The usual explanations offered for the Trump earthquake of 2016 include bigotry, Russian hacking, fake news, FBI Director James Comey and xenophobia. But a pivotal factor behind Trump’s victory is that Americans have become ever more distrustful of government insiders.
According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who trust government “most of the time” or “just about always” has fallen off a cliff—from 77 percent in 1966 to 19 percent in 2015—and is now lower than during the Watergate scandal. It is therefore no surprise outsider candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump did so well in 2016, and that American voters have been turning, across all levels of government, to the party that advocates less government.
Studies indicate that trust in government improves when economies grow. What’s more, the link between a nation’s economic performance and the level of trust in government has strengthened over time as government’s role in society has increased. And economic success is also closely linked with political freedom: civil liberties are to be applauded not only for the dignity they afford but also for the economic growth that they tend to promote. By contrast, mistrust of government hinges on factors such as perceived economic inequality, the growth of influence by special interests, malfeasance by politicians and government inefficiency.
In light of these studies, there are four pieces of advice that can be offered to the Trump administration, as well as to the leaders of other countries around the globe.
First, trust is based significantly on a nation’s economic performance. As adviser James Carville aptly advised former President Bill Clinton, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Although Trump’s unfavorability rating is at a historic high for this point in a presidency, his favorability rating has risen by 10 percentage points since the election and is coincident with a nearly 14 percent increase in the Dow Jones industrial average.
Second, civil liberties and greater relative political inclusivity have been part of America’s “secret sauce” over the years—the United States motto is E pluribus unum, after all— and any attempts to reverse course in this area will be to the nation’s detriment.
Third, it will be important for the Trump administration to avoid walls and wars that are more likely to impede economic growth than to accelerate it. America’s success has hinged in large part on the country’s relative openness to the movement of goods, people and ideas.
Finally, while “draining the swamp” is an appealing slogan on the campaign trail to a citizenry that distrusts government, the Trump administration’s actions now that it is in charge of the swamp will be critical. James Madison noted in “The Federalist Papers” that “the great difficulty is this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” After the usual congressional scrutiny of the individuals that Trump has nominated for administrative posts, the subsequent performance of the confirmed officials will determine whether trust in government increases or not.
The American Republic can take pride in its long tradition of an orderly transition in power as well as in the checks and balances that underpin its democracy. That said, government by the people doesn’t ensure government for the people. Over a quarter of the world’s democracies have public sectors that are perceived as being more corrupt, as measured by the organization Transparency International, than the average autocracy. Moreover, Hugo Chavez, Recep Erdogan and Vladimir Putin all were initially elected through a democratic process. How the Trump administration fares will hinge critically on what it does to increase trust in government through ensuring that an administration elected by the people ends up also operating for the people.
Mark Zupan is president of Alfred University and the former dean of the Simon School of Business. His book, “Inside Job: How Government Insiders Subvert the Public Interest,” is slated to be published this month by Cambridge University Press.
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