It has been suggested in the populism literature that the people have lost trust in established government.Footnote 1 They have become disenchanted with its officials and institutions (including mainstream political parties) in what some have called a ‘crisis of representation’.Footnote 2 This generates an opening that the populist leader can exploit. At the same time, commentators on populism have recognized (sometimes explicitly, but usually implicitly) a trust that exists between the public and the populist leader. Populist leaders are said to portray themselves as ‘one of the people’, which persuades the people to perceive them as similar to the people (and in turn to perceive them as ‘authentic’).Footnote 3 Following on from these populist appeals to similarity, the people then put ‘an exaggerated amount of faith’,Footnote 4 or ‘unquestioned trust’, in the populist leader.Footnote 5
Despite its recognition of such a trust between the public and the populist, the populism literature has done relatively little work on theorizing the functioning of this trust, including with reference to scholarship on trust from other disciplines.Footnote 6 Antonio Masala, for example, has recently emphasized that, ‘quite surprisingly, the problem of how populism compares to the issue of political trust seems extremely understudied’.Footnote 7 This trust has significant implications for the relationship between the public and the populist leader (the ‘populist–public relationship’). There is a broad consensus that public trust is valuable to political leaders because it can lend public support to their policies and promote compliance from the public without coercion.Footnote 8 For these reasons, public trust is regarded as a ‘political good’.Footnote 9
We seek to help fill this gap in the populism literature by merging that literature with the growing scholarship on trust from philosophy, psychology and other social sciences. Based on this merging, we argue that following on from the populist’s appeals to similarity, the populist–public relationship involves an intertwining of two principal forms of public trust: the public’s trust in the populist and the public’s trust in itself (what we term ‘public self-trust’).Footnote 10
Public self-trust is an understudied form of trust. So, in developing our argument, we also aim to advance conceptual understandings of public self-trust in the political context. In commenting on representative government, political and constitutional theorists have made vague references to public self-trust, recognizing what they regard as a tension between it and the public’s trust in its political representatives (‘political trust’).Footnote 11 With greater public self-trust, it has been suggested, comes reduced political trust. James Bryce, in the American Commonwealth, warned that public ‘self-confidence may easily pass into jealousy of delegated power, an undervaluing of skill and knowledge, a belief that any citizen is good enough for any political work’.Footnote 12 Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, observed that when the people are ‘placed on an equal footing’ (as he saw American democratic participants), they ‘are constantly brought back to their own reason as the most obvious and proximate source of truth’, the consequence of this being that ‘not only [is] confidence in this or that man … destroyed, but the disposition to trust the authority of any man whatsoever’.Footnote 13
While public self-trust may be in tension with public trust in established government actors, we contend that this tension does not arise in the populist–public relationship. Quite the reverse of tension, we submit that public self-trust and public trust in the populist can be mutually reinforcing: public self-trust can reinforce the public’s trust in the populist, and vice versa. And this mutual reinforcement has the potential to create a positive feedback loop of public trust that, given the value of public trust to political leaders, empowers the populist: it can assist them in garnering public support for their policies and promoting public compliance.
To be clear, our argument in this article is theoretical rather than empirical. The scholarship on trust comprises two principal categories. First, there is a body of theoretical work. Scholars across the social sciences have conceptualized what trust is, have theorized how we can expect trust to function, and have made theoretically grounded predictions about the consequences of increased and decreased trust. Second, scientists have conducted empirical investigations of trust. In an effort to test untested theoretical arguments or to understand more generally the social determinants and consequences of trust, they have examined the relationship between trust and a variety of variables. Our argument here falls into the former category of research. It does not offer an empirical investigation of trust. We advance, rather, a theoretical argument about how we can expect trust to function in the populist–public relationship. We root that argument in both the theoretical and empirical research on trust, extrapolating from the arguments developed and findings made in that research to the specific context of the populist–public relationship. Moreover, the extent to which our argument could be empirically investigated is questionable. For example, traditional measures of public trust (i.e. surveys) are often challenged for their ‘conceptual confusion’ (given different understandings of trust and its relationship with other related concepts like reliance and confidence) and for not accounting for the context specificity of trust (something we discuss briefly later).Footnote 14 These difficulties are compounded by our suggestion that different forms of trust can mutually reinforce one another.
The article is organized as follows. In Part II, we offer a brief summary of how we understand ‘populism’ (as well as the ‘populist’), and the contribution that we seek to make to the populism literature. In Part III, we explain the notions of political trust and public self-trust, describing what it means for members of the public to both have trust in the populist and have trust in themselves. Then, in Part IV, we use the scholarship on trust to clarify how it is possible for public self-trust and public trust in the populist to mutually reinforce one another. This is followed by Part V, in which we describe the positive feedback loop of public trust that we envisage being created, along with its limitations. Section VI concludes the article.
