The National Trust Deficit

Disclaimer: This article in not an endorsement of any view or idea of any political candidate. No candidate discussed herein has been endorsed by the author. Matt McDaniel is running for the First District City Council seat in Baltimore City. The views of this article are not related to any political committee. More on Mr. McDaniel’s campaign can be found here.

Why is Donald Trump garnering between 20% and 35% of the potential Republican primary vote?

Why is Donald Trump able to say whatever he wants about [insert group of people] and get away without declining in the polls?

Why has almost every media attack on Trump failed?

These are just a few of the questions I’ve been asked over the last few days by folks from different points on the political spectrum (some of them are even Trump supporters wary that “Teflon Don” won’t survive “the big one” that “the liberal media” has ready to attack him). This isn’t going to be the post where I break down the historical and political realities of populist fascism and make the case that, in times of distress, people of otherwise sound wits, will make the conscious choice for the fascist alternative. (As an aside: please take caution when you compare people to Hitler in the political dialogue. Not only is Nazism so often misused so as to become a logical fallacy, but it cheapens the horrors of what Hitler’s regime did. Could modern fascist populism take a turn towards National Socialism? Yes. However, let’s first make the comparisons to Franco or Mussolini before we play the Hitler card.)

There are two important questions at the outset: 1) Will Donald Trump be the Republican nominee for President? and 2) Will Donald Trump be elected President of the United States?

To answer these questions, we need to look at what Donald Trump has done right and diagnose the reason why media attacks don’t seem to phase his campaign.

Let’s talk about the evolution of the media over the course of the last ten years. In short, it’s a monetized commodity. Journalists are both in it for the pure, unadulterated truth while simultaneously in constant competition with both other professionals and amateurs. When a lone Twitter user in Abbottabad can break the news on the death of Osama bin Laden or videos posted on YouTube can start riots, we realize that journalism, in the classic sense, no longer exists.

It is in this journalistic vacuum where we have current reporting. With the plethora of options as to where one can get one’s news, while we all endeavor to find “unbiased” sources, such sources are difficult to find. Is FoxNews a fair source? Your politics will probably color your answer to that question. The same way one might scoff at the HuffingtonPost, one might embrace the Drudge Report.

Now, you might conclude: “Ok, yes, a lot of sources are biased, but this is actually a good thing. The more I can synthesize, the more I can prevent ‘the man’ from controlling the news.” On the one hand, yes, you’re absolutely right. More sources should, in theory, allow you to look at a number of opposing views and synthesize an opinion that is somewhere around a compromise. On the other hand, the more confident you are in your opinion (and therefore less likely to change it), the more you seek out differing views.

Here we come to the meat of the article, an enormous study done by Gallup over several decades related to individuals’ confidence in institutions. You can read the study for yourself here.

What you can glean from the study is that, with the exception of the military, citizens’ confidence in institutions (from Church to Congress) is at all-time lows. Whether the populist zeitgeist is the offspring of low confidence or is the catalyst for it I will leave up to the sociologists to debate. However, in light of the reality that public trust in the media, the Presidency, and nearly every facet of American life is polling near historic lows, we have a national trust deficit.

Let’s look at your own life (liberal, conservative, or moderate notwithstanding). What are the institutions in society that you trust in 2015? Now take those answers and ask yourself if you trusted those institutions more or less a decade ago. Taking the US military out of the equation, I’d be interested to know what institution passed the test. (Don’t worry if you weren’t able to pick one).

Here’s the reality, even if you were able to find an institution that you trust (my guess is that it was something local rather than national), the majority of the people you meet on the street don’t share your opinion.

Enter Donald Trump. With a “I tell it like it is, media be damned” style and a confrontational “everyone is lying but me” mantra, you can understand Trump’s appeal. If you had a national poll about, not whether people agreed with Donald Trump, but whether Donald Trump believed what he was saying, I would hazard that most Americans would agree that they could, for better or worse, trust what Trump was saying to be what he actually thinks. (Yes, I realize that his “honesty and trustworthiness” numbers are lower that others in the GOP, but this question hinges more on whether Trump believes what he’s saying, not whether people believe in Trump.)

Certainly added to this is a segment of the American population that is tired of “political correctness” (defined in this context as “generally refraining from saying offensive things in order to get along”). This cultural issue is being satirized on the current season of South Park and is an interesting view regardless of your opinions.

So, will Donald Trump win the nomination? This question becomes less of a sociology question and more of a math problem. We should assume for the sake of the discussion that Donald Trump cannot say anything that would cause his poll numbers to decline drastically. We should also understand that the RNC, in the form of the John Kasich campaign, will be spending millions of dollars to try to put a cap on any of Trump’s upward momentum. (The RNC is also terrified of Ted Cruz, but that is a post for another day). Another important assumption is that voter confidence in the political media will not shoot back up over night. Therefore, most anything that’s reported will fail to make the impact that it may have made in previous election cycles.

