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Opinion | Cass Sunstein

Would support for Trump increase if he apologized?

President Donald Trump speaking on Tuesday at an event marking the 400th anniversary of the first representative assembly, in Jamestown, Va.
President Donald Trump speaking on Tuesday at an event marking the 400th anniversary of the first representative assembly, in Jamestown, Va.Alex Brandon/AP Photo/Associated Press

President Trump apparently learned a kind of code from one of his mentors, Roy Cohn: Always hit back. Never apologize.

A rough and occasionally vicious lawyer, Cohn was chief counsel for Joe McCarthy. He practiced what he preached.

Was Cohn right? There is a lot of evidence that he was.

But existing evidence is preliminary, and it does not involve presidents, let alone Trump. If a president, particularly this president, does something offensive or horrifying, is he better off if he says that he is sorry? And if not, why not?

With the help of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, I recently investigated these questions. I asked about 400 demographically diverse Americans how they would react if Trump apologized for his recent tweet suggesting that four Democratic congresswomen of color should “go back” to the countries from which they “originally came.”

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I asked people whether an apology would make them more inclined to support Trump, less inclined to support him, or neither more nor less inclined to support him.

The results were clear. A majority — 51 percent — said that they would be neither more nor less likely to support him. Thirty percent said that an apology would make them less likely to support him. Only 19 percent said that an apology would make them more likely to support him.

If we did a little deeper, the picture gets even more striking.

Because Trump’s tweet targeted women, you might think that the apology would be more likely to help with women. Wrong.

In fact, the percentage of women who were likely to show less support, as a result of the apology, was higher than the percentage of men.

Trump’s tweet targeted Democrats, and you might think that the apology would move at least Democrats. It didn’t. Democrats, Republicans, and independents showed essentially identical numbers.

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To my amazement, I was unable to find any group that would be more likely, on net, to support Trump if he apologized for his tweet.

Why is this? Any answer would be speculative, but in speculating, we might want to do some disaggregating.

Democrats don’t much like Trump, and most of them probably abhorred his tweet (as they would abhor anything for which he might be asked to apologize). For them, an apology is not exactly exculpatory. They might well think: “He apologized only because he had to do that; he isn’t sincere. He’s a creep.”

If that’s what they’re thinking, they will hardly be more likely to support him as a result of an apology. When they say that they are less likely to support him, we might understand them to be saying something much simpler: “I’m really, really not going to support him.”

For their part, Republicans are not likely to be especially excited about an apology from their president. To them, a mea culpa might be a demonstration of weakness. They might even feel betrayed, thinking that their efforts to defend him, and to stand by his side, have been called into question.

Recall, though, that 19 percent of people said that an apology would make them more likely to support Trump. That’s not huge, but it’s not exactly small.

It follows that for some people — including Democrats, Republicans, and independents — a statement of contrition is a positive step. It signals a willingness to take responsibility for an offensive action, and to show a measure of respect to those who have been offended. A lot of people appreciate that.

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Roy Cohn was not known as a lovely man, and his enthusiasm for always hitting back, and never apologizing, was part of his unloveliness. From the moral point of view, apologizing is often the right thing to do.

It may not be wise political strategy. But even for the president of the United States, it’s a way of showing grace.


Cass R. Sunstein is a professor at Harvard Law School and author of “Impeachment: A Citizens Guide.’’