How does political trust affect the competing pressures of policy versus political performance in emergent democracies? Studies suggest that political trust buffers against these pressures, but empirical evidence is lacking in regard to if or how, given the focus in the literature on mature democracies where democratic institutions and practices are unlikely to be upended by either policy or political underperformance. However, in emergent democracies where the risks of democratic reversal loom large, the distinction is highly relevant. This article investigates how political trust matters in emergent democracies, specifically, if political trust buffers against public pressures, and whether it is system-directed versus incumbent-directed, for East and Southeast Asia. The evidence from multiple waves of survey data provides three useful insights: first, it shows that political trust supersedes economic expectations in support for the democratising system; this supports political trust as a buffer for the political system and is system-directed. Second, political trust goes hand-in-hand with economic performance to explain support for the incumbent government. This finding clarifies that political trust does not buffer the government against public pressure for performance. Third, taken together, the results show that economic growth may keep a government in office but institution-building leads to political trust that undergirds the political system, so that institution-building is a priority for stability in emergent democracies. These results expand the political trust literature to underpin democratic progression and consolidation issues that are unique to emergent democracies.