Paleologos on the Poll: A 'cult president'? Breaking down Trump's support

David Paleologos
Suffolk University Political Research Center

What does it mean to be a “cult president”— one whose supporters will believe and trust him no matter what any other government officials, academics, journalists, politicians, and “professional” experts say? Donald Trump could at the very least be characterized as one of the few presidents with a cult of personality and a cult-like following. A dive into the Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll lets us see how and maybe even why. We’ll start with the broadest groups, and then gradually work toward the president’s most loyal following.

A whopping 78 percent of Republicans do NOT believe that Joe Biden was legitimately elected president. This is in spite of the fact that the Electoral College has certified the election and that some states which were won by less than 4 percent are controlled by Republican governors and secretaries of state. After numerous tries in different states, the Trump campaign produced no compelling evidence of any instances of widespread voter fraud in a court setting. The president since election night, however, has called the election “rigged,” and a large majority of his supporters are echoing that cry. Meanwhile, 82 percent of Democrats and independents said that Biden was legitimately elected, with just 17 percent who said he was not.

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When it comes to the power of the pardon, Trump’s following grows a little smaller. 56 percent of Republicans said that Donald Trump issuing a preemptive pardon for himself would be an appropriate use of the president’s pardon power, compared to 3 percent of Democrats and only 17 percent of independents. No U.S. president has ever pardoned themself, and many constitutional law scholars believe it would be unconstitutional or, at the very least, counter to what the Founding Fathers envisioned.

President Donald Trump waves farewell to the crowd at a campaign rally Friday, Oct. 30, 2020 in Rochester, Minn.

When asked about COVID — a virus that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans — the following shrinks but is still a sizeable force within the GOP. According to the poll, one in three Republicans said they will refuse to wear a mask during the first 100 days of Biden's administration. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has encouraged mask-wearing and provided evidence that mask-wearing reduces the spread of COVID-19, Trump held rallies all over the country this fall filled with unmasked supporters and declared the virus was exaggerated by Democratic politicians and news outlets. Meanwhile, only 1 percent of Democrats and 13 percent of independents said they would not wear a mask.

That same ratio of one in three Republicans said that they would not take a federally approved vaccine. Both Pfizer-BioNTech’s and Moderna’s vaccines passed rigorous testing trials with few severe conditions or side effects. Again, very few Democrats and independents said that they would not take the vaccine. Some Republicans even told us their main reason for not wanting to take the vaccine right away is that they do not believe COVID-19 is a real threat — something the president repeated or implied frequently over the last year.

And then we come to the innermost circle of Trump’s core followers. One in eight Republicans said that they would trust the president the most on the important medical decision of whether or not to take the vaccine — over family and friends, health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci or even their own doctor. It’s kind of a cult fiction.

Some Republicans might argue that Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had diehard followers too, who excused bad decisions because of party loyalty. Republicans will say that Democratic cultists ignored President Bill Clinton’s transgressions and impeachment and opted to believe him rather than the evidence.

But the larger issue is the void that Trump filled for many voters who wanted to believe — and still believe — that what he espoused for four years is gospel. To give a sense of just how fervent that following is, consider this crosstab from our Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll. We ask a question about which television and news sources are trusted the most. Among those who trust Fox News, 16% said that Biden was elected legitimately and 83% said he was not. If you combine the next seven news sources including PBS, NPR, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS and NBC, 93% said Biden was legitimately elected and 6% said he was not.

The challenge for Biden is to be the president of all parties and demographics, or in his own words, “a president for all Americans.” That includes the sizable number who still believe he wasn’t legitimately elected — and perhaps never will. Welcome to 2021.

David Paleologos is director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.