy-nine percent of Republicans agree that the political system is stacked against more traditionally minded people. Notably, close to half (46 percent) of independents and more than one in four (27 percent) Democrats also agree.

More than one in three (36 percent) Americans agree with the statement: “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” Six in 10 (60 percent) Americans reject the idea that the use of force is necessary, but there is significant partisan disagreement on this question.

A majority (56 percent) of Republicans support the use of force as a way to arrest the decline of the traditional American way of life. Forty-three percent of Republicans express opposition to this idea. Significantly fewer independents (35 percent) and Democrats (22 percent) say the use of force is necessary to stop the disappearance of traditional American values and way of life.

Although most Americans reject the use of violence to achieve political ends, there is still significant support for it among the public. Nearly three in 10 (29 percent) Americans completely or somewhat agree with the statement: “If elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves even if it requires taking violent actions.” More than two-thirds (68 percent) of Americans disagree with this statement.

The use of violence finds somewhat more support among Republicans than Democrats, although most Republicans oppose it. Roughly four in 10 (39 percent) Republicans support Americans taking violent actions if elected leaders fail to act. Sixty percent of Republicans oppose this idea. Thirty-one percent of independents and 17 percent of Democrats also support taking violent actions if elected leaders do not defend the country.

However, although a significant number of Americans—and Republicans in particular—express support for the idea that violent actions may be necessary, there is a notable lack of enthusiastic support for it. For instance, only 9 percent of Americans overall and only 13 percent of Republicans say they “completely” agree in the necessity of taking violent actions if political leaders fail.

The Enduring Belief in American Exceptionalism

Despite a lackluster federal response to the COVID-19 outbreak and a violent assault on the US Capitol, Americans remain firm in their belief that American culture and the American way of life are superior to others. More than half (53 percent) of Americans say that the world would be much better off if more countries adopted American values and the American way of life. Approximately four in 10 (42 percent) disagree with this statement.

There is even greater agreement among the public that the US has always been a force for good in the world. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Americans agree, while about one in four (24 percent) reject the idea that the US has been consistently virtuous in its actions abroad.

Fewer Americans believe the US has a special relationship with God. Nearly half (45 percent) the public believe that God has granted the country a special role in human history. Roughly half (49 percent) of Americans disagree.

There are massive generational differences in views about American exceptionalism. Young adults are far more likely to challenge notions that the US serves as a moral beacon. Less than half (43 percent) of young adults (age 18 to 29) believe the world would be better off if more countries adopted American values and lifestyle. In contrast, seven in 10 (70 percent) seniors (age 65 or older) agree with this statement. Young adults are also far less inclined to believe the US continues to be a force for good in the world.

Most Americans Are Proud to Be American

Overall, most Americans feel proud about their national identity. More than six in 10 say they are extremely proud (34 percent) or very proud (28 percent) to be an American. But this sentiment masks considerable cleavages among the public along the lines of race, political affiliation, and generation.

There are sizable generational divisions in feelings of pride about being American. Older Americans express much more pride in their nationality than do younger Americans. In fact, seniors are more than twice as likely to say they are extremely proud to be American than are young adults (55 percent vs. 23 percent).

No religious group expresses greater pride in their national identity than white evangelical Protestants. More than three-quarters of white evangelical Protestants say they are very or extremely proud to be an American; half (50 percent) say they are extremely proud. More than four in 10 white Catholics (46 percent) and white mainline Protestants (43 percent) also report being extremely proud about their national identity. Considerably fewer Hispanic Catholics (29 percent), black Protestants (27 percent), members of non-Christian religious traditions (26 percent), and religiously unaffiliated Americans (20 percent) report they are extremely proud to be American.


A Closer Look: Is American Patriotism on the Decline?

Although most Americans still hold on to the idea of American exceptionalism, there is some evidence that suggests fewer Americans report feeling proud about their national identity. Over the past decade, Gallup has reported “diminishing pride in being American.”[7] Pride in being American was at its peak after the September 11 terrorist attacks, with 70 percent of the American public reporting that they were extremely proud to be American in the summer of 2003. Feelings dropped in the years following, but a majority of Americans reported being extremely proud of their nationality until 2017. In 2020, Gallup reported that only 42 percent of the public felt extremely proud to be an American. The January 2021 American Perspectives Survey finds that only 34 percent of Americans are extremely proud to be an American.

