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The Trump Presidency as the Representation of Political Distrust in America

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The 2016 US election, which saw businessman and television personality Donald Trump become President of the United States in preference to the politically established Democrat Hillary Clinton, shocked America. Consequently, this result invoked the question of whether American citizens trust politicians, or whether their trust is in decline and beginning to seek candidates with non-political experience. Prior to Trump becoming President, the idea of someone with little to no political experience becoming President and ‘leader of the free world’ was unthinkable. However, since Donald Trump became President, some celebrities have flirted with the idea of becoming a future Presidential candidate, such as Oprah Winfrey. This idea has been furthered by headlines such as, ‘Did Trump’s win mean anyone can be President?’ (Kilgore, 2018), which have flooded the American media, showing the changing attitude of US citizens. Although the declining trust of politicians and government is not a recent phenomenon, with headlines stating, ‘Donald Trump is no politician, and that’s why America loves him’ (O’Grady, 2016), it is my belief that political distrust in America is at its peak.

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Since the 1960s, political trust in America has fluctuated from President to President, however on the whole, the United States has witnessed an intense decline of political trust. For example, 77% of Americans trusted the US government in 1964 and in 2014 it reached as low as 14% (Pew Research Center), 2017), showing the severity of the decline. Although it is clear that political trust in America is in decline, ‘when we ask how-by what process-did trust decline… the answers are less certain’ (Keele, pg. 241, 2007), showing why this topic needs further research. On top of this, much of the literature on political trust is arguably outdated. With there being a current President with no political experience for the first time, alongside the rise of identity politics and emergence of post-demographics, it is important for new research to be discovered in a changing political climate, where new reasons for declining political trust could emerge. With increasing political participation amongst the youth and minorities in America since the 2016 Presidential election, it is important to conduct new research where these demographics are represented, providing an opportunity for more valid research to be created.

The aim of this research intends to prove that the Trump presidency does represent the declining trust of politicians in America. From my research I set out to answer a number of questions: what is political trust, to discover whether American citizens trust politicians, and if not who they would trust i.e. businessmen such as Trump, and to find out whether these views are strictly individual, or whether it is a shared belief among certain groups in society, for example, potentially based on class, race, party affiliation, age or gender. Firstly, I will use a qualitative methodology for my research, which will be split into two sections: how I will collect the data, as well as, focusing on how the data will be analysed. I will collect the data through the use of online focus groups in order to gauge a range of views on the subject. I will then analyse the data through discourse analysis to determine whether there is a correlation of the language used in the focus groups to determine whether, and potentially why, certain demographics have different levels of political trust. Subsequently, I will focus on social constructivism throughout my research to identify how political trust has been constructed to believe in politicians, rather than citizens who are successful in non-political professions, to control government, and to show how this construct is changing in America. Next, the research design will be explained and justified, followed by the ethical considerations which will be acknowledged throughout my research.

Methodology:

For my research, I will employ a post-positivist metatheoretical approach. Post-Positivists ‘believe in an objective reality that is viewed through the lens of subjective interpretation’ (Landers et al, pg. 316, 2018). Due to the emphasis on interpretation needed throughout my research, employing a post-positivist approach, alongside the use of quantitative research, will be most appropriate to answering whether political trust in America is in decline because of the Trump presidency. On top of this, Positivists share the view ‘that their approach to knowing has a clarity, a veracity, and a finality which they can deny to other approaches’ (O’Callaghan, pg. 26, 1992), such as interpretivism. As a consequence of using focus groups to collect my data, a positivist approach would not be applicable when conducting my research, due to the emphasis on interpretation during observational methods. However, due to the interpretivist nature of Post-Positivism, it is arguably too subjective whereby my predetermined conceptual position could impact the validity of my research. With Positivism, ‘there is a distinction between facts and values’ (Daddow, pg. 53, 2017), making it a very clear way to observe and study. Alongside this, a positivist approach differentiates the researcher and what is researched, which would improve the validity of my research. In contrary, research that is not objective can still remain valid. From an interpretive perspective, Smith argues that we ‘dispense with the traditionalist ideas of objectivity and truth and realise that we are ‘beyond method’ (Angen, pg. 379, 2000), arguing that nothing can truly be objective. Overall, a post-positivist approach is most suited to my research due to the interpretivist nature which it possesses, which is needed to effectively analyse the reasons behind the decline of political trust in the United States.

