Trump is a symptom of the decline of American institutions

Donald Trump (and to a lesser degree Bernie Sanders) are contemporary political phenomenon. The two outsider candidates — one having essentially won a major party nomination, the other still mounting a significant challenge– have enjoyed more success than any other “outsider” candidate in a generation. The question we hear more often than any is: how did this happen? How are Trump and Sanders doing so well? Part of the answer is that there has been a long-term crisis of confidence in America’s leaders. Trump and Sanders’s success is a symptom of that crisis.

Since the 1970s, American confidence in major political institutions has plummeted. The General Social Survey (GSS) has asked Americans about their confidence in Congress, the President, the Supreme Court and the Press every two years since 1973. Over that period, the number of Americans with “a great deal” or “only some” confidence in these American institutions has collapsed. Particularly worrying is the fact that as of 2014 fewer than 1 in 5 Americans have “a great deal” of confidence in these political leaders indicating a profound vacuum. This decline in confidence is not just a “natural” occurrence; it has very real causes. The chart below shows confidence in major political institutions from 1973 through 2014 along with the party in power at that time. I would like to point to three eras in particular and the factors I believe contributed to America losing confidence in its leaders.

Confidence in institution trend 73-14

  1. 1973-1977 – Watergate and the aftermath: President Nixon’s involvement in Watergate precipitated a steep decline in trust for the president. However, the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 temporarily restored confidence. The troubles at the end of Carter’s Presidency erased much of that recovered ground passing a diminished, if still robust, office to Ronald Reagan in 1981.
  2. 1991-2000 – The Clinton Era: The early 90’s saw a second major collapse in public confidence, but this time trust in the Presidency, Congress and the press all fell. This time period saw the birth of the 24 hour news cycle driven by cable news (CNN, founded 1980; Fox News, founded 1996) and the birth of the internet bringing a steady stream of scandals (real or alleged) into the homes of Americans on a regular basis. Into this new landscape stepped President Clinton and his inability to avoid personal scandals and Newt Gingrich and his scorched earth approach to winning a Republican majority. The diminishment of American confidence was perhaps inevitable given these forces, but with an uptick in confidence in 2000, perhaps not.
  3. 2002-2014 – Modern era: September 11, 2001 triggered a massive surge in American confidence in government as the nation rallied around the flag and the country’s leaders. Notably, the press did not see a rebirth of confidence at that time. However, this new-found confidence almost immediately began to dissipate as the President and Congress took the country into what became a disastrous and unpopular war in Iraq under false pretenses while advancing a divisive domestic policy program. Confidence in the presidency has stabilized during Barack Obama’s administration at a relatively low level. Public sentiment of Congress, on the other hand, has continued to wither as the legislature has engaged in increasingly extreme brinkmanship and partisanship.

Taking these three time periods together, a pattern emerges in the low regard with which the public hold its press and leadership. The fact that some of these maneuvers might have paid off in the short term (Gingrich’s Contract with America in 1994, Republican legislative victories in 2010 and 2014) highlights the extent to which Americans have not made leaders pay for poor behavior. We are left with a dynamic where the legitimacy of the institutions forming the foundation of our government are in question. Candidates who attack those institutions — either rhetorically or symbolically — are aligned with the large population of Americans and gain electoral advantage. But those very candidates are contributing to the decline in institutions they rail against. In many ways, Donald Trump should not surprise us; his success is the inevitable next step for a nation who can no longer stomach the institutions that govern them.