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Trump supporters are out there, but they're keeping a low profile

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Dreamstime/Portland Tribune illustrationHillsboro resident Debbie Ivanov doesn’t know a great deal about politics, but she knows she’s a Donald Trump supporter. Ivanov says she has supported Trump since he announced his candidacy.

“I don’t consider myself a political expert and I don’t think I have studied Trump enough or studied politics enough,” says the 60-year-old Ivanov, who works for a large health insurer. “I just know that things are very discouraging. Trust is down and I certainly don’t know who to trust.”

Darren Hansen, owner of Oregon City Coin and Jewelry, says he’s never voted in his life and certainly has never worked on a political campaign. But he’s got a Time magazine cover with Trump tacked up behind his store’s counter and “Veteran For Trump” in big letters on the side of his pickup truck. He’s voting this year, for you know who.

But Ivanov and Hansen don’t live in Portland proper.

Portland, it appears, may not be ripe Trump territory.

Or, Trump has plenty of support here — beneath the surface. That’s what Eric Fruits, the former chairman of the Multnomah Country Republicans, is thinking.

Fruits says at last summer’s state fair in Salem, the Republican Party had a booth and a mini-fundraiser that served as a straw poll. For a dollar, visitors could get a button with their favorite party candidate. By the second or third day, Fruits says, the Trump buttons were all sold out.

In November, Multnomah County Republicans tried the same thing at an event with about 50 members. Twice as many Trump buttons were bought as were purchased for any other candidate.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Debbie Ivanov says she no longer trusts institutions as she once did, and likes Donald Trump because he speaks his mind.Despite such anecdotal evidence, when Fruits and current Multnomah County Republican Chairman James Buchal were asked for names of local Trump supporters who might be willing to be interviewed, they came up empty. And puzzled.

“There are people who not only support Trump but are willing to put in a dollar to support Trump ... the challenge is finding out who they are,” Fruits says. The party asked Trump supporters to respond on a Facebook page, but found nobody willing to admit to their choice. Maybe they’re intimidated, Fruits theorizes.

“If you mention you’re a Trump supporter in Portland polite company — at a cocktail party — people would probably drop their glasses,” he says.

When local pollsters DHM Research conducted a recent survey, they found one in five Oregon voters had a positive impression of Trump. “They’re out there somewhere,” says John Horvick, DHM’s political director.

It’s possible, Horvick says, that Trump supporters feel the need to keep quiet and that Trump support here is even greater than polls indicate, because supporters are even reluctant to share their position with pollsters. That’s called the Bradley Effect, Horvick says, and it was coined after Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley lost the California governor’s race in 1982 after being ahead in pre-election polls. Bradley was black, and political scientists speculated that prior to the election whites who didn’t want to appear racist might have told pollsters that they intended to vote for Bradley when they actually were going to go for the white candidate.

“That idea persists out there, and you can understand it in a state like Oregon that’s very liberal, if you were supporting Trump you might not want to share that with a stranger,” Horvick says.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Darren Hansen of Oregon City has never voted, but hes all in for Donald Trump this year.

Portlanders more trusting

Economist Joe Cortright is fond of this little bit of data: Portland is one of the three U.S. cities with the fewest private security guards per resident (Minneapolis and Providence, R.I., are the others). That’s important, Cortright says, because people and companies hiring security guards is a measure of social trust, sometimes called social capital. In Portland, seemingly, people don’t feel the need for private protection.

Maybe, Cortright says, Portlanders feel the police here have things under control. Or maybe we feel safer among our fellow residents — more connected to our community. That’s what the data says, anyway.

“Portland fares very well in almost all cross-sectional (metro to metro) comparisons of social capital indicators,” Cortright says.

Nationally, Trump’s popularity appears to reflect a growing sense of anger and disenfranchisement, says Eric Uslaner, professor of government and politics and author of “The Moral Foundation of Trust.”

“What you have is a group of people who are not just angry about politics, but angry about life,” Uslaner says. “They are pessimistic about their future, which is one of the great predictors of trust.”

That type of anger reflects a “negative social capital” in Cortright’s view, but it isn’t what Ivanov and Hansen are expressing.

Not so angry

“I’ve never been into politics,” Hansen says. “They’re all the same. If Trump doesn’t win, I hate to say it, but it might as well be any of the candidates ... I think we’re so far out of whack from where we need to be, it’s time we had somebody who’s got the moxie to be a little politically incorrect.”

Hansen, married with three young girls, says he’s disillusioned about politics. But he insists he is not angry.

“I may not trust the government, but I love my neighbors and I love my town,” he says. And that doesn’t sound like the negative social capital that Cortright and others say can lead to all sorts of problems for a city, state or country, from economic stagnation to more car accidents.

Ivanov isn’t afraid to let her support and feelings be known. She says she used to have more trust in the government and those around her. Then she married (and divorced) an abusive man. During the Great Recession she lost her job as an administrative assistant for a large Portland firm, and for five years was unable to find another position. She’d never before been unable to pay her own bills, never needed food stamps.

But now she’s financially stable again with a good salary. Her mistrust isn’t a matter of feeling left out economically. But the sum of her experiences, combined with concerns over the direction in which the country is heading, has her mistrusting public officials and government. And viscerally, that mistrust has her favoring Donald Trump.

