District of Columbia National Guard stand outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 after a day of rioting protesters. The poll also found an increasing number of Americans are more concerned about internal threats to the United States, such as domestic terrorism.

District of Columbia National Guard stand outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 after a day of rioting protesters. The poll also found an increasing number of Americans are more concerned about internal threats to the United States, such as domestic terrorism. John Minchillo/AP

Americans’ Trust in Military Is Declining, Survey Finds

Yet people still trust the military more than six other U.S. institutions.

A growing number of Americans are increasingly losing trust and confidence in the U.S. military, according to a new Ronald Reagan Institute poll.

In less than three years, that trust and confidence has fallen from 70 percent in 2018 to just 56 percent today, the February survey of 2,500 adults has found. The lowest numbers were found among Americans under 30 years old. 

“We really are focusing on this and are concerned about this,” Roger Zakheim, Washington director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, said during a Wednesday call with journalists.

The survey found that Americans "are experiencing a sense of pessimism … [in] almost every question either in confidence or trust, or reliance on an ally, for example,” Zakheim said. “The numbers are generally ticking down.”

The survey was conducted in the wake of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, which reflected a concerted effort by Donald Trump and others to reduce trust in the county’s democratic processes.

Despite its slump, the military remained the most trusted of the seven U.S. institutions compared in the survey, which included law enforcement, Congress, the president, Supreme Court, public schools and news media. The proportion of respondents who expressed trust and confidence in law enforcement, for example, fell from 50% in 2018 to 39% this year.

“While the support of the military has fallen, it remains the most trusted institution by a large margin and a large majority of Americans do see a role for the military in responding to a wide range of domestic scenarios, from natural disasters...to helping control the pandemic and even in cases where we're seeing domestic unrest in the form of protests, domestic terrorism, or engage an event of insurrection by U.S. citizens,” Zakheim said. 

The poll also found that an increasing number of Americans are more concerned about internal threats to the United States, such as domestic terrorism, opposed to threats posed by other countries or groups.

“There is some partisan distinction on this, with 69% of Democrats viewing internal threats as greater than (40%) or equal to (29%) external threats (28%) and 55% of Republicans saying internal threats are greater than (33%) or equal to (22%) external threats (43%),” the findings state.

An increasing number of Americans surveyed (67%) see China as an “enemy” of the United States, but one in five Americans see Beijing as an ally, down 15 percentage points from the group’s last survey in 2019. 

“We've seen an annual increase in concerns about China, but this year's survey shows that really, an increasing number of Americans believe that China poses the greatest threat to the United States,” Zakheim said. “More than 1/3 of Americans in this poll 37% say China is the country posing the greatest threat to the United States…compared to 21% in 2018.”

One in five Americans also consider Russia an ally, but that is down nine percentage points from the survey's 2019 findings. Respondents see Russian cyber attacks as the greatest threat Moscow poses to the United States.

At the same time, support for American long-time allies has largely declined across the board.

While 74% of those surveyed said they support an increase in defense spending, they ranked military spending behind healthcare and education.

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