II. What is populism? And who is the populist?
The populism literature offers countless definitions of the term. Cas Mudde, for example, defines populism as a ‘thin-centred ideology’ that ‘considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite”, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people’.Footnote 15 Jan-Werner Müller defines populism in his book What is Populism? as ‘a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and unified – but ultimately fictional – people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior’.Footnote 16 Populism has also been defined, however, as a discourse,Footnote 17 a mode of persuasion,Footnote 18 a political strategy,Footnote 19 a political style (or performance),Footnote 20 a political logic,Footnote 21 a political phenomenon,Footnote 22 a particular type of constitutional pathology,Footnote 23 a mode of political identification,Footnote 24 a representative process,Footnote 25 and a theory of social choice,Footnote 26 among others. At the same time, populism assumes various forms.Footnote 27
Given the many definitions and varieties of populism, our aim in this article is not to propose yet another definition or re-definition of the concept. It is, rather, to use the concept of trust to add nuance to current understandings of the populist–public relationship, relying on a Weberian ‘ideal-type’ of the populism concept. This ideal-type of populism, based on our reading of the literature, comprises two principal elements: first, a political frame divided into two opposing groups – between gouvernants and gouvernés, between them and us, more specifically between the ruling elite (or oligarchy) and the ‘pure’, ‘real’ or ‘ordinary’Footnote 28 people; and second, a rejection of mediated politics, and its intermediaries, as illegitimately and unjustly thwarting the expression of the popular (or general) will, the ‘will of the people’.Footnote 29
That said, the ideal-type of populism may assume different forms, depending on the circumstances. Our analysis therefore may not apply equally to all varieties of populism, right or left, bundled or unbundled.Footnote 30 In particular, our analysis is tied to the idea of the ‘populist’ or ‘populist leader’; however, not all populist movements or populist parties have a clear, strong and influential leader.Footnote 31 By ‘populist’ we mean a leader who demonstrates characteristics or uses methods that are consistent with our understanding of populism as outlined above. It is important to recognize, however, that populism is not all-or-nothing, but rather a matter of degree.Footnote 32 Most, and perhaps all, democratic leaders demonstrate characteristics, or use methods, that we may characterize as ‘populist’. Thus, the ‘populist’, as we use the term in this article, captures many different types of leaders, although some will fit more easily than others owing to such characteristics or methods being more prevalent.
Lastly, we do not aim to make any strong normative claims about the value of populism. While many writers on populism have adopted a critical stance on the phenomenon and its implications, notably on constitutionalism,Footnote 33 others – most famously scholars of the Essex school, such as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe – have characterized populism (more specifically its left-wing variant) as an ‘emancipatory force’ that is beneficial for democracy.Footnote 34 Populism has likewise been praised for its mobilization effects.Footnote 35 Some writers have even criticized the very use of the term ‘populism’ for its negative, pejorative and even disqualifying connotations.Footnote 36 Recognizing the risk of ‘self-idealization’ by ‘good democrats’,Footnote 37 we thus strive in this article not to make value judgments regarding populism.
III. What are political trust and public self-trust?
To understand both political trust and public self-trust, we must first understand trust more broadly. Trust is a relational concept.Footnote 38 This means that trust is not a disposition of an individual actor, but rather a property of a social relationship. That ‘trust relationship’ comprises three parts – a trusted actor (or trustee) (A), a trusting actor (or truster) (B), and some defined matter (X) – where the relationship takes the form of ‘B trusts A with respect to X’.Footnote 39
While it is well recognized that trust operates at multiple levels, including the affective and behavioral levels, our focus in this article is on trust at the cognitive level. In other words, we are interested in trust at the level of thoughts or beliefs held by the truster (as opposed to the truster’s emotional response or actions towards the trustee). Consequently, we define trust in terms of expectations that are held by the truster (B) about the behavior of the trustee (A). To say that B ‘trusts’ A with respect to the relevant matter (X) means, at least very generally, that B holds positive expectations about A with respect to X: specifically, B holds positive expectations about A’s motivations towards B, and about A’s competence.Footnote 40 In the case of political trust, for example, B in the three-part relationship represents members of the public, and A represents the public’s political representatives – either established government actors or the populist. So to say that the public trusts an established government actor or the populist means the public has positive expectations about that actor’s motivations and competence.
Self-trust is a form of trust.Footnote 41 Hence, like trust, self-trust is relational.Footnote 42 In the case of self-trust, however, the truster (B) and the trustee (A) are one and the same. The truster is therefore in a relationship with their own self.Footnote 43 That said, the relationship is of the same form as with other cases of trust: the relationship thus takes the form of ‘the truster trusts their own self with respect to X’. In the specific case of public self-trust, the truster and the trustee represent a member of the public, and what is at issue is the trust held by that member of the public in their own self.
To be clear, by public self-trust we do not mean the trust that members of the public have in one another – what we may call ‘social trust’. Public self-trust refers, rather, to the trust that each member of the public has in their own self, generalized across a given population. Consequently, to say that the public trusts itself (or has self-trust) signifies that each member of the public, generally speaking, trusts their own self. It does not mean that each member of the public trusts their fellow members of the public. That would constitute social trust. And while we recognize that social trust has relevance for political trust, that is not our focus in this article.Footnote 44
For a truster to trust their own self means they have positive expectations about their motivations and competence.Footnote 45 A truster with self-trust expects that they will have the integrity, willingness and ability to do something: they expect that they have the character to do it, and are willing and competent to do it, having both the knowledge and skillset required. Self-trust is context-specific, however, with the context defined by X.Footnote 46 As philosopher Trudy Govier explains, ‘No one trusts herself absolutely and in every respect’; we trust ourselves, rather, in specific domains or with defined tasks.Footnote 47 Accordingly, whether a truster expects that they will have the necessary motivations and competence depends on the relevant context.
The context within which we are dealing in this article – in relation to both political trust and public self-trust – is politics, broadly defined. More specifically, the relevant context is political decision-making. The political decisions that are at issue pertain to a wide array of political areas, ranging from the economy, social welfare and immigration to national security and foreign affairs. In the case of public self-trust, therefore, we are concerned with the trust that members of the public have in themselves in terms of making political decisions of this sort. So, extrapolating from the above discussion, to say that a member of the public trusts their own self with respect to politics means that they expect to have the integrity, willingness and competence to make political decisions of the above-identified sort. They consider that they are a person of sufficient character to make the relevant political decisions, are willing to do so, and are competent in the relevant area, having both the knowledge and the skillset required.
It should be noted that our concept of public self-trust overlaps with the idea of ‘internal political efficacy’.Footnote 48 The latter has been defined as ‘the belief that one has the competences “to understand, and participate effectively, in politics” … to achieve the desired outcomes by an efficient use of one’s capacities and resources’.Footnote 49 From this definition, we can see that internal political efficacy captures, at least to a significant extent, the competence component of public self-trust. However, public self-trust is broader than internal political efficacy: it additionally has a motivational component, reflecting a person’s expectations about their integrity and willingness to make the relevant political decisions. Thus, the two are related, but not the same.