However, note that the Gallup surveys were conducted via telephone, and the American Perspective Survey was conducted online. In both cases, the surveys were based on probability designs and included representative samples of the American public, but the Gallup telephone surveys required respondents to talk to an interviewer.


Survey Methodology

The survey was designed and conducted by the Survey Center on American Life. Interviews were conducted among a random sample of 2,016 adults (age 18 and up) living in the United States, including all 50 states and the District of Columbia. All interviews were conducted among participants of the web-enabled KnowledgePanel, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the US general population, not just the online population. Interviewing was conducted between January 21 and January 30, 2021. Interviews were conducted in Spanish and English.

Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households are then invited by telephone or mail to participate in Ipsos KnowledgePanel. For those who agree to participate but do not already have internet access, Ipsos provides at no cost a laptop and internet service provider connection. People who already have computers and internet service are permitted to participate using their own equipment. Panelists then receive unique log-in information for accessing surveys online and then are sent emails throughout each month inviting them to participate in research.

The data were weighted to adjust for gender by age, race, education, Census region by metropolitan status, and household income. The sample weighting was accomplished using an iterative proportional fitting (IFP) process that simultaneously balances the distributions of all variables.

The use of survey weights in statistical analyses ensures that the demographic characteristics of the sample closely approximate the demographic characteristics of the target population. The margin of error for the qualified survey sample is +/– 2.7 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence. The design effect for the survey is 1.5.


Notes

[1] New York Times, “Presidential Election Results: Biden Wins,” accessed February 8, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/11/03/us/elections/results-president.html.

[2] Hart Research Associates/Public Opinion Strategies, “NBC News Survey,” January 10–13, 2021, https://beta.documentcloud.org/documents/20457943-210016-nbc-news-january-poll-1-17-21-release.

[3] The survey asked parallel questions about the existence of voter fraud in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

[4] Zack Stanton, “You’re Living in the Golden Age of Conspiracy Theories,” Politico, June 17, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/06/17/conspiracy-theories-pandemic-trump-2020-election-coronavirus-326530.

[5] Kevin Roose, “What Is QAnon, the Viral Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory?,” New York Times, February 4, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-qanon.html.

[6] Chris Kahn, “Half of Republicans Say Biden Won Because of a ‘Rigged’ Election: Reuters/Ipsos Poll,” Reuters, November 18, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-poll/half-of-republicans-say-biden-won-because-of-a-rigged-election-reuters-ipsos-poll-idUSKBN27Y1AJ.

[7] Megan Brenan, “U.S. National Pride Falls to Record Low,” Gallup, June 15, 2020, https://news.gallup.com/poll/312644/national-pride-falls-record-low.aspx.


Survey Methodology

The survey was designed and conducted by the Survey Center on American Life. Interviews were conducted among a random sample of 2,016 adults (age 18 and up) living in the United States, including all 50 states and the District of Columbia. All interviews were conducted among participants of the web-enabled KnowledgePanel, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the US general population, not just the online population. Interviewing was conducted between January 21 and January 30, 2021. Interviews were conducted in Spanish and English.

Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households are then invited by telephone or mail to participate in the Ipsos KnowledgePanel. For those who agree to participate but do not already have internet access, Ipsos provides at no cost a laptop and internet service provider connection. People who already have computers and internet service are permitted to participate using their own equipment. Panelists then receive unique log-in information for accessing surveys online and then are sent emails throughout each month inviting them to participate in research.

The data were weighted to adjust for gender by age, race, education, Census region by metropolitan status, and household income. The sample weighting was accomplished using an iterative proportional fitting (IFP) process that simultaneously balances the distributions of all variables.

The use of survey weights in statistical analyses ensures that the demographic characteristics of the sample closely approximate the demographic characteristics of the target population. The margin of error for the qualified survey sample is +/– 2.7 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence. The design effect for the survey is 1.5.

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