According to Rasmussen Reports’ latest Trump Change survey, 62% of likely Republican voters expect Donald Trump to be their nominee for the presidency next year. Back when he announced his candidacy, only 29% held that view.

I’ve been pondering the Trump phenomenon in the last few weeks. Despite his often-bizarre commentary on topics ranging from Mexico, China, and Megyn Kelly, Trump has picked up steam and held on to front-runner status.

More importantly, as The Economist notes, “It is not just Tea Party Folk and whites without a college education who like him; so do a lot of evangelical Christians, who might be expected to look askance, and many self-described moderates.”

Why is a sizeable chunk of the electorate showing Trump such love while turning their backs on candidates sporting far more relevant credentials on their C.V.? The answer, I believe, has a lot to do with trust.

To understand Trump’s performance in the polls, we need to better understand how he is tapping into the electorate’s crumbling trust in “the Establishment.” And to fully appreciate that, we need to understand a bit more about the power of trust more generally.

A Brief History of Trust

In his excellent book, The Company of Strangers, economist Paul Seabright calls our attention to the uniqueness and the significance of trust among human beings. Seabright observes that:

Our everyday life is much stranger than we imagine, and rests on fragile foundations… Nowhere else in nature do unrelated members of the same species – genetic rivals incited by instinct and history to fight one another – cooperate on projects of such complexity and requiring such a high degree of mutual trust as human beings do… Now trust is the mortar for most of the encounters between strangers in a modern society.

For most of our history as a species, encounters between strangers were fraught with suspicion, mutual distrust and, often, violence. Trust was typically limited to the reach of kith and kin and life was, as Hobbes put it, “nasty, brutish and short.”

But things began to change during the time of the Renaissance, gained pace throughout the Enlightenment, and took off during the Industrial Revolution. What drove this change?

As Harvard economic historian Niall Ferguson explains in Civilization: The West & the Rest, beginning in about the 1500s, the West developed and institutionalized six key “social concepts” – or, as Ferguson styles it, six “killer applications” of Civilization: competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic.

Collectively, these institutions created what I like to call a “trust infrastructure” that worked to facilitate trust among strangers as a presumed norm. The graph below demonstrates the consequence: global GDP per capita rocketed.


I’m oversimplifying a nuanced argument here, but suffice it to say that these six applications allowed social trust to expand beyond kith and kin networks such that people could place an exceptional degree of faith in unfamiliar faces. That is, they allowed for trust among strangers in an institutionalized context, in turn allowing for trust at scale.

Frighteningly, today, this “trust infrastructure” is under assault and fraying all around us.

Trust Crisis

In practice, we don’t really place our trust in the particular individual who drives the bus we take to work each day. Instead we trust that the bus company produces well-trained and well-rested drivers.

As security expert Bruce Schneier puts it in Liars & Outliers:

Society can’t function without trust, and our complex, interconnected, and global society needs a lot of it… We need to be able to trust the organizations and institutions that make modern society possible.

This is all well and good until we step back to consider just how fragile our faith in institutions and systems has become today. The wholesale erosion of trust in government, business, banks, organized labor, the courts, the media, and even the Church is well documented.

Just look at Gallup’s June 2015 poll that asked Americans how much trust they placed in their core social institutions:


Ratings over the last two years mark the lowest ebb in American’s confidence in all social institutions since Gallup began systematic updates way back in 1993. And leading the way in failing to merit the public’s confidence is Congress, whose 8% confidence rating is now a mere one point better than its 7% rating of last year – the lowest Gallup had ever measured for any institution.

Enter Donald Trump, Stage Far-Right

Trump is symptomatic of this trust crisis. And he knows how to play our loss of trust to his personal gain, carefully and consistently portraying himself as an “outsider,” not tainted with the sins of the Establishment candidates.

This outsider status is key to his popularity. A recent poll found two thirds of Republicans in Iowa arguing that the country needs an outsider president, with Trump sharing highest marks with two other outsider candidates, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina.

As the Economist notes, Trump may not care whether he qualifies as a conservative but he works hard to make sure that he is not viewed as a politician. He says things that no politician would and, to his supporters, this audacity is taken as a sign of his authenticity.

Rasmussen makes the connection between the public’s distrust of the Establishment and the popularity of Trump explicit, reporting that Trump holds a double-digit lead over Hillary Clinton in voter trust when it comes to the economy and immigration and that he is well ahead of the former Secretary of State with regard to national security.

Though their policy agendas may be miles apart, Trump is a cracked mirror to his fellow interloper, Bernie Sanders. Both candidates are “telling it like it is” and gaining traction in the polls by standing outside a political system that many everyday Americans view as engineered against them.

But sowing terror into the hearts of Establishment string-pullers and bankrollers is where any similarity ends between Trump and Sanders.

Trump is a mega-billionaire masquerading as a new political deal. His phony-but-populist policy prescriptions are but a house of cards without any meaningful foundation.

By contrast, Sanders is the anti-billionaire pushing for a New Deal. He offers a real history of substantive (if untenable) stands on important issues, often hewing far to the left of his party’s centrist “sell-outs.”

Sanders’ cantankerous lack of artifice may be anathema to Trump’s bombastic performance art, but both appeal to the disenfranchised.

But is Trump himself actually trustworthy?

Of the two, Trump’s campaign is perhaps the more interesting to watch, if only because it is built consciously around the claim that “the people trust me.”  (In fact, Trump himself made just this argument to media “sell-out” Anderson Cooper.) Ultimately, the truth or falsity of his claim is almost irrelevant. As one voter put it recently (quoted in the Atlantic):

Why trust Trump? The political system has been set up against the public for years. There is no difference between the Republicans and Democrats… Do I trust him? Not necessarily, but I definitely don’t trust a lot of the other ‘candidates’.

As Philip Rucker at the Washington Post points out, 2016 is fast becoming “the election of the outsider.” Sure, Trump playfully pushes buttons, belittles enemies, and seeks to stir a sensationalist ruckus. Sure, he has some questionable business deals to his name (not to mention some less than presidential TV appearances). And, sure, he may be little different than your run-of-the-mill right-wing candidate: anti-immigration, anti-tax, anti-government, pro-big-business. But at least he’s not one of them.

As Washington’s petty politicking systemically undermines the trustworthiness of social institutions, Six-Pack Joe will continue to be drawn to Trump’s record if only because it is unsullied by a sullied Establishment that even Speaker Boehner gave up on. As Seabright puts it:

When the whole structure of a modern society rests on such a foundation, it is not surprising that the collapse of trust that can follow a banking scandal, a political upheaval, or the exposure of corruption among trusted public figures can take on the dimensions of a major social earthquake.

This is why the electorate continues to champion Trump while scorning better-qualified candidates: he has harnessed the undeniable power of “trust tectonics.“

In Trump We Trust.