The most common (only?) question I get when people find out I am a political reporter goes something like this: How did Donald Trump do it?
By "it," people mean — as you undoubtedly have guessed — presumably winning the Republican presidential nomination and, according to most national polling, running nearly even with Democrat Hillary Clinton in general-election match-ups. I often spend a lot of time explaining the "how" and the "why" behind Trump, but this chart from Gallup pretty much says it all:
What the chart shows is that this is the third straight year that 1 in 3 (or fewer) Americans have confidence in 15 of the country's largest and most established institutions. Over the past decade, 12 of the 15 institutions have dropped in terms of trust from the public; only the presidency (plus 3), the medical system (plus 1) and the military (no change) don't fall into that category. The biggest decliners over that same period are banks (down 22 points in overall trust) and church/organized religion (down 11). Congress, TV news and newspapers are all down 10 points in trust over that time.
Gallup's Jim Norman writes of the data:
Americans clearly lack confidence in the institutions that affect their daily lives: the schools responsible for educating the nation's children; the houses of worship that are expected to provide spiritual guidance; the banks that are supposed to protect Americans' earnings; the U.S. Congress elected to represent the nation's interests; and the news media that claims it exists to keep them informed.
The old pillars of society are eroding. No new pillars — or at least no new pillars that a large majority of the public recognizes as pillars — are taking their place. The result? Massive levels of anxiety coursing through the public even as we become more and more convinced that the institutions we once relied on to keep us safe and prosperous are not only not able to do that but may well be fundamentally corrupted themselves.
Enter Donald Trump. A billionaire who isn't beholden to anyone because he doesn't take any campaign contributions. (He does of course, but, well, whatever.) Who rejects political correctness. Who offers the most comforting of assurances for an anxious nation: This isn't that hard. I can fix this.
The idea of Trump as the person to calm anxiety seems off. But his brashness, his dismissiveness of criticism, the fact that he is so different from any other politician currently operating on the national landscape all play into the broader sense that maybe the time has come to try something totally different. You can easily imagine a Trump supporter justifying his or her position based on the thought that he can't do any worse than the people who have been elected president — or to Congress — in recent years.
The fact that Trump mixes into his pitch a broad-scale indictment of Congress and, especially, the news media doesn't hurt either. In choosing those targets, he's playing into the rising misgivings people already have with those institutions. "These members of Congress and these reporters that you always thought were lying to you? They were!" is what Trump is really saying. "And I will never lie to you."
In a world in which it feels to many people that there is no safety net waiting to catch you if you slip, Trump's message has particular resonance. He offers a form of solace — a giant, comfy landing spot. Trump will fix things. He'll turn this all around. He'll — wait for it — make America great again.
The lack of faith in institutions sits at the beating heart of Trump's appeal to voters. And whether or not he beats Clinton in the fall, the popularity of that message won't suddenly disappear.