IV. The mutual reinforcement of public self-trust and public trust in the populist
The public’s ‘similarity-based’ trust in the populist
To begin our discussion of this mutual reinforcement, we agree with the existing populism literature that the public’s trust in the populist is rooted primarily in the populist’s appeals to similarity. As we have noted, the populist–public relationship involves an element of similarity. Populists portray themselves as ‘one of the people’, persuading the people to perceive them as similar to them and in turn as ‘authentic’, in contrast to the ‘unauthentic’ political elite. Through these appeals to similarity (and following on from them, appeals to authenticity), populists encourage the people to identify with them as a leader. Therefore, the people are ‘led to find themselves in the character of the populist leader and thus believe that he is their messenger.’Footnote 50
As an extreme form of such appeals to similarity, some populist leaders claim to be the people’s incarnation. José María Velasco Ibarra, the five-time Ecuadorian President, for example, ‘thought of himself as the embodiment of the people.’Footnote 51 Abdalá Bucaram, another former President of Ecuador, also presented himself as the ‘embodiment of the people’s will that stood above and beyond any democratic institution or procedure’.Footnote 52 And more recently, Hugo Chávez frequently used language of this incarnation variety. At a 2012 rally in the state of Anzoátegui, Chávez exclaimed, ‘I am a people, I feel embodied in you!’Footnote 53
However, populists will not always go so far as to claim that they incarnate the people. That said, they will convey the message that they are the ‘voice of the people’, and consequently the only legitimate representative of the people. Former US President Donald Trump often said in his speeches that he was the ‘voice’ of the ‘forgotten men and women of [the] country’ and that he was ‘with you – the American people’.Footnote 54 In his inaugural address, he claimed that his election meant that ‘we are transferring power from Washington, DC and giving it back to you, the American People’.Footnote 55 He also clearly identified himself as the people – or at least their sole legitimate representative – adding, ‘What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. 20 January 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.’Footnote 56 Similarly, former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, flanked with ‘The People’s Government’ signs, said during his election victory speech in December 2019: ‘You [the people of this country] voted for all these things, and it is now this government, the people’s government, it is now our solemn duty to deliver on each and every one of those commitments.’Footnote 57
The populist’s message in this regard can also be implicit. In their communications, the populist will show that they are ‘a person, often with habits and tastes similar to those of the people’.Footnote 58 In doing so, the populist engages in what Pierre Ostiguy has called a ‘flaunting of the low’,Footnote 59 showing the public that they are ‘more authentic than the “old” politicians.’Footnote 60 Bucaram, for instance, drew on ‘popular culture and humor to attack the well-established “white” elites and champion the dignity and self-worth of his supporters’.Footnote 61 A more recent example is Trump’s use of Twitter, with his tweets written in simple language and regularly containing misspellings, typos and other linguistic errors.Footnote 62 ‘The strength of Trump’s populist language,’ it is said, ‘lies in its openness … It’s the way people talk when the inhibitors are off.’Footnote 63
As noted, the populist’s appeals to similarity encourage the people to identify with them as their leader. To be clear, we do not mean identification in the way that commentators like Ernesto Laclau and Francisco Panizza have used the term. For them, the populist, by serving as an ‘empty signifier’ in tandem with their appeals to similarity, confers a political identity on the people. He ‘constructs and gives meaning to “the people” as a political actor’.Footnote 64 By identification we mean, rather, a second, more ‘personal’ form of identification along the lines described by Paula Diehl. As Diehl has said, this form of identification, stemming from the people’s perception that the populist is similar to them, supplies the populist’s ‘relationship to the people with sympathy and enables the followers to recognize themselves in the leader’.Footnote 65
The populism literature has recognized, implicitly or in some cases explicitly, that owing to such identification, there exists a trust between the public and the populist. Diehl, for instance, has argued that ‘identification provides the ground for political legitimation of the leader’, establishing ‘an emotional bond between leader and people’ and promoting ‘an almost unquestioned trust’.Footnote 66 Antonio Masala has likewise said that in the populist–public relationship, ‘the dynamics of trust … [move] along the simplistic line of identification, of similarity’.Footnote 67 For Masala, the people reason, ‘I trust those who are similar to me; I choose those who look like me as my representatives, because they know what I need and I can trust them, and only them.’Footnote 68
The psychological literature supports the idea that such identification can form the basis of public trust in the populist. Psychologists call this ‘similarity-based’ trust. It has been shown that individuals are more likely to trust those they perceive as similar to themselves.Footnote 69 The reverse is also true: those who are trusted are seen as more similar to the truster.Footnote 70 Therefore, in telling the public that they are ‘one of the people’, explicitly or implicitly, the populist highlights their similarities to the public. And if the people perceive the populist to be similar to them, they are more likely, based on the psychological research, to trust the populist.
That said, it should be recognized that the public’s trust in the populist is not rooted exclusively in such identification. For instance, to the extent that the populist may be characterized as a ‘charismatic leader’, they may build trust in their followers as such leaders do – ‘through personal example and risk taking and through unconventional expertise’.Footnote 71 Also, the public’s trust in the populist may be rooted in the populist’s trustworthiness. They may have shown that they have the relevant motivations and competence, making trust in them ‘warranted’Footnote 72 or ‘intelligent’.Footnote 73 But because neither charismatic leadership nor trustworthiness is inherent to populism, we submit that these are not the primary sources of the public’s trust in the populist.Footnote 74
Public self-trust can reinforce the public’s trust in the populist
Based on our reading of the scholarship on trust, we suggest that public self-trust can reinforce the above ‘similarity-based’ trust between the public and the populist in two specific ways. The first is via a process that we can call ‘trust transfer’. Put simply, it is possible for the people to transfer the trust that they have in themselves onto the populist. This conclusion follows on from applying to the populist–public relationship what has been called ‘trust transfer theory’. This theory proposes that a truster’s trust in one actor can be transferred onto another actor.Footnote 75 Transfers of trust explain how we draw conclusions about others we do not know when we first meet them. A truster can transfer trust from a person they already know and trust to a person they do not know, and so do not yet trust. This occurs when the latter person is perceived to be related to the former. A successful transfer of trust ‘from one entity to another’ therefore ‘relies on the unknown target being perceived as related to the source of the transferred trust’,Footnote 76 with the perception of relatedness by the truster dependent on the perceived similarity of the unknown target to the trusted actor.Footnote 77 If the two are perceived as similar to each other, they will likely be perceived as related, with a transfer of trust being likely.
