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2024 U.S. General Elections

Young people's declining perception of the president: What Trump taught Gen Z

As Marianna Pecora sat at her dining room table on her laptop, she tried to pay attention to her teacher’s lecture on the Emancipation Proclamation, but a rioter carrying a Confederate flag through the U.S. Capitol on her living room television caught her eye.

While on a Zoom call for her Honors U.S. History and Government class, Pecora, then 17, watched as rioters fought with outnumbered police officers, hoping to prevent the certification of the 2020 election on Jan. 6, 2021.

While the rioters broke windows, scaled a perimeter wall outside the Capitol building, and issued death threats to then-Vice President Mike Pence, young people across the country, like Pecora, followed along. They made a meme of the “Q Shaman,” who sported a fur headdress with horns and carried a spear with an American flag attached. 

They also watched former President Donald Trump insist the election was stolen from him and protesters to show up that day. 

“There is no good example for Gen Z,” Pecora, now 20, said. “For so many young people, this is the first transition of power, and that’s what it looks like.” 

Prep for the polls: See who is running for president and compare where they stand on key issues in our Voter Guide

She is one of many members of Gen Z — people born between 1997 and 2012 — who first began paying attention to politics during the Trump era. His campaign and four years in office shaped their understanding of what it means to be president. As the nation eyes young voters who have the potential to shape the 2024 election, some say they are approaching November without a positive view of the presidency or a memory of functional government.

Prep for the polls:See who is running for president and compare where they stand on key issues in our Voter Guide

Charisma and money: what Gen Z assumes it takes to be president

Pecora is now the Communications Director for Voters of Tomorrow, an organization representing Gen Z interests that has endorsed Biden.

She grew up in San Diego and would attend family birthday parties on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. When Trump became president while she was in middle school, her family began carefully deciding on which side of the border to celebrate holidays.

“The Trump administration came in at a time when my friends and family were actively trying to get their citizenship. It was a really scary moment for a whole lot of people and so I did kind of have to start paying attention,” Pecora said. “Trump was saying things about people like me and my family that I found deeply hurtful and untrue.”

Pecora said it was the first time something a president said directly impacted her life. But Trump’s comments on immigration also first sparked some young conservatives’ interest in politics as well.

Gabe Saint, 21, of Albany County, Wyoming, remembers Trump’s 2016 campaign rhetoric around immigration as the first time he connected with the presidential candidate’s “America first” platform. However, he acknowledged that Trump is far different from his favorite presidents, Ulysses S. Grant and Calvin Coolidge, who he admires for their humility.

“You can’t really put those guys on a stage with guys like Trump,” Saint said. “Do I think that’s a bad thing nowadays? No, I think that we have a lot of things to figure out. So maybe you need those kinds of firebrand guys.”

Owen Girard, 19, of Tallahassee, Florida, said Trump’s position as a “Manhattan billionaire” actually allowed him to express the “common man” views that he had been hearing for years from older members of his family – something he thinks President Joe Biden can’t do. 

“Biden has just always been much more of that establishment kind of figure who is going to play by the rules of the good old boy politics,” Girard said. “That’s basically the only way you can get around in politics unless you have a billion dollars.” 

For some young voters, Trump’s position as a wealthy political outsider did not seem unusual, and his rhetoric showed them how to keep people’s attention. Hunter Howell, 22, of Chicago, first tuned into politics during Trump’s 2016 campaign. 

“What Trump does is he likes to build up a following while being very polarizing, very radicalizing, which a lot of people love, a lot of people hate, but I think that shaped the future of our politics. It’s more about smear tactics,” Howell said. “In the campaigns of both Trump and Biden, it’s about bashing the other candidate in order to get themselves into power. Neither of them are adequately addressing issues.” 

Trump stood out in 2016 as a presidential candidate without government experience, but with ways to generate headlines in traditional media and connect with voters directly on social media, Collins said. Howell, Saint, Gerard, and Pecora all agreed that a candidate’s charisma is the quality that defines the success of their presidential campaign.

“In some ways, they’re right,” said UC Berkeley political science professor Terri Bimes. “Anybody with a lot of money and a lot of free media can win the nomination.”

More:Who is Timothy Mellon, the ultra-wealthy donor bankrolling both RFK Jr. and Donald Trump?

A shift in youth sentiment

When Bimes was in eighth grade, her family was invited to the White House, where Jimmy Carter presented her mom with a Crystal Apple Award after she won National Teacher of the Year in 1980. Dressed in matching trench coats with her sisters, she remembers feeling glamorous while meeting the president.

Now a UC Berkeley political science professor, she says her image of the presidency has changed. Bimes said she is more critical, skeptical, and frightened after Trump’s election in 2016. She’s not alone.

“People today don’t have the same automatic reverence for the president,” said Timothy Collins, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota.

Young people’s views of the president have changed dramatically over the last half-century, according to a published in Public Opinion Quarterly in 2020. The study compared the responses of children in grades one through six in 2017 and 2018 to the same questions researchers asked children in 1959.

While children in both decades agree that the president’s role is important, it was found that kids today hold a significantly more negative view of the president than in the past.

For example, 73% of children surveyed in 1959 said they thought the president was “more honest than others” compared to 18% of children today. Perceptions of the president’s work ethic similarly changed, with 67% of children in 1959 thinking the president works “much harder than others” compared to 39% of children today.

The study contrasts a fifth grader surveyed in 1959 who said the president “has the right to stop bad things before they start” and a sixth grader surveyed in 2018 who said the president “goes to Florida, plays golf, talks with other political leaders, tries to help our country, [and] insults immigrants and people from other countries.”

“There’s a real distinction between the institution of the presidency versus the personal characteristics and job performance of the person who is the president,” said Zoe Oxley, an author of the 2020 study and a political science professor at Union College.

The oldest children in the 2017-18 cohort head to the polls to vote in a presidential election for the first time this year.

More:Biden turns to memes to win over young voters

For young voters, a functional government takes imagination

Now an incoming junior at George Washington University, Pecora decided she would take the fall semester off to focus on campaigning for Democratic candidates in the November election after witnessing Congress pass only 34 bills into law last year.

Bimes said in contrast to the unanimous confirmation votes of the Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon presidencies, every vote in the 118th session of Congress—one of the least productive in history—appears partisan.

Pecora is preparing to head to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention this summer to support Biden and other Democratic candidates, with hopes they can fulfill more of Biden’s campaign promises in the next session of Congress.

“I don’t look back, I’m looking forward,” Pecora said. “I would like to have an empathetic president.” 

Coming of age during the Trump and Biden presidencies did not yield one uniform outcome in terms of how young people will vote. Girard, who likes that Trump “bullies” those in Congress to get what he wants accomplished, will vote for him in November. Howell, who says dysfunction in government is the country’s biggest problem, is planning to vote for independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in the fall.

Oxley said Gen Z’s negative assessment of the presidency and dysfunction in Congress has resulted in a between young people and both major parties that is unseen in older generations.

“It is one of the factors that turned Gen Z off from traditional politics, and I would say, in turn, especially traditional ties to the parties,” Oxley said.

Jill Greenlee, co-author of the 2020 study and a professor at Brandeis University, said how people view institutions is important in preventing the erosion of democratic norms in Congress and the presidency. 

“So much of our political system is not codified anywhere,” Greenlee said. “A lot of things could change pretty rapidly if people behave differently. It’s a little unsettling.”

Rachel Barber is a 2024 election fellow at ӣƵ, focusing on politics and education. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter, at @rachelbarber_

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