We Have the Data: Here's Why Donald Trump Won in 2016

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures to reporters as he departs Washington for campaign travel to California from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, U.S., February 18, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
February 18, 2020 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Donald TrumpInstitutions2016 Election2020 ElectionTrust

We Have the Data: Here's Why Donald Trump Won in 2016

We have the data.

President Donald Trump has a history of disregarding advice from experts, including diplomatsmilitary leaderstrade experts and scientists.

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 Our unpublished research shows that people who support Trump have lower trust in societal institutions, when compared with supporters of leading Democratic candidates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.

Trust ratings

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.

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 receives funding from ERC Starting Grant EXPO 756301, PI Magdalena Wojcieszak..

Andreu Casas Salleras receives funding from ERC Starting Grant EXPO 756301, PI Magdalena Wojcieszak

Ericka Menchen-Trevino receives funding from ERC Starting Grant EXPO 756301, PI Magdalena Wojcieszak.

Magdalena Wojcieszak receives funding from ERC Starting Grant EXPO 756301, PI Magdalena Wojcieszak and Facebook Integrity Foundational Research Awards, PI Magdalena Wojcieszak.

Their article first appeared in The Conversation.

Image: Reuters.