Trust transfer theory follows on from the socially constituted nature of trust. There is a prevailing line of thinking across disciplines in the social sciences that trust arises in a rich social context, and that trust in any given relationship depends on the other relationships that comprise the social context in which the relationship is embedded. This idea has been expressed, in one form or another, by scholars in sociology,Footnote 78 economics,Footnote 79 philosophy,Footnote 80 political theory,Footnote 81 and management,Footnote 82 among other fields. With trust transfer, the truster’s relationship with the unknown actor depends on the truster’s relationship with the trusted actor who is perceived as similar to the unknown actor. The two actors’ similarity to each other, in tandem with the truster’s trust in the trusted actor, assists the truster to ultimately trust the unknown actor.
While trust transfer theory has never been applied, to our knowledge, to the case of self-trust, we submit that there is no reason why it should not apply. Writers on self-trust have recognized that self-trust, as a form of trust, is socially constituted.Footnote 83 And this theory, as we said, follows on from the socially constituted nature of trust. In the case of self-trust, the trusted actor (i.e. the actor trusted by the truster) is the truster. Thus, applying trust transfer theory to self-trust, where the truster perceives an unknown actor – like the populist – as similar to them, they are likely to transfer their self-trust onto that unknown actor. Consequently, applied to the populist-public relationship, the people, given their perception that the populist is similar to them, can transfer the trust that they have in themselves onto the populist leader.
This may seem to overlap significantly with the above-described similarity-based trust. After all, the transfer of trust is rooted in the people’s perception that the populist is similar to them. We submit that the two are not, however, one and the same. We say this because a truster, like a member of the public, may reasonably trust a trustee, like a political representative, who they perceive to be similar to them, even though they do not trust their own self with respect to politics. The truster may not, for instance, think they have the knowledge or skillset to make relevant political decisions. If that member of the public, however, does have self-trust with respect to politics, their perception that the relevant political representative is similar to them can reinforce their trust in the representative via the above-described trust transfer. Accordingly, we may say that the public’s perceived similarity to, and identification with, the populist can promote public trust in the populist, both directly, via similarity-based trust, and indirectly, via trust transfer.
Second, we suggest that public self-trust can reinforce the similarity-based trust between the people and the populist by insulating that trust from challenges. The self-trust literature has recognized that one of the benefits of self-trust is its capacity to facilitate trust in others – that is, self-trust and trusting others are not necessarily mutually exclusive.Footnote 84 Granted, self-trust and trust in others can be in tension with one another. Such is the tension between public self-trust and political trust recognized by theorists such as Bryce and de Tocqueville. This tension does not, however, necessarily follow, especially where there is pre-existing trust between the truster and the trustee. As Govier has explained, self-trust ‘can support and enhance trust in others’.Footnote 85 By trusting their own self, the truster is better able to trust others because they trust their own judgement.Footnote 86 Trusting oneself involves ‘making a prediction about the quality of [one’s] judgments, evaluations, capabilities, and choices’.Footnote 87 Thus, in trusting their own self, the truster makes a positive assessment about their judgements, evaluations, capabilities and choices. And this facilitates the truster’s trust in others, insulating that trust from third-party challenges.
Applying this ‘trust-insulating’ idea to the populist–public relationship, by trusting themselves, the people trust their judgments and evaluations, including those regarding the populist. Put simply, the people, owing to their self-trust, trust the similarity-based trust that they have in the populist. They trust their expectations – rooted in their perceived similarity of the populist to them – that the populist has the integrity, willingness and competence to make the relevant political decisions. And so, when others – such as the political elite or mainstream media – challenge that trust in the populist by presenting information to the contrary, the people’s self-trust, according to this idea, can insulate their trust in the populist. When the people hear criticism of the populist, calling into question the populist’s integrity, willingness or competence to make relevant political decisions, their self-trust supports their reliance on their earlier assessments of the populist’s motivations and competence, reinforcing the trust that they have in the populist.
Public trust in the populist can reinforce the public’s self-trust
At the same time, we suggest that the public’s trust in the populist can reinforce the public’s self-trust. This likewise follows on from the socially constituted nature of trust. In his influential book Foundations of Social Theory, sociologist James Coleman has argued that trust-based relationships exist in structures he has called ‘systems of trust’, and the trust that a truster has in a trustee depends on the system or systems of trust in which their relationship exists.Footnote 88 Coleman’s ‘systems’ encompass groups of two- or three-party relationships. He has identified three such systems in his work: mutual trust, intermediaries in trust and third-party trust. A mutual trust system involves two actors being in two trust-based relationships with one another, with each actor occupying the role of truster and trustee in one of those relationships. In an intermediary in trust system, an actor outside the immediate trust-based relationship acts as both the trustee for one party to the trust-based relationship and as truster for the other party, thereby serving as an intermediary. A third-party system involves a truster accepting a promise from a third party to aid in their transaction with the trustee.
