Merriam-Webster defines trust as the “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something”.
We don’t need a definition of trust. We know trust when we see it and when feel it. There has been a lot of discussion as of late about trust in leadership and institutions. Two core components of trust in leaders are ability (can this person actually do what they are saying?) and integrity (does this person have a core values system that is consistent and that is aligned with those being led?).
Trust is central to many of our most important stories and events. We see this in the history books with the public trusting General Washington’s humility and devotion to democracy ideals to be a President who instead of seeking regal powers will ride off into the sunset as America’s Cincinnatus. We see this in films and sports with Coach Dale giving the ball to Jimmy to take the winning shot as he senses the team’s trust in Jimmy:
Sports brings in a component of trust that often gets overlooked. Trust in someone does not mean that the person never fails or never lets us down. For example, Michael Jordan said, “26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed.” The coaches, players, and fans still trusted Jordan after he missed one of those game winning shots, and you can be sure that there is no one other than Jordan that the team would rather have the ball in the hands of the next time the clock was winding down.
Trust is more than getting it right 100% of the time. Trust is about having a consistent track-record of ability and integrity. Trust isn’t just about what we do this time. It’s about what we’ve done in the past. It’s about the way we conduct ourselves. It’s about the confidence people have in us going forward.
Trust is our leaders and institutions is essential for a a strong society. We place trust in banks each time we deposit money. We place trust in our day-care centers each time we drop our children off. We place trust in our politicians each time we go to the ballot box.
Trust has been put under a lot of pressure over the past few months. We have a President that has told us over and over again to trust him. For example to the CIA on January 21, “Trust me, I’m like a smart person.” Too often in his first 50 days, his calls to trust him are not consistent with his actions nor with his contradictory statements. Further, his administration has taken action to undermine the public’s trust in key institutions, whether it’s calling the media “the enemy of the people” or casting preemptive doubt on the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office in advance of their assessment of the bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
Undermining our institutions may play to the short-term advantage of the Trump Administration. His calls to trust him may buy him some time with segments of the country. These actions and his facade are unlikely to last in the long-term as his calls to trust have no track-record of ability or integrity to support these calls.
The institution that Trump has undermined the most in his first 50 days in office is the institution of the Presidency. While the President may not realize this now, there will come a time when trust in the institution of the Presidency will be critical for a national priority, whether it be a vital social program or a national security crisis. Much of America’s success and the relative global stability over the past 70 years can be connected with the trust that has been placed in the American Presidency.
One of the most striking examples of this trust is shared by Ted Sorenson, special counselor to President Kennedy, in his description of the Cuban Missile Crisis: JFK dispatched former Secretary of State Dean Acheson to show the CIA’s surveillance photos of the Cuban missiles to French President Charles de Gaulle. I don’t need to see pictures of the weapons of mass destruction, de Gaulle replied: “The word of the president of the United States is good enough for me.”
We can only hope that President Trump will realize that the trust of the American Presidency only goes as far as the trust we can place in the person occupying his seat.