“He’s willing to speak what people are thinking and afraid to say,” Ivanov says.

What does it mean to have social trust?

If it’s true that Trump support in Portland is low — and not hidden — that bodes well for the city, say those who study the concept of social trust. What Cortright calls negative social capital can eat away at citizens and make a place less livable, says Matthew Nagler, a City College of New York economist who has studied different aspects of social trust. Declining trust in a city correlates with higher drug use, more suicides and more teen pregnancies, Nagler says.

Among Nagler’s more startling findings is that states with higher levels of social capital have fewer automobile accidents. Nagler analyzed 10 years of data and concluded that drivers in low-social capital states have a 50 percent greater chance of dying in accidents than those in states where people report high levels of social capital. He measured social capital through four factors: community involvement, election turnout, church attendance and volunteering. He factored in responses to a national survey which asked people if “most people are honest.”

Nagler’s explanation? “When people trust one another, they tend to drive more courteously and yield to drivers on the road instead of cutting them off,” he says.

Similarly, he says, suicide rates correlate with social trust because those with community connections who find themselves in crisis are more likely to find people in the community to help them.

Trump a sign of the times?

Trump’s popularity may be a product of the times and trends, says Uslaner. Nationally, social trust has been declining for decades, since reaching a peak in the 1960s, when surveys revealed that between 50 and 60 percent of Americans felt most people could be trusted. Today, only about one in three Americans believe most people can be trusted.

Young people have always been less trusting than their parents, Uslaner says, but today’s young are less trusting than young adults in previous generations. Income inequality is correlated with declining trust as well, according to Uslaner.

People who are optimistic about the future, not surprisingly, have always tended to report more social trust on surveys, he adds.

“Those who trust and those who don’t and those who are optimistic and those who are not is what this election is about,” Uslaner says.

Trump is selling himself as an anti-trust candidate, says Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of “The Leap: The Science of Trust and Why It Matters.” Boser says Trump’s message is that internationally, “America needs to stand alone.”

Trump’s anti-immigration message reinforces that idea, according to Boser, and is especially appealing to people who have become uncomfortable with an increasingly diverse American population. “Social trust is talking about trusting strangers,” he says. “When you’re walking down the street and you meet someone you’ve never met before, do you trust that person has your interests in mind?”

In Boser’s view, this year’s election is simply the country reaping what it has sown for years. “We have a lot of policymakers who in the short term have said we shouldn’t trust government, and when you hear a lot of people saying you shouldn’t trust others, you internalize that,” he says.

That is why the decline in social trust has so many implications beyond this election, according to Boser. “This is the social glue that keeps society together. It’s incredibly important,” he says.

Economist Nagler is concerned that declining social trust and Donald Trump support are tied together in a loop, feeding back on each other.

“He is encouraging people to go with their impulse to distrust,” Nagler says. “Distrust the government. Distrust people who don’t look like you. Distrust immigrants. But if we have Trump as president, given research that shows lack of social trust can be a brake on the economy, actually you could argue that this could contribute to a Trump recession.”

And maybe, if Nagler’s research is accurate, more traffic accidents.


Trump: Maybe trust is overrated?

As far as Paul Zak is concerned, Donald Trump is employing a brilliant political strategy with exquisite timing. Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, specializes in researching people’s neurological responses to different pitches, be they from companies advertising their products or politicians selling themselves.

Zak has gained notoriety for his work with a hormone called oxytocin, which appears to be associated with trust. Some research appears to show higher levels of oxytocin correlate with bonding and even love.

Zak recently hooked up 12 Republican test subjects to equipment that could monitor their brain waves and test the oxytocin levels in their blood as they viewed the Republican presidential debates. He found his subjects were consistently more attentive to Trump than to other candidates, but his viewers didn’t necessarily connect with Trump emotionally.

Oxytocin levels were lower when subjects viewed a debate interchange with Trump. Normally that would be considered a problem for Trump, since candidates want to be trusted. But not in this case.

In a country where social trust has been declining, Trump’s message resonates, Zak says, because he isn’t looking for trust.

“We’ve been waiting for this moment,” Zak says. “Trump is playing into this domain in which I not only don’t trust my neighbor, I don’t even know my neighbor. I need a central figure who can go in there and make sure things work the way they should work.”

Testosterone can act as an oxytocin antidote, according to Zak, diminishing trust as its blood levels rise. “Trump uses hand movements and dominance displays,” he says. “He’s all about ‘I’m the biggest, baddest alpha male out here.’ If anything, that says neurologically, ‘Screw trust, I’m going to make it happen.’”

“It’s a brilliant strategy,” Zak says.


Do more private security guards indicate lower levels of social trust?

Most private security guards per capita

1) Las Vegas 20.8 guards per 1,000 working residents

2) Miami 16.9

3) Memphis 14.6

4) Washington, D.C. 13.5

5) New Orleans 13.4

6) New York 13.4

7) Baltimore 13.0

8) Birmingham 13.0

9) Riverside, CA 11.4

10) Los Angeles 11.2

Fewest private security guards per capita

49) Portland 5.5

50) Providence, RI 5.4

51) Minneapolis 5.1

Data: U.S. Bureau of Labor