Coleman’s intermediary in trust system has relevance for our analysis here. The above-described process of trust transfer is an example of an intermediary in trust system: the truster serves as an intermediary in their relationship with the populist. Another intermediary, specifically identified by Coleman, is what he has called ‘the advisor’, an actor outside the immediate trust-based relationship who advises the truster to trust the trustee. The truster’s relationship with the advisor promotes the truster’s trust in the trustee because the truster ‘trusts the advisor’s judgment, leading him to place trust in the ability and integrity of the trustee’.Footnote 89 For example, at the time Foundations of Social Theory was published (in the early 1990s), Coleman identified the mass media as an increasingly influential ‘advisor’ in contemporary societies.Footnote 90 In particular, he said that the mass media’s exposure of ‘defects in the trusted elites’ could lead to the ‘withdrawal of public trust in the elites’.Footnote 91 In fact, empirical research has substantiated the media’s ability to impact people’s trust in political actors.Footnote 92
We suggest that, in the same way that the media can serve as an ‘advisor’ to the public and impact public trust, so can the populist. The populist is an ‘advisor’ because the people (or at least a subset of them) trust the populist. The people therefore trust the ‘advice’ that the populist gives them. If the populist tells the people to trust a third party, to the extent that they trust the populist they will follow the populist’s advice and trust that third party. And by the same token, if the populist advises the people to distrust a third party – as the media, according to Coleman, frequently advised the public to distrust the trusted elites – to the extent that they trust the populist, they will distrust that third party.
The latter helps explain how populists can exacerbate the so-called ‘crisis of trust’ we are witnessing between the public and established government actors. By criticizing established government actors as corrupt, immoral and incompetent, as populists characteristically do, populists advise the public to distrust those actors. Again, to the extent that the public trusts the populist, the public will follow that advice. Recent empirical research supports this conclusion. It has been shown that populist parties can ‘fuel’ political discontent.Footnote 93 The research shows that populist parties, further to any mobilization of distrustful individuals in the first place, promote discontent or distrust, generating a ‘spiral of distrust’.Footnote 94 Marc Hooghe and Ruth Dassonneville, for instance, have explained that, ‘Having chosen [a populist] party subsequently acts to decrease one’s level of trust in politics even further. The result is a spiral of distrust, where distrust and protest voting enforce each other.’Footnote 95
Coleman’s ‘advisor’ idea, we submit, can likewise be applied to the case of self-trust, as a form of trust. Applying the idea to self-trust, an actor – like the populist – can serve as an advisor on the truster’s relationship with their own self, and in turn reinforce the truster’s self-trust. The truster’s self-trust is reinforced because they trust the advisor and so, where the advisor advises the truster to trust their own judgement, they follow the advisor’s advice.Footnote 96 If we apply this thinking to the populist–public relationship, just as the populist can promote public distrust in established government actors by advising the public that those actors are corrupt, immoral and incompetent, they can promote public self-trust by advising the people to trust themselves. And to the extent that the people trust the populist, they will follow the populist’s advice and so trust themselves.
The foregoing is relevant because populists, alongside their message that established government actors are corrupt, immoral and incompetent, frequently convey to the public a message of public self-trust. Put simply, they encourage members of the public to trust themselves with respect to politics. Sometimes this message of public self-trust is made explicitly – for example, an explicit message of public self-trust was made to the British public in the campaign that preceded the 2016 UK European Union membership (‘Brexit’) referendum. In a Sky News question and answer session entitled ‘EU: In Or Out’, then-Justice Secretary Michael Gove, in making a case for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, stated, ‘I’m not asking the public to trust me; I’m asking the public to trust themselves.’Footnote 97 However, the populist message of public self-trust is not typically explicit; more frequently, it is implicit. By this we mean that the populist does not necessarily use the terminology of ‘trust’ itself, but rather encourages the public to trust itself by speaking to the previously identified elements of self-trust – that is, integrity, willingness and competence. The populist leader conveys to the people that they have the integrity, willingness and competence to make the relevant political decisions, and in the process, the populist undermines the necessity of established government, including its various intermediaries and institutions.
Self-trust’s first two elements of integrity and willingness align with the Manichean rhetoric that characterizes populism. In the rhetoric, the populist portrays the people as virtuous, righteous and morally pure. He ‘pit[s] the pure, innocent, always hard-working people against the corrupt elite who do not really work (other than to further their narrow self-interest)’.Footnote 98 The elite – the populist Other – is pictured, as we noted earlier, as ‘immoral’, in the sense that ‘they actually work only for themselves (as opposed to the common good)’.Footnote 99 There is even, at times, a religious or quasi-religious element to this rhetoric. Speaking at a Texas roundtable in 2020, for instance, Trump described Americans as ‘good and virtuous people’.Footnote 100 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has similarly depicted the Turkish people as virtuous and pious, juxtaposing them against an allegedly immoral, corrupt and greedy foreign financial elite. Erdoğan has said that ‘if they have dollars, we have our people, our righteousness and our God’.Footnote 101
Implicit in this rhetoric is the Rousseauian claim that the general will of the people (volonté générale), in contrast to the will of all (volonté de tous), is ‘unchanging, incorruptible and pure’.Footnote 102 In Hugo Chávez’s inaugural address in 2007, for example, he stated that, ‘All individuals are subject to error and seduction, but not the people, which possesses to an eminent degree of consciousness of its own good and the measure of its independence.’Footnote 103 Owing to this consciousness, Chávez said, the people’s ‘judgment is pure, its will is strong, and none can corrupt or even threaten it’.Footnote 104 Because the general will of the people is incorruptible, it follows that the people should be making the political decisions that affect their lives. The politician, in this rhetoric, must be ‘enlightened enough to see what the general will is, and charismatic enough to form individual citizens into a cohesive community that can be counted on to will it’.Footnote 105 This idea, in turn, is conveyed to the public by the populist. Chávez, in the 2007 inaugural address, emphasized that, ‘Nothing … is in greater agreement with the popular doctrine than to consult with the nation as a whole regarding the chief points upon which governments, basic laws, and the supreme rule are founded.’Footnote 106
The message conveyed by the populist to the public through this Manichean rhetoric is, we suggest, one of public integrity and willingness to make political decisions. The populist communicates to the public that the ‘corrupt’, ‘immoral’ and ‘self-interested’ elite cannot and will not deliver the political outcomes that are in the people’s interests. Trump, for example, blamed the suffering of ‘innocent people’ on the ‘political system lack[ing] the will, or the courage, or the basic decency to enforce our laws – or worse still, [selling] out to some corporate lobbyist for cash’.Footnote 107 Only the good and virtuous people, with their ‘incorruptible’ will, according to the populist’s message, can and will deliver the outcomes that are in the people’s interests. The people therefore have both the integrity and willingness to so deliver.
