Magdalena Wojcieszak, professor in the UC Davis Department of Communication, recently co-authored this article for The Conversation.
Trump is not alone in his distrust. Our unpublished research shows that people who support Trump have lower trust in societal institutions, when compared with supporters of leading Democratic candidates Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden.
We asked 930 U.S. residents via an online survey how much they trust six institutions that are key to a working democracy.
We chose three institutions that Americans perceive as liberal – journalists, professors and scientists – and three that conservatives either traditionally support or currently control – the police, the Supreme Court and the federal government. Each institution fulfills an essential role within a democratic society, but depends on the others to function properly.
We also asked participants to report how warm or cold they felt toward Trump, Warren, Sanders and Biden on a scale from 0 to 100.
Even when we controlled for age, education, gender, ethnicity and ideology, Trump supporters had the lowest trust in the six institutions, at 3.75 out of 7 – at least 11.4% lower than anyone else we surveyed.
That means that the patterns we are seeing aren’t caused by fitting a particular demographic profile or having conservative beliefs. In fact, conservatives who do not support Trump had the highest trust in these institutions.
This suggests that there’s something about supporting Trump that shapes how much trust Americans have in the country’s core social and political institutions.
When we looked at each institution individually, we found that Trump supporters had significantly lower trust in journalists, professors and scientists – the more stereotypically liberal institutions – than supporters of the Democratic candidates.
But the reverse was not true. Democratic candidate supporters trusted the police, the Supreme Court and the federal government as much as Trump supporters. The one exception was Biden supporters, who actually trusted the Supreme Court significantly more than Trump supporters did.
A tower of trust
Although our sample was not representative of the U.S. population, we think that these findings provide valuable insight into the state of U.S. democracy.
We don’t yet know which comes first. Does being a Trump supporter lead to lower trust in societal institutions, does having lower trust in these institutions lead people to support Trump, or do both play a role?
If being a Trump supporter leads to low trust, this could be a result of Trump’s influence, given his apparent distrust in expert advice. If people who have low trust in these institutions are attracted to supporting Trump, then this is cause for concern, considering that previous research shows that politicians are more responsive to their supporters than they are to the general public.
Politicians have the trust of their supporters, and those supporters generally trust some institutions as well. That gives those institutions power to hold the politicians accountable. If the supporters don’t trust in institutions, they have less power to enforce accountability.
Research has shown that institutions are most efficient and effective when people trust them. [See articles listed below]
The interdependent nature of institutions means that if one becomes ineffective, the others will be affected as well. For example, if citizens lose trust in journalists, journalists will not be able to keep citizens informed. If citizens are ill-informed, they may not make the best decisions when voting or lobbying their democratic representatives, which in turn may decrease the effectiveness of the government.
Like a stack of Jenga blocks, each institution that is removed makes the whole stack less stable.
— Miriam Boon, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Amsterdam; Andreu Casas Salleras, research fellow at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research, University of Amsterdam; Ericka Menchen-Trevino, assistant professor at the American University School of Communication; and Magdalena Wojcieszak, professor of communication at UC Davis.