How Trump Benefits from America’s Growing Pessimism 

Daniel A. Cox June 13, 2024

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In the early months of the 2024 election, polls have produced some confounding results. Some polls now show young voters evenly divided after supporting Biden by a large margin in 2020, and black voters appear to be becoming much more pro-Trump. Not all polls agree, which has made it difficult to establish a clear narrative about the 2024 race. But in one way, polls are telling a consistent story of the 2024 election: Donald Trump is performing far better with less active voters.   

In Vox, Eric Levitz argues Trump’s advantage among these less attentive voters is due to their deep and abiding feelings of distrust. He writes:  

Donald Trump redefined the GOP in the eyes of many, associating the party with a paranoid vision of American life and a populist contempt for the nation’s political system. In response, Democrats rallied to the defense of America’s greatness, norms, and institutions. As the parties polarized on the question of whether America was “already great,” voters with high levels of social trust and confidence in the political system became more Democratic, while those with low social trust and little faith in the government became more Republican. 

There’s certainly something to this. Donald Trump is far more popular among the country’s least trusting citizens. Forty-three percent of Americans who believe people are not to be trusted have a favorable view of Trump compared to 28 percent of those who say people are generally trustworthy. White Americans with low levels of trust have the most favorable view of Trump—55 percent have a positive opinion of him.  

It’s a compelling theory. After the 2020 election, I wrote for 538 about how polls likely underestimated Trump’s support among disengaged voters. Four years ago, our polling showed that “socially disconnected voters were far more likely to view Trump positively and support his reelection than those with more robust personal networks.” But Trump also dominates Biden among some of the most socially and civically connected Americans—religiously active voters. White evangelical Protestants are Trump’s most loyal supporters, and Latter-day Saints, a group that has off-the-charts levels of civic engagement, continue to support him in large numbers. In contrast, religiously unaffiliated voters, a group that tends to be far more disconnected and distrusting, remain firmly committed to Biden.  

There’s something else that binds Trump voters to their candidate: pessimism.  

Donald Trump’s Political Pessimism  

There are many ways that Donald Trump has broken with past presidential tradition and behavior. But an overlooked aspect of Trump’s worldview is how fundamentally pessimistic he is about America’s future. From the earliest moments of his campaign, Trump has consistently asserted that the United States is careening toward disaster. In a single address to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump said the United States was “a failing nation,” that it was “descending into a cesspool of ruin,” and that “we’re living in hell right now.”   

Such rhetoric represents a dramatic departure from the way his predecessors talked about their country. In Bill Clinton’s first inaugural address, he sought to celebrate American renewal, claiming that “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” The central theme of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign was Prouder, Stronger, Better. His opening campaign ad began with the memorable line, “It’s morning again in America,” and made a simple pitch to voters that things were getting better. In his 2004 speech at the Democratic Convention, then-Senator Barack Obama shared his feeling of pride in America and his vision for a hopeful politics: “In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead.” George W. Bush sought to convince Americans to embrace a vision of hope and progress, making the argument that “pessimism never created a job.” In the same ad Bush states simply, “I’m optimistic about America because I believe in the people of America.”  

Today, Biden is trying to reclaim this tradition of hopeful optimism. In his State of the Union address earlier this year, Biden struck a decidedly upbeat tone: “Our future is brighter,” he remarked, “The American people are writing the greatest comeback story never told.”  

It’s unclear whether the public is still listening.  

Fewer Americans feel optimistic about the country’s future. In a new poll conducted by my team at the Survey Center on American Life, we found that 58 percent of Americans said the country’s best days were behind it. Only 40 percent of Americans said America’s best days lay ahead. This represents a stark shift over the past few years. The last time we asked this question, a majority (54 percent) said our best days were still to come. The shift was much more pronounced among Republicans who have embraced a grim view of America’s future. Seventy percent of Republicans now believe that the country’s best days are long gone.  

Although “doomerism” has become commonplace in American discourse, Trump is one of the chief purveyors of political pessimism. And the Americans most prone to negativity are the ones most strongly backing Trump’s candidacy.  

Pessimism is a stronger predictor of vote preference than trust. Voters who are optimistic about America’s future support Joe Biden over Donald Trump by an incredible 36-point margin (68 percent vs. 32 percent). Pessimists, meanwhile, prefer Trump by a wide margin.  

Trump’s triumph with pessimists cannot be written off completely as an artifact of partisan pessimism. Overall, Republicans express far more cynicism than Democrats about the state of the country, but the pessimism gap is found even among Republican voters. Hopeful Republican voters are most likely to defect from Trump in the 2024 election. Eighty-six percent of Republican voters who say America’s best days are behind it currently support Trump, compared to 76 percent of Republican voters who say the best days are yet to come.  

The American Dream is powered by optimism. But belief in the American Dream is faltering, and the dramatic shift in presidential rhetoric certainly does not instill confidence. Donald Trump’s unrelentingly negative and apocalyptic tone makes us smaller, more cynical, self-centered, and divided. It has undermined one of America’s core strengths – our shared belief that we have near-limitless potential to make things better for ourselves, our families, our community, and our country. American voters deserve to hear from both candidates not only what is wrong, but also what they believe is right with America. 

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