The competence element of self-trust – that the public has the knowledge and skillset to make political decisions – is conveyed by populists in a few forms. First, as part of their criticism of the elite, populists make statements that minimize the value and necessity of expert knowledge and skills for political decision-making. Central to the populist discourse is the idea that political power has been unnecessarily, and even unjustly, taken away from the people and placed in the hands of intermediaries, including experts. Consider, for instance, Trump’s pre-election statement at a 2016 rally in Wisconsin that ‘the experts are terrible’.Footnote 108 Responding to criticism he had received that he ‘doesn’t have experts’ on foreign policy, Trump minimized the value and necessity of expertise in this area, saying ‘I know what’s happening’. He noted that ‘all these people [i.e. former presidents and politicians] have had experts’ and, he continued, ‘look at the mess we’re in with all these experts we have’. Further minimizing the value and necessity of foreign policy experts, Trump suggested that no experts would be better than the experts relied upon to date, remarking, ‘Supposing I didn’t have one [a foreign policy expert], would it be worse than what we’re doing now?’ Michael Gove’s statement ‘asking the public to trust themselves’ regarding the Brexit referendum was likewise made in the context of minimizing the value and necessity of experts. Gove famously said, ‘the people of this country have had enough of experts’, singling out experts ‘from organizations with acronyms’.Footnote 109 He criticized the experts for being ‘consistently wrong’ and advocated that the public ‘take back control of our destiny from those organizations’. In a later interview seeking to clarify his comments, he continued to undermine expertise.Footnote 110 Gove encouraged the public to challenge every ‘settled consensus’ among experts and to ‘always look for the dissenting voice’.
Second, but relatedly, populists make statements that validate the public’s knowledge of political matters. The populist suggests to the people that their knowledge of political matters, including matters of public health and economics, is equivalent or superior to that of experts. A good example are the old political sayings that ‘the voter is always right’ and ‘the people know best’. Such sayings, or some variant, have been used by several leaders, including most recently the former leader of the Welsh Brexit party, Mark Reckless.Footnote 111 When asked in July 2020 whether there should be a second Wales-wide lockdown to address COVID-19, Reckless responded, ‘We think it’s much better to trust people’s judgment. The individual knows best.’ This political saying, as Peter Schuck has said, ‘goes well beyond a grudging, realistic recognition that in a democracy the voters have the last word’ but rather, ‘elevates the wisdom of popular judgments’ and recognizes ‘their superiority to those of the experts’.Footnote 112 It suggests that policy-making by public opinion is superior to evidence-based policy-making. In the case of Reckless, the message conveyed to the public was that its judgement as to whether a second lockdown was necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 was better than the knowledge and analysis of public health experts. Gove, in his commentary on experts, similarly validated the British public’s knowledge of Brexit and its repercussions: he suggested that, rather than rely on experts, we should have ‘faith in the British people to make the right decision’.Footnote 113 Likewise, in his tweets rejecting expert knowledge on climate change (what he and his followers call ‘climate nonsense’), Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, has likewise promoted the common sense of the ordinary people.Footnote 114
These statements reflect an ‘anti-intellectualism’ that valorizes the experience-based common sense of the common people over the technocratic rule of experts.Footnote 115 The populist, rather than valuing expertise, celebrates what Pierre Rosanvallon has described as ‘l’instinct des humbles’ (the instincts of the humble), an instinctive sense of the general will.Footnote 116 The by-product of this celebration is what Tom Nichols refers to as the ‘death of expertise’: it is not an ‘indifference to established knowledge’, but ‘a positive hostility to such knowledge’.Footnote 117 The populist’s message validating the public’s knowledge of political matters is, it has been argued, problematic because the majority of the public has limited knowledge of these matters.Footnote 118 Some writers have thus suggested that what the populist ‘celebrates’ is, in fact, ‘ignorance’.Footnote 119
By conveying the messages of public self-trust detailed above, populists act as ‘advisors’ to members of the public in their trust relationship with themselves. They advise the people to trust themselves. Following on from this, to the extent that the public trusts the populist, the populist can reinforce the public’s trust in itself with respect to politics. Whether explicit or implicit in nature, these populist messages of public self-trust, when conveyed by a trusted leader, reinforce expectations in the public that they have the integrity, willingness or competence to make the relevant political decisions. Take the populist message of public competence, for example. Comments like those outlined earlier, which undermine the value and necessity of expertise for political decision-making and confirm the public’s knowledge of political matters, should generate expectations from the people that they are competent to make political decisions. Rather than rely on experts and evidence-based policy-making, the people come to expect that they have sufficient knowledge and intellectual ability to make the relevant political decisions, whether the decision pertains to Brexit, climate change, or the COVID-19 public health crisis. The people thus, we submit, ‘come to have trust in [their] cognitive abilities as their reliability is confirmed by their results being seconded by trusted figures’.Footnote 120
Our suggestion that the populist can reinforce the public’s self-trust finds support in empirical research. Psychologists have long found that people display an ‘overconfidence bias’: they overestimate their knowledge of a given topic.Footnote 121 That said, several studies have found that such overconfidence biases, specifically with regard to political knowledge, are especially high in those who support populist parties.Footnote 122 One study found that individuals with far-right and far-left political views, when asked about the EU refugee crisis, perceived the political solution to the crisis to be simpler, experiencing ‘more judgmental certainty about their domain-specific knowledge of this event, than moderates’.Footnote 123 They did not, however, have more knowledge. Another study found that individuals with ‘anti-establishment sentiments’ had more confidence in their knowledge about an EU treaty designed to establish stronger political and economic connections between the European Union and Ukraine.Footnote 124 These individuals likewise did not have more knowledge than their more moderate counterparts. The investigators concluded that those ‘who vote against the establishment … are particularly likely to overestimate and overclaim their own knowledge’.Footnote 125 Additionally, but closely related to such studies, recent research has also established a link between populist attitudes and internal political efficacy.Footnote 126
The above studies suggest that supporters of populist parties, rather than have more knowledge of political matters, simply have more self-trust – specifically, more trust in their own competence when it comes to politics. Granted, it may be argued that supporters of populist parties, independent of the populist’s message of public self-trust, have more self-trust. That is, these members of the public start off with more self-trust, leading them to support populist parties. This may be true; nonetheless, given the analysis we have provided in this section of the article, in tandem with applying Coleman’s ‘advisor’ idea to the case of self-trust in the populist–public relationship, there is good reason to conclude that the populist’s message of public self-trust can reinforce any pre-existing self-trust in members of the public.
