People are always trying to pinpoint the moment that the free-wheeling, summer-of-love spirit of the 1960s died. For those who look back on the era fondly, maybe it faded away after Woodstock. For the pessimists, it’s more like the Manson Family murders and Altamont. It’s futile, of course, but I’ve always liked the idea of trying to pinpoint when an era begins or ends. It’s a nice, digestible way for the brain — soft and squishy with emotion and memory — to bookend vast swaths of history.
A year into this president’s first term, I’ve been trying to answer a similar question about the era of Donald Trump: When was America’s emotional table set for his election? Trump has been driving the American political conversation in one way or another for a while now, ever since he floated, tanned and confident, down an escalator to the strains of Neil Young, like an aging mallrat. But I think the real emotional buildup to Trump started before he appeared on that escalator. I think it starts with a year: 2014.
People have offered plenty of theories for why Trump won — racial resentment, economic anxiety, hyper-partisanship — but many of those things have attracted voters to other candidates in other years, candidates who were far less successful than Trump. The difference in 2016 seemed to be that Trump turned the campaign into something deeply personal for all Americans, a referendum on our national self-worth — were we already great or were we in need of great improvement? Trump disgorged sentiments of fear, loathing and hope in a way wholly unfamiliar to our sober, straight-laced politics. He was a one-man ayahuasca brew tripping Americans the hell out. It was a bad trip for some, clarifying for others.
Of course, the results of the 2016 election can’t be traced back to a single year. History elides, one event melts into the next, one year builds on the last — the sentiments of people growing and changing year over year. But a series of events can also surface strong feelings in a group of people and feed the idea that a change is afoot, that Americans’ self-presumed exceptionalism has atrophied.
Consider that all this happened in 2014: ISIS executions of American captives; the killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice by police and the ensuing protests; the annexation of Crimea by Russia; the downing of a civilian airliner by Russia; and a wave of unaccompanied minors from Central America crossing the border illegally in what then-President Obama called “an urgent humanitarian situation.”
Numbers can’t prove that 2014 was a pivotal year for the Trumpian political era to come, but they can show it was a year when Americans’ institutional trust bottomed out, something that would come into play in 2016. A few days after the election, I wrote about the erosion of trust in American institutions over the past decade. There was a link, I wrote then, between our loss of trust and electing a man who promised to start a new American order. And in 2014, overall trust in American institutions, which started falling in the mid-2000s, hit 31 percent — its lowest point since Gallup starting tracking the metric in 1993.
But what does it mean to lose trust in things so abstract as institutions? While I can’t speak for the good people who answered Gallup’s surveys, I’m guessing that what lay behind their anemic faith was a sense that all was not well, or at least all was not being handled well.
Trump’s ultimately brilliant political intuition was to burrow deep into this recess of the American mind and to reflect back the sense of creeping disarray. He capitalized on racial and economic fears, but his campaign kickoff proclamation that “the American dream is dead” didn’t just resonate with the people who might have voted for populist and nativist campaigns of the past. Trump’s appeal was broad, resonating with the relatively well-off and the well-educated. The American economy was doing fine (for the most part), but Trump tapped into Americans’ worry that their children would be worse off while navigating the swiftly shifting 21st-century economy and the potential terrorist threats lurking in subways, schools and places of business. He flipped Republican voters’ views on free trade upside down, seemingly proving that policy didn’t have to matter quite so much as the message did — political scientists might call his voters “symbolically conservative” but “operationally liberal.” “I alone can fix it,” Trump told the cheering crowd at the Republican National Convention. The “it” he was referring to was “the system.” It was a concrete offer to plug a gaping hole, though the plan of how to go about it was vague.
Americans’ cratering faith was most apparent in numbers tracking trust in the government. Confidence in the presidency fell more than 20 points between 2009 and 2014. Since 1991, when Gallup started regularly tracking numbers on the presidency, the numbers were lower in 2014 than at any time except 2007 and 2008. Congress and the Supreme Court were also at all-time lows,1 and trust in the police was at 53 percent, down 4 points from the previous year. It would slide further in 2015.
Police shootings of black Americans no doubt profoundly influenced Americans’ views on race relations, a metric tracked sporadically by Gallup since 2001. In 2013, 70 percent of Americans overall thought that race relations were very good or somewhat good, but by the next time Gallup asked the question, in 2015, only 47 percent thought so. That Black Lives Matter sparked consistent protests about the treatment of black Americans over these years can be no coincidence. Backlash to the movement would later find its form in a celebration of police and the idea of law and order, centerpieces of Trump’s campaign and presidency.
The rise of ISIS throughout 2014 tracked with a rising fear of terrorism among Americans during the period between 2013 and 2015, when Gallup asked people to rate their worry that someone in their family would become a victim of terrorism. In 2013, 40 percent were very or somewhat worried by the prospect, and by 2015, that number had risen to around 50 percent. ISIS’s viral videos of Westerners’ beheadings heralded a new age of brutal terrorist tactics and a facility with social media that spoke to young potential recruits. Trump’s campaign would later call for a ban on Muslims coming into the country, after an ISIS-inspired attack in San Bernardino, California, in 2015.
Racial injustice and a new threat of terrorism were not the only stirrings in 2014. Russian bellicosity shocked Americans who’d grown used to a foolish-seeming Putin on a horse — favorable views of the country fell by 10 points between February 2014, a month before the invasion of Crimea, and February 2015. And the online harassment and doxing of Gamergate seems in hindsight to have been only a prelude to the dark side of social media in the 2016 campaign.
Trying to pin 2014 as the start of a new era is a subjective exercise, perhaps a fool’s errand. But if politics is driven by emotion and memory, so in this case is its hindsight analysis. 2014 was in my book an annus horribilis, a blur of mortality. Perhaps if Gallup had called me, I’d have told them I’d lost trust.
In June 2014, someone I knew well was murdered. In July, Eric Garner died on Staten Island, in the city where I’d just moved. In August, I remember sitting on a fluorescent-lit subway car and reading about the beheading of a journalist named James Foley by some group called ISIS. A year later, I’d have to watch his beheading video and speak with his family for a magazine story I fact-checked about the vain attempts to save him and other Americans. Michael Brown was killed in August, too. September brought another ISIS beheading video. In October, a doctor in New York City was diagnosed with Ebola — a global terror of its own kind — and I found myself thinking uncontrollable thoughts about biohazards let loose on the subway. In November, Tamir Rice was killed in my hometown, and the midterm election gave the Republicans control of the U.S. Senate — though that’s only a blip in my memory. The emotions stirred by 2014 lingered longer with me than its discrete politics.
Perhaps that’s why the themes of fear and mortality that hovered over the 2016 election made some sense to me with 2014 in the rearview mirror. It’s hard to tell how long it takes for emotional responses like mine to get into the political bloodstream of a country, but when pricked by the right needle, America’s primal worry and righteous anger bled out over an election.