Donald Trump was viewed as a low-trust individual as a presidential candidate and this perception did not improve overall after he entered the highest office in the United States, according to new research published in American Behavioral Scientist.
Despite the lack of an overall trend, the study did find evidence of divergent changes within specific demographic groups, suggesting an increasingly polarized population.
“As our clocks turned from one century to the next, 1999 to 2020, I worked with a number of notable communication scholars who had long been interested in the nature of ‘trust.’ We were fortunate to receive major funding to investigate the topic internationally,” explained study author Pamela S. Shockley-Zalabak, chancellor emerita at the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs.
“Our research efforts resulted in identifying five drivers of trust, put simply, five reasons why any of us trust or don’t trust one another, trust institutions, trust government, or trust our leaders. Those five underlying drivers of trust — honesty and openness, concern for others, competence, reliability, and identification — intrigued us, such that we tested their applicability and relevance in multiple countries such as Poland, Russia, and of course, the United States.”
For their new study, Shockley-Zalabak and her colleague, Sherwyn P. Morreale, examined how voter’s perceptions of Trump’s trustworthiness changed from 2016 to 2019.
The researchers commissioned two surveys in 2016, one immediately before the first presidential debate and the second immediately after the third debate, to measure trust in Trump and his rival Hillary Clinton. They conducted yet another survey in March of 2019 to assess perceptions of Trump as president. Each survey included a census-representative sample of 1,500 registered voters.
Both Clinton and Trump received relatively low trust ratings during the 2016 presidential campaign. Both candidates scored poorly on measures of perceived competence, openness and honesty, concern for others, reliability, and identification.
The situation did not improve for Trump after he became president. Although registered Republicans increased their trust in Trump from 2016 to 2019, there was no change among registered Independents and there was a decrease in trust among registered Democrats. A similar trend was observed for other demographic factors.
“The demographic divides evidenced in 2016 remained in 2019 and shifted to more polarized and more extreme positions. In other words, those who in 2016 had evaluated Trump most favorably increased their favorability ratings while those distrusting Trump increased in that distrust,” Shockley-Zalabak and her colleagues wrote in their study.
Shockley-Zalabaktold PsyPost that the findings highlight “how crucial it is to understand what trust is and why it’s present or not present, in relationships, communities, leaders, and government.”
The lack of trust in Trump likely had an adverse impact on his handling of the global COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide protests against racial injustice. “It is possible to conclude (and needs more study) from the 2020 crises, when a leader has low-trust entering a crisis, it will be difficult to lead the public to positive actions,” the researchers said.
“As researchers, we have worked to call attention to the profound need to rebuild trust – in one another, relationally, in our communities, in our government, and in our country. We believe the most important question, the difficult task at hand is to engage in rebuilding trust,” Shockley-Zalabaktold explained.
“Think for a moment about the polarization that exists contemporarily in the U.S., often referred to as a critical divide among U.S. citizens, based on politics and party affiliation, race and ethnicity, and so forth. Researchers, the media, and the general public need to better understand and consider how to bridge this divide,” she added.
“We are just completing a book that provides insights into the historical dimensions of this divide and offers a roadmap for rebuilding trust and collaboratively rediscovering the illusive notion of ‘one nation…’”
The study, “Voters’ Perceptions of Trust in Donald Trump in 2016 and 2019: Implications for Presidential Leadership in the Crises of 2020“, was published November 30, 2020.