V. A positive feedback loop of public trust
Let us take stock of where we are. As explained in Part IV, we have suggested that owing to trust transfer and insulation from third-party challenges, it is possible for public self-trust to reinforce public trust in the populist. Further, we have suggested that, given the populist’s role as the public’s ‘advisor’ together with the populist’s frequently conveyed message of public self-trust, it is also possible for public trust in the populist to reinforce public self-trust.
The product of these two reinforcements is, we submit, a positive feedback loop of public self-trust and public trust in the populist. And as we noted earlier, given the recognized value of political trust to political leaders, it empowers the populist, capable of garnering the populist support for their policies and compliance from the public. Based on the scholarship on trust, however, this feedback loop should not be unbreakable. It should be possible for one or more parts of the loop to break down, and when this happens, public trust in the populist leader may diminish. For example, where the people’s perception of the populist’s similarity to them fades, the feedback loop should break down. This is so because both the similarity-based trust rooted in similarity and identification, as well as the self-trust-based trust rooted in trust transfer, are dependent on the people perceiving the populist as similar to them. If the people no longer perceive the populist as similar to them, it follows that they will no longer identify with the populist, and thus will no longer transfer the trust that they have in themselves onto the populist.
The case of former Ecuadorian president Abdalá Bucaram, we suggest, offers an example. Bucaram’s 1996 presidential campaign was based largely on appeals to similarity, notably by presenting himself as a person from humble origins, as a candidate who ‘not only understood the people, but belonged to el pueblo [the people]’.Footnote 127 He claimed that as a political outsider, he too had suffered, notably because he had been discriminated against by the elite as the son of Lebanese immigrants.Footnote 128 By doing so, he distanced himself from the elite while highlighting his similarities to the public – particularly the poor, Indigenous people and other groups said to be regularly despised and discriminated against by the ruling elite and oligarchy. Bucaram also used simple language, dressed casually in jeans and guayaberas, and even fully embraced and championed the nickname el loco, which could be translated as ‘the madman’.Footnote 129 Without necessarily having a clear plan or manifesto, he assured the public that he had the ‘honesty, virility, and good will’ to personally solve Ecuador’s problems, including poverty and housing, compared with the dishonest, effeminate and corrupt elite.Footnote 130 Bucaram was elected president of Ecuador on 7 July 1996. On 5 February 1997, however, less than six months after his election, two million people – roughly the same number of people who had voted for him – took to the streets to demand his dismissal or resignation. Owing in large part to rumours of corruption and the replacement of his plan for increased social spending with neoliberal and poorly planned economic policies, Bucaram lost the support of many groups who had originally supported him, including workers and labour unions.Footnote 131 With an abysmal 12 per cent approval rating as of early 1997,Footnote 132 Bucaram was no longer seen as part of el pueblo, nor as el loco que ama (‘the madman who loves’) who was free from the diktats of the economic elite. And on 6 February 1997, only a day after the general strike and mass protests had begun, he was removed from office by Congress on the basis of his alleged ‘mental incapacity’ – with no evidence to that effect.Footnote 133 The people, we suggest, no longer saw Bucaram as similar to them. And with this perception of similarity no longer present, their trust in him diminished.
Another way in which the feedback loop should be able to break down is where the people’s trust in themselves begins to falter. As the self-trust literature recognizes, misaligned or excessive self-trust in one’s competence, for instance, can be corrected by explicitly overriding the misalignment – that is, by ‘bring[ing] to our attention that, here and now, we are in a zone of incompetence’.Footnote 134 The hope, Karen Jones has identified, is that ‘override consistently enough, and long enough, and one will finally come to have good judgment in the domain in question and so come to have merited self-trust where previously one did not’.Footnote 135 Accordingly, if the people are presented with sufficient evidence to explicitly override their expectation that they have the required knowledge and skillset to make decisions in a given area of politics, they may no longer trust themselves, at least not in that particular area of politics. They may come to the realization that in that area they are in a ‘zone of incompetence’.
The COVID-19 public health crisis, we submit, presents an illustration. In responding to the crisis, Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro adopted a populist message of public self-trust: they minimized the value and necessity of expertise in addressing the virus and adopted an anti-intellectual rhetoric that valorized common sense. Contrary to expert public health advice, they downplayed (at least initially) the seriousness of the virus, equating it with the flu; promoted the use of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment;Footnote 136 resisted the imposition of lockdowns to minimize the virus’s spread; and quickly lifted any such lockdowns.Footnote 137 At the end of 2020, the United States and Brazil had two of the highest number of COVID-19 cases globally, as well as COVID-19-related deaths. These numbers stood in stark contrast to those reported in other countries where expert advice had been followed. And this juxtaposition, we submit, evidenced to the people who had originally trusted Trump and Bolsonaro that, contrary to their message of self-trust, the people do not always ‘know best’. In a complex matter like COVID-19, common sense is not preferable to expert knowledge and analysis. The people are not competent to make decisions regarding COVID-19, including how to minimize the virus’s spread; they are in a ‘zone of incompetence’.
