President Obama, in a speech yesterday, attempted to cast this anti-establishment furor of the Trump campaign as the natural culmination of years of Republican efforts to sow doubt and distrust in the institutions that have long anchored American society: government, the press, business leaders and "experts" of all stripes.
"The problem is that [Republican leaders] have been riding this tiger for a long time. They’ve been feeding their base all kinds of crazy for years, primarily for political expedience," Obama said.
Polling data sheds some useful light on these claims. The General Social Survey, a biennial poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, has asked Americans about their confidence in various major institutions, like the press and the government, for more than 40 years now.
Across all 13 institutions the survey asks about, from the scientific community to organized religion, Republican distrust has remained at unprecedented highs during the Obama era.
On average, 28 percent of Republicans said they had "hardly any" confidence in these institutions in 2014. The previous peak of Republican distrust happened in 1993, when 25 percent said they had hardly any confidence.
Peaks of Democratic discontent with institutions tend to happen during Republican presidencies, and they tend to be more muted in their distrust. Peak Democratic distrust happened in 2006, when it reached 24 percent under George W. Bush.
But the current Republican malaise is unprecedented, both in its level of intensity and in its remarkable staying power: The survey shows that deep Republican distrust of institutions has held steady at 27 or 28 percent through the entire Obama presidency. Under Clinton, by contrast, Republican displeasure peaked in his first year in office and then subsided significantly by the end of his eight-year term.
At the risk of stating the obvious, institutions are powerful forces in American society because they project authority. They help set norms and define the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
Throughout the campaign, GOP leaders, scientists, the media and even the business community have tried to place Trump outside the bounds of acceptability in American politics. They failed, in no small part because of the significant contingent of GOP voters who hold these institutions in such low regard.
Brookings Institution's Robert Kagan wrote earlier this year that the Trump phenomenon is an example of what political philosophers have warned about for centuries: "that the people in a democracy, excited, angry and unconstrained, might run roughshod over even the institutions created to preserve their freedoms."