Donald Trump is still at it – waging a scorched-earth war against one of America’s greatest national assets: trust. The president’s pathetic attempts to discredit the presidential election, and the prospect of the first modern transition of presidential power without a concession, is aimed at sowing further mistrust in our democracy, our institutions, and our way of life.
If Trump hasn’t been acting on Russia’s behalf all this time (and the precise nature of the Trump-Putin relationship remains one of the unresolved mysteries of this presidency), Putin should hire the outgoing president (or find some way to bail out the financially troubled Trump family) in gratitude for services rendered, and to encourage Trump’s continued efforts to undermine the trust that binds us. Moscow already employs another influential Western leader; former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has worked for a series of Russian energy interests, hired to help build bridges (and pipelines) and interdependence between Russia and Germany. Trump’s mission would be a simpler one: Keep undermining Americans’ trust in each other.
After his campaign ended earlier this year when he endorsed Joe Biden on the eve of the Super Tuesday primaries, Pete Buttigieg, the breakout political star of the 2020 presidential campaign, wrote a slim but powerful book entitled Trust: America’s Best Chance. Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and the temperamental antidote of all that is Donald Trump, identifies trust as the indispensable ingredient in the American experiment, without which “the basic premise of our democratic society falls apart.” Buttigieg is perceptive in describing the importance of trust in low- and high-brow terms, as something we need to navigate everyday life (proceed on green, trusting others will stop on red; eat at a restaurant trusting the food is safe) as well as to make our constitutional democracy work, and evolve, as intended (trusting the separation of powers will be respected; that states can be trusted to run their own elections, and so on).
Conversely, Buttigieg writes, “What Russia, led by KGB veteran Vladimir, understands is that trust is a national security asset, critical to the strategic position of the United States, and therefore a high-value target.”
Reading Buttigieg’s book reminded me of another book entitled Trust from a quarter-century ago, Francis Fukuyama’s influential Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. Fukuyama wrote that communities develop and prosper to the extent that its members can rely on shared expectations of honest, cooperative behavior (trust) beyond their families.
The core of Buttigieg’s political message in a campaign that exceeded all expectations was his call to restore, cherish, and expand the feeling of “belonging” in America. Echoing Fukuyama, he calls this sense of “belonging” the source of trust in society – the reason we ever enter into contracts with each other, engage in political activity, pay our taxes, share public spaces, donate to charities, volunteer in our communities, worship together, or otherwise deal with anyone with whom we are not related.
“Racism, implicit and explicit, is America’s most pernicious form of distrust,” Buttigieg writes, and it is not surprising that so much of Donald Trump’s jihad against American trust leveraged residual racism to achieve his goals. Trump never spent a day in the White House trying to unite us; this otherwise erratic mediocrity of a mind has shown a disciplined, singlehanded focus on “othering” us from each other from start to finish.
The opening salvos of his political life were questioning the legitimacy of Barak Obama’s Americanness and calling Mexican immigrants a bunch of rapists and “bad hombres.” Once in office, Trump’s governing modus operandi was to sow distrust of people from other nations, religious faiths, political parties, states, and the media. The Trump administration also turned on its own government, because the “deep state,” deigned to cross him on Russia (the one “other” the president asked us all to trust throughout). This blossomed into a full-fledged and ultimately suicidal war on all expertise. Trump’s efforts to undermine public health experts’ messaging around the pandemic may have cost him the election, but it was consistent with his (and Putin’s) mission. And Trump is now trying to convince as many of his followers as he can that he has been robbed by a conspiracy involving untrustworthy “others,” starting with those voters of color in America’s urban centers.
It astonishes many of us that so many people place their trust in the great destroyer of trust in our society. But as Buttigieg writes in his book, the twisted genius of the Trumpian approach to politics, realized earlier by Fox News’ Roger Ailes, is that you can more quickly secure the trust of people by playing to their distrust of others. It is the secret of every conspiracy theorist’s success, and the reason Trump ended up deepening the feeling of belonging among his base, instead of expanding it.
Only time will tell how lasting and impactful Trump’s war on American trust has proven. He has not been able to steal the election; it has been heartening to see judges and election-administration officials across the country (many Republicans among them) stand up for the trustworthiness of our democracy. But plenty of Republican leaders at the national level, not to mention voters, have aided and abetted Trump’s efforts to erode our collective trust in our system, our trust in each other, and the world’s trust in American leadership.
Can we now trust them to come to their senses?
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America Twitter: @AndresDCmtz