While there is no empirical evidence to support a reduction in public self-trust with regard to COVID-19, we do have evidence of low public trust in Trump and Bolsonaro with respect to the crisis in 2020. We also have evidence of relatively higher levels of public trust in US and Brazilian public health authorities during that period. For example, public approval of Trump’s handling of the crisis reached a new low in July 2020, with just 32 per cent of respondents supporting his strategy (down from 44 per cent in March).Footnote 138 And another July 2020 survey found that whereas two-thirds of respondents did not trust the information Trump provided about COVID-19, two-thirds of respondents did trust the information provided by Dr Anthony Fauci – the Chief Medical Advisor to the President.Footnote 139 In fact, in a recent study of political trust and the COVID-19 crisis, researchers found that of four jurisdictions examined (Australia, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States), public trust in Trump’s management of the crisis was the lowest.Footnote 140 For example, 53 per cent of American respondents agreed or strongly agreed that Trump was ‘handling the coronavirus outbreak poorly’. This contrasts with the numbers for Australian and Italian respondents – 19 and 30 per cent, respectively – regarding former Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Australia) and former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (Italy), both of whom adopted a more evidence-based approach, relying on experts. Additionally, 57 per cent of American respondents agreed or strongly agreed that Trump ‘[u]sually act[ed] in his own interests in his handling of the coronavirus outbreak’, again in contrast to Australian and Italian respondents (31 and 20 per cent). The researchers concluded that ‘[o]verall it appears that the leadership styles of Morrison and Conte are viewed as benevolent and competent, whereas Trump’s reputation is of self-interest’.Footnote 141 We see a similar pattern in Brazil. In June 2020, for example, 55 per cent of Brazilians evaluated Bolsonaro’s performance in the outbreak as ‘bad’ or ‘terrible’, up from 18 per cent in mid-March 2020.Footnote 142 And in a March 2020 survey, whereas only 35 per cent of Brazilians called Bolsonaro’s handling of the crisis ‘good’ or ‘great’, 55 per cent supported the performance of former Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta.Footnote 143
We suggest that the above evidence of low public trust in Trump and Bolsonaro with respect to the COVID-19 crisis, and relatively higher levels of trust in health authorities such as Fauci and Mandetta, is consistent with a break in the trust feedback loop in the United States and Brazil. Americans and Brazilians may have been decreasingly convinced of their competence in this complex area of politics and, following on from this, they may have been less trusting of their populist leaders. That said, in making this suggestion, we want to highlight two points. First, not all members of the public will be convinced of their incompetence. And so, as the above evidence demonstrates, we can expect that there will still be members of the public who trust the populist. When it comes to being misinformed, ‘people resist change’.Footnote 144 ‘Unless they are “hit between the eyes” with the right facts, they continue to judge policy on the basis of their mistaken beliefs.’Footnote 145 And, given that the public receives information from various sources, including the populist and the media, for some their self-trust may be more resistant to change. Second, we must not conflate the public’s trust in the populist with its overall approval of the populist.Footnote 146 While members of the public may not trust a populist such as Trump or Bolsonaro with respect to the COVID-19 crisis (as we have conceptualized trust, in terms of motivations and competence), they may nonetheless approve of the populist for many reasons. For instance, an August 2020 poll found that Bolsonaro’s approval rating was at its highest, with 37 per cent of those surveyed viewing his government as great or good (compared with 32 per cent in June 2020).Footnote 147 However, Bolsonaro’s spike in popularity coincided with his government’s introduction of an emergency relief program for low-paid and informal workers totalling more than 250 billion reais (US$47 billion). According to a Datafolha pollster, three-fifths of the gain in Bolsonaro’s approval came from low-income informal workers who were targeted by the emergency relief program. Accordingly, continued approval of Trump and Bolsonaro from the public does not disprove our claim of a break in the feedback loop.
In this article, we have sought to provide some nuance to current understandings of the populist–public relationship with reference to the growing scholarship on the concept of trust. In doing so, the article makes two key contributions to the literature on populism.
First, the article advances conceptual understandings of the understudied concept of public self-trust in the political context. To date, references to public self-trust in the political and constitutional theory literature have been vague, suggesting a tension between it and public trust in political representatives. Despite such references, the concept of public self-trust has been significantly under-theorized. Because this form of trust is of relevance to populism (we have argued in this article specifically for the populist–public relationship), it is imperative that we have a clearer understanding of what public self-trust means. Such an understanding offers a necessary foundation for further study into the role played by this form of trust in populism.
Second, by filling what we consider to be a significant gap in the populism literature, this article theorizes the functioning of public trust in the populist–public relationship. As we have noted, while the populism literature does recognize a trust in the populist–public relationship, usually linking it to the people’s perception that the populist is similar to them, it has done little more to theorize the functioning of this trust. We have argued that following on from the populist’s appeals to similarity, the populist–public relationship involves an intertwining of public trust in the populist and public self-trust that can ultimately create a positive feedback loop of public trust. This theorization not only provides greater nuance to the role played by similarity in the populist–public relationship but, owing to the recognized value of public trust to political leaders, it contributes to our understanding of the populist’s power. It suggests that similarity is part of a larger puzzle with regard to trust in the populist–public relationship. And if we do not appreciate the entire puzzle, we cannot capture the full power of the populist’s messages.
We are grateful to the two anonymous reviewers, as well as Ming-Sung Kuo, Nicola Lacey, Cora Lacatus, Jo Murkens, Christine Schwöbel-Patel and Jacob van de Beeten, for their helpful comments on previous drafts. Any errors are our own.
The authors declare none.