With these assumptions made, it’s completely unclear if Trump will be the nominee. (Sorry for the cop-out, but I’ll explain). The current math will have Trump hovering around 30% by the time Iowa comes around on February 1st. Sure, he could go down in the next two months, but with even the most politically savvy taking time off for the holidays in December, expect no real movement until at least the first of the year. A month of hammering in Iowa will probably buoy Ted Cruz to a win in the First in the Nation Caucus.

The math then gets very fuzzy. Trump is the likely winner in New Hampshire under current modelling. If Bush, Kasich (and almost every other candidate) drop out after either Iowa or New Hampshire (leaving Trump, Cruz, and Rubio), that will be the best chance to stop Donald Trump from winning the nomination outright. Effectively dividing the conservative vote between them, Cruz and Trump will prevent one candidate from being the outright nominee by the time of the convention (folks have been floating Cruz endorsing Trump and being his VP so Trump can coast to the nomination. I don’t buy that yet for a bunch of reasons.). In this scenario, Rubio would be able to swing a convention win (if he can pick up eight states to appear on the nominating ballot).

We should really stress that if any establishment types (Bush, Kasich, Christie) stay on the ballot after New Hampshire, Trump’s chances jump drastically. The fewer states Rubio is able to win before do-or-die in Florida, the less of a chance he has to win the Sunshine State. Let’s note that the reason we are using Rubio here is out of the convenience that he is the highest polling “establishment” figure. With only two months until Iowa, while an outside chance exists for another candidate to make a sprint, there’s just not much time remaining.

So, if Rubio’s perfect storm comes together, no, Trump will not be the nominee. Otherwise, I think there’s a strong possibility Trump may get the nod.

That leads to the second question: will Donald Trump win the presidency? At this stage, it looks like the answer should be a firm no. However, the problem here is, again, the national trust deficit. Now this will be a partisan question: do you trust Hillary Clinton?

On the one hand, Hillary Clinton is the left’s Donald Trump. (People are going to get mad about that one). I’ll explain. Insofar as it seems to the average partisan news watcher that the opposition is nonsensically untouchable, Hillary and Donald are very similar. Hardcore Republicans are shocked that Hillary Clinton has not been arrested for treason and thrown in prison for her (role in/cover-up of) the 2012 attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi. Throw in the fact that Hillary’s emails and server problems have not melted down her campaign, partisan conservative voters are apoplectic that their liberal confreres don’t seem to care. The reverse of this is also true. Partisan voters for Hillary’s jaws drop as they see Donald Trump making unsavory comments and his poll numbers continue to rise. It seems, objectively, that both sets of supporters’ trust in their candidate is higher than their trust in media reports about their candidate.

The powerful point of departure from the comparison between Trump and Clinton comes down to your opinion on this: is Hillary Clinton an institution? In a Trump-Clinton showdown you may very well have the culmination of the Gallup poll. There is likely no other person outside of Henry Kissinger who could be termed a more apt definition of an “insider” than Hillary Clinton. Again for good or for ill, Hillary Clinton has “been there, done that.” First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State each came with huge amounts of connections to the institutions of power both in DC and around the world. Along with management of the Clinton Foundation, Mrs. Clinton has all of the appropriate boxes ticked to be qualified to be President. (My conservative readers’ blood pressure rose significantly through that paragraph– don’t worry, we’ll talk about the reasons why each of the foregoing are not really going to be a great boon for Mrs. Clinton sometime closer to election day. Here, I am just laying out the case for the portrayal of Mrs. Clinton as an insider.)

If you think that yes, Mrs. Clinton is an insider and that the popular trust in institutions will continue to diminish (see: economic downturn, public scandal, terrorist attack, or civil disturbances), then you will be more inclined to think that, yes, Donald Trump could be the next President of the United States. On the other hand, if you think that trust in institutions has bottomed out and that we will start to see a resurgence in public confidence, then I would think you would argue that Mrs. Clinton will be President.

A note to end the post: yes, I am well-aware of the myriad of issues that go into the socio-political picture of Presidential elections. I am likewise aware that the GOP faces a severe mathematical disadvantage in electoral college numbers in 2016. I will likely address these factors in considerable detail in the coming months, but starting with the “trust deficit” zeitgeist discussion was the most prudent and significantly underscores the situation where the nation finds itself in the context of the next election.

Matt McDaniel

Attorney and Political Commentator

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