President Trump’s improbable campaign focused on the singular importance of trust — trust in Donald Trump against all comers. His campaign was built on the foundation that he alone was the person voters could believe in to make American great again.
The Trump campaign made it clear that voters who listened to the promises of “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz and “Little Marco” Rubio last winter and spring and the detailed plans of “Crooked Hillary” Clinton in the summer and fall were wasting their time with politicians who could not be trusted.
Moreover, Americans who read, watched, listened to, or shared negative news stories about Trump’s behavior were said to be victims of the “fake news” media.
Trump’s candidate-centered pitch to the American people focused on how his wealth freed him from being beholden to powerful special interests and the traditional ways of running a presidential campaign. While a majority of the American people rejected his message, Trump tapped into an important, and often ignored, populist undercurrent of public opinion filled with Americans who were looking for someone to take their concerns seriously.
One year after his surprising victory, the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin Madison commissioned a national survey to find out whom Trump supporters trust and how that confidence is related to who the American people want to make political decisions.
While support from Republicans clearly remains key to Trump’s chances for success, the survey reveals that party is less important than the cult of personality encouraged by Trump’s communication style. As Julia Azari has argued, the news media helped perform a coordinating role for Trump during the Republican primaries by disseminating his message.
Chris Wells and colleagues’ analysis of Trump’s tweets during the primary season found that as Trump received less attention from the media, his penchant for tweetstorms — and the fact that his followers retweeted them regularly — significantly predicted increased media attention to Trump.
We asked a representative sample of 2,000 Americans, “When the news media and politicians disagree about the facts of a situation, which one are you more likely to trust?” Seventy percent of the public chose the media.
However, among those Americans who approved of President Trump’s job performance (about 38 percent of our sample), 80 percent said they trusted politicians over the news media. These were largely, but not exclusively, white men.
This result is consistent with Jonathan Ladd’s analysis in Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters. Ladd found that elite criticism of the media contributed to a broad decrease in Americans’ trust of the news media.
When people do not trust the news media, they are even more likely than normal to see the world through partisan-colored glasses. Mark Watts and colleagues have shown that conservative elites are far more likely than liberal elites to earn media attention with claims that the news media is biased. These elite cues can significantly influence public attitudes about ideological bias in the media. A biased media is an untrustworthy media.
Since the Elections Research Center survey showed that Trump supporters believe politicians more than the media, is it the case that Trump supporters also trust politicians with making important decisions about how our democracy works?
In a word, no.
We asked survey respondents who they thought should be making our political decisions — ordinary people, politicians, or an equal mix of the two. Not surprisingly, 69 percent preferred an equal mix. More shocking was that of those who said they trusted politicians over the media (overwhelmingly Trump supporters), only 6 percent said they wanted those same politicians making decisions about running the country.
This suggests that Trump’s support is less about partisan loyalty or adherence to a philosophy of democratic governance than it is about confidence in Trump himself.
Even so, Trump has had a difficult time turning that faith into support from more than 40 percent of the American people. This is not typical of a first-year president.
On the other hand, scores of carefully reported stories chronicling Trump’s misstatements of fact, the dysfunction in the White House, difficult defeats on major issues like health care, and the growing legal actions surrounding his campaign’s purported connections to Russia have not tested the faith of his strongest supporters — people who continue to believe that Trump alone can fix what ails us.
One year after his unlikely victory, the president’s hold over Americans who are deeply skeptical of the journalists who seek to check the accuracy of his claims and report the progress on the big promises he makes remains the sharpest arrow in Donald Trump’s quiver.
Michael W. Wagner is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication and is an affiliate of the Elections Research Center, the Department of Political Science, and the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Find him on Twitter @prowag.