America’s ‘civilization-warping crisis of public trust’
Trump did not invent or cause the crisis of trust that has been long in the making
Ben Sasse is a conservative Republican senator from Nebraska. He recently issued an official statement that caught some national attention by declaring, , ““We are in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public trust.” He’s right and his thesis deserves even more attention.
Sasse’s declaration was prompted by President Donald Trump’s unfounded and unscrupulous tweets accusing former president Barack Obama of spying on him. But Trump’s unprecedented presidential civic vandalism, Sasse was right to suggest, needs to be seen in the context of this “civilization-warping crisis of public trust.” Like a sociological savant, Trump preys on this mistrust, benefits from it and — most dangerously — makes it worse.
Never before has an American president overtly, with an exhibitionist’s zeal, tried to undermine, discredit and insult the major institutions of the government he leads and their leaders. Richard Nixon tried similar stunts, but they were covert and sneaky. Trump as role-model-in-chief, as the bully in the pulpit, as the leader of the free world messages daily to Americans and the world that institutions like the intelligence agencies, the FBI, the military are not credible, not worthy of trust and, often, led by rats and losers.
Stepping back, Trump did not invent or cause the crisis of trust that has been long in the making. Since the Vietnam-Watergate period, trust and confidence in almost every institution and vocation in America have plummeted from organized religion to public schools, banks to the Supreme Court. Congress, the presidency, politicians and the news media are holding steady at all time lows, competing with cellar-dwellers such as used-car salesmen and debt collectors.
If it is any meager comfort, most advanced, prosperous democracies are in the same tippy boat. In a recent article on the decline of trust, author Bill Bishop offers a general explanation stemming from the notion that “as societies grow wealthier and less concerned about basic survival, we should expect a shift from communal to individual values.”
“Everything about modern life works against community and trust,” Bishop writes. “Globalization and urbanization put people in touch with the different and the novel. Our economy rewards initiative over conformity…”
Ever since Watergate, beginning with Jimmy Carter’s famous speech about America’s “crisis of confidence,” presidents have tried to rebuild trust, confidence and optimism about America’s system and institutions.
Not Donald Trump. His strategy is the opposite: destroy.
As a candidate, president-elect and now president, Trump has relentlessly belittled and discredited whole branches of government (Congress, the Judiciary) and whole agencies, particularly those with the most independence — the FBI, the intelligence community and military. All presidential candidates and presidents criticize specific programs, failures and even leaders. No one except Trump has dismissed entire institutions, overtly berated them with locker room insults and made up charges.
He calls federal judges “so-called judges.” The press is “the enemy of the American People.”
Consider the military. Candidate Trump said America’s generals were “rubble.” “They have been reduced to a point where it’s embarrassing to our country.” All the generals and the admirals too — “rubble.”
“I know more about ISIS than the generals do,” he boasted in November. “Believe me.”
As president, when Chief Petty Officer Ryan Owens died on a failed mission to Yemen, Trump made sure everyone knew he wasn’t responsible. “They came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals…”, he said.
Trump’s campaign to discredit the intelligence community is well documented. When the intelligence agencies released a declassified, sanitized report on Russian meddling in U.S. elections, Trump tweeted, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction” (which is not accurate). Trump cited Russian sources and Julian Assange as sources more credible than the CIA.
Now Trump’s feud with the FBI and director James Comey is center stage. As president Trump berates the FBI via Twitter, “The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers’ that have permeated our government for a long time. They can’t even… find the leakers within the FBI itself.”
And after Comey rejected Trump’s incendiary charge that Obama ran wiretaps into Trump Tower, Trump sent his flacks out to avow that he didn’t believe Comey.
There is a theory growing more popular that Trump is systematically trying to delegitimize and gild credible sources of dissent and opposition, as aspiring totalitarians like to do. His new Rasputin, Minister of Propaganda Stephen Bannon, talks about deconstructing the “administrative state” and the “deep state” — made up scary names for what is actually America’s constitutional government. I don’t buy this, yet, because I see no evidence Trump’s thinking is that fancy.
What I wonder is if Trump actually trusts or respects any government institution or type of public servant. He seems to trust Jared and Ivanka and that’s it.
If Trump’s mistrust and his smear campaign grow and grow more effective, American democracy could be warped permanently.