Donald Trump and a World of Distrust

WASHINGTON, DC – A crisis of public confidence in civic institutions including governments, legislatures, courts, and the media – is a central factor in the rise of Donald Trump and figures like him around the world. And so long as the crisis persists, such leaders will continue to resonate with voters, regardless of electoral outcomes.

The crisis is not new. A 2007 study, commissioned for a United Nations forum, showed a “pervasive” pattern: over the last four decades, nearly all of the so-called developed, industrialized democracies have been experiencing a decrease in the public trust in government. In the 1990s, even countries long known for strong civic trust, such as Sweden and Norway, recorded a decline.

In the United States, Gallup’s latest survey of “confidence in institutions” shows double-digit percentage declines in trust since the 1970s (or the earliest available measurement) for 12 of 17 institutions, including banks, Congress, the presidency, schools, the press, and churches; of the remaining institutions, confidence increased modestly for four, and significantly for just one: the military.

As a social anthropologist who trained in Eastern Europe in the waning years of communism, I observed firsthand what happens to a society devoid of civic trust. People viewed formal institutions with profound skepticism and retreated into social silos: informal, close-knit (and closed) circles of friends, family, and allies on which they relied for news, information, and much else. Young people saw little reason to invest in their future, and their elders succumbed to suicide and substance abuse at alarming rates.