For years, Texas had a mythical independence that has somehow insulated the state’s culture and its politics from the nasty and increasingly deep-seated divisions that characterize so many other domains of American life. That’s now changed.
Views of both Russian espionage and the FBI’s investigation are increasingly defined by whether the beholder is a Democrat or a Republican. The recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll illustrates this point — that the mutation of political disagreements into antagonistic views of basic facts and institutions in relation to Donald Trump and Russia are now firmly held in Texas.
Simply put, partisan dispositions have firmly set in among both Texas Democrats and Republicans. Even before the FBI’s investigation is complete, Democrats presuppose President Donald Trump’s, or his campaign’s, guilt in matters related to Russia: 77 percent say they believe that the Trump campaign “cooperated” with Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election.
This is a rush to judgment, but the partisan-driven denial of basic facts about Russian interference in the United States, and the knee-jerk distrust of the government to investigate it, work against ways to resolve conflicts in a democracy. Denying facts and undermining the investigation increase the risk of future attacks by slowing or even preventing the development of preventative measures.
To this point, many Republican voters continue to deny basic factual elements about which there is a consensus among people with direct information about the matter.
Among Texas Republicans, 81 percent deny that Russia influenced the 2016 election, 81 percent deny that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, and 77 percent believe that the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election are mostly about discrediting Trump’s presidency rather than investigating the matter.
Sixty percent hold an unfavorable view of Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential Russian election interference, 26 percent had no opinion, and only 14 percent approved.
All of this represents a hardening of pre-existing attitudes in Texas. Partisan attitudes toward election interference remain unchanged from June of last year, despite the near constant drip of new information highlighting this reality. Most Texans already have fixed opinions, even though the facts are still being gathered.
What have changed are attitudes toward the investigation and the investigators — most notably, the FBI. In past UT/Texas Tribune polls, Republicans expressed high approval, or favorability, of law and order institutions such as the military (89 percent) and police (83 percent).
But now, only 27 percent of Texas’ GOP voters hold a favorable view of the FBI, a decrease of 16 points from last June. On the other side, 48 percent of Texans now take an unfavorable view of the FBI — an increase of 13 points during that same period. Such large rapid shifts in public opinion are rare, and typically can happen only if there are strong signals from political elites — for example, the president of the United States.
But there is something more troubling. That is the ease and rapidity with which many Texas Republicans have abandoned an institution that they historically have been inclined to hold in high regard. There are, of course, precedents in Texas — for example, conservative suspicion, stocked by Texas’ political leadership, of the Jade Helm military exercises in 2015. This and other fringe examples were early signs that the suspicions of government were exploited long before Trump.
The president and his early allies can’t take all the blame for this turn in attitudes, but they’re the greatest beneficiaries of the exploitation of dark impulses that until recently were found mainly on the political fringe — and the deserve some blame for stoking these embers for their own ends.
The most striking increase in negative attitudes toward the FBI came not among the 14 percent of Texans who identify with the tea party movement, who have been and remain skeptical of federal institutions, but among rank-and-file Republican voters.
Skepticism of basic facts and suspicion of the FBI and other institutions now defines GOP attitudes on every aspect related to the investigation of Russian meddling. While this, sadly, does not separate Texas from the national dynamic, it should leave us all wishing that Texans might act to reclaim some new, improved version of their independence.
Jim Henson is the director of the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin. @jamesrhenson
Joshua Blank is manager of polling and research of the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin. @joshuamblank
A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News.
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