Attributable to the open-ended nature of my question, as well as employing a post-positivist approach, I will use qualitative research to determine whether the Trump Presidency represents the declining trust of politicians in America. Although quantitative data is able to express the percentage of citizens who do not trust politicians, the key to this research is to discover why there is a declining trust of politicians throughout America, where the use of qualitative research would be much more applicable to answering my question. The epistemological position of qualitative research is described as interpretivist, meaning that the stress is towards the understanding of the social world through the interpretation of its participants (Bryman, pg. 375, 2016). My post-positivist approach and use of online focus groups to collect the data shows that qualitative research is most suited to answering my question due to the emphasis of interpretivism in more detailed methods, such as focus groups. Due to the fact that qualitative research centres around these more detailed observational methods, quantitative data lacks the in-depth and interpretivist nature needed for my research. However, qualitative research is not without its faults. The issue of generalisation in qualitative research can lead to replication becoming problematic. According to Bryman, critics maintain that observations with a small number of individuals, make it impossible to know how the findings can be generalised to other settings (Bryman, pg. 399, 2016). To prevent this, I will create four focus groups in order to expand the field and number of participants, which would further my analysis and prevent any restrictions that could be made if only one focus group would be conducted. On the whole, quantitative research would not provide sufficient data in order to answer why political trust is in decline, showing that qualitative research is most suited due to its open-ended nature enabling more relevant data to be gathered.

I will use online focus groups to form the collection of data for my research. I will create four different focus groups with six participants ranging from 18 to 70 years of age in each group. I will conduct these focus groups in the state of Ohio. I have decided to undergo focus groups in Ohio because it is a swing state, which would ostensibly result in a multiplicity of views being discussed. There will be an individual online focus group for participants residing from four cities. These cities are: Cleveland, Akron, Columbus and Cincinnati, because they are of the most culturally diverse cities in the state of Ohio, helping to potentially generate a wider range of views and therefore create more valuable data for my research. I plan to spend one hour with each focus group in order to for all the people in the group to voice their opinions on the questions given. Furthermore, through only having six participants in each online focus group, it will make conversation flow much easier, and allow each participant to voice their opinions on the questions, helping to create much clearer and more informative data. The online focus group sessions will be audio recorded in order to gather all the data much clearer, as well as, helping to make the focus groups run much smoother. Creating a wide age range for the focus groups allows me to gather a large amount of data, and to determine whether there are any correlations between the viewpoints and demographics, or whether their opinions are strictly individual.

In order to collect rich qualitative data from the United States, I will use online focus groups. This is because online focus groups are the most effective method of collecting data without the time and cost of travelling overseas. I have decided to use online focus groups because ‘the dynamics of groups tend to quickly reveal similarities and differences in perspectives, attitudes… among group participants’ (Stewart et al, pg. 48, 2017). This will enable me to discover whether there is a correlation between cities, as well as, between the individuals within those groups. From this, I can uncover whether certain demographics trust politicians less than others, or if their opinions are solely individual. However, there are weaknesses to the use of online focus groups in my research. Firstly, due to the focus groups being conducted online, older and more economically deprived citizens may struggle to gain access to the focus group, as opposed to face-to-face focus groups. On top of this, online focus groups are much shorter than face-to-face focus groups, potentially resulting in a smaller accumulation of data. Despite this, ‘online groups often outstrip their FTF counterparts in both the quantity and the variety of the creative ideas they produce’ (Reid, pg. 131-132, 2005), hence showing that although online focus groups are much shorter, they still produce a high quality and quantity of data. I have chosen online focus groups instead of other methods such as online questionnaires and surveys due to the importance of spoken discourse, in which cannot be achieved through surveys and questionnaires. Since each individual participant possesses a constellation of characteristics, it creates an opportunity for inter-group comparisons to be made (Barbour, pg. 59-60, 2007), in which cannot be measured through other methods. Additionally, other data collection methods, such as questionnaires, will not give the participant the freedom to elaborate on reasons why they may/may not trust politicians, which is a vital to understanding whether the Trump Presidency has caused this severe decline.

I have chosen to use discourse analysis as the method to interpret the data gathered from my online focus groups. This is because discourse analysis ‘makes use of various qualitative methods to increase our understanding of human experience’ (Shanthi et al, pg. 163, 2015). I will use a specific method of discourse analysis titled computer-mediated discourse analysis. This method of discourse analysis, in essence, is a systematic observation of online language behaviour and is grounded in observation about language and language use of computer-mediated discourse (Ibid, pg. 165), which I will be gathering through my use of online focus groups. From this, I will use computer-mediated discourse analysis to interpret whether any correlations or themes arise between participants from the language used during the online focus groups, which is one of the main aims of this research.  

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