A CNN poll released Monday found that 60% of Americans approve of the indictment of former President Donald Trump. And if you dig a little deeper into the results, there’s a fascinating data point about what the public believes drove the indictment.
According to the survey, which was conducted between March 31 and April 1 — immediately after reports emerged that a grand jury had voted to indict Trump — 61% of Democratic-leaning Americans believe politics played a role in the indictment. That number is far lower than the 94% of Republican-leaning respondents who think the same way, but it’s also much more unexpected.
Here’s why. Almost all Democratic-leaning Americans surveyed also approve of indictment — 93% of them to be exact. Taken together, this means a huge chunk of people who lean left-of-center support the indictment, even though they think it’s driven on some level by a political agenda.
There are a few different possible explanations for this, some tied to Trump himself and others to the country’s evolving beliefs about the purpose and trustworthiness of bedrock American institutions. Some reasons are understandable, but others raise uncomfortable questions about whether we’re at risk of entering an irreversible spiral of ends-justify-the-means logic. Either way, what’s evident is that most Americans across the political spectrum believe that the era of institutional normality is over.
CNN’s survey question, “How big a role, if at all, do you think politics played in the decision to indict Trump?” is vague enough that it can be interpreted in different ways. But I think it’s fair to assume the dominant reading of that question is the belief that the charges against Trump were motivated in part by political objections to the former president, particularly as he angles for another stint in the White House.
One issue at play is America’s surging crisis of trust. According to the survey, 76% of Americans believe that politics played a role in the indictment. That view’s popularity fits with the broader trend of Americans losing faith in institutions to carry out their job properly. Trust in the criminal justice system, already very low for many years, declined even further in 2022, according to Gallup. Also, trust in the Supreme Court hit a record low last year, according to Gallup. More broadly, Americans have shown decreasing trust in every branch of government in recent years, sometimes as part of decadeslong trends.
But there’s the more specific question of why the subset of left-leaning Americans who support the indictment do so even if they believe that it was partially motivated by politics.
One explanation is that the cynicism about institutions like the courts and the criminal justice system is so widespread that there’s a general expectation that politics would play a role in charges against most any politician.
Yet Trump isn’t just any politician; there could be other dynamics at play as well. Many Americans believe Trump poses a unique and potentially existential threat to multicultural democracy, and they may believe that a politically motivated criminal charge might be justified on that basis alone. Perhaps some believe that Trump has demonstrated himself to disregard laws and rules so frequently that it is irrelevant whether or not his indictment is totally motivated by legal considerations. There’s also the possibility that some believe the indictment is simultaneously legally legitimate and political: that Trump deserves to be charged, and also that the criminal justice system has elected to break new ground in treating presidents like normal citizens because Trump specifically is so dangerous.
A single poll doesn’t provide us with definitive information about how Americans are thinking. And until we learn more about the what underlies the charges against Trump, there’s still a lot we don’t know. But one hopes that any criminal charges against Trump aren’t co-signed by a public that’s lost interest in whether or not the charges being brought against him are legitimate.