As this new year begins, our choice for word of the year just past is Trust. We select trust not because of its presence in 2019 but because of its absence.
Indeed, this absence of trust could be seen as one of the underlying reasons or a root cause of the climate emergency, which is precipitating an existential crisis for us all. That climate emergency is not just environmental. It is social, political and organizational.
In the year 2019, trust was absent on almost all fronts, including in the president; in government; in institutions; in the free press and news media; in social media; and, most problematically, in each other.
Let’s look at each of these areas briefly, beginning with the trust or lack thereof in each other and Merriam Webster’s word of the year “they.” Merriam Webster defines “they” as a singular pronoun used to refer to a person whose gender identity is nonbinary.
“They” has relevance in terms of trust as well. Not in the new 21st century definition of that word, but in the traditional sense of “they” as a plural pronoun used to refer to a group of people.
They are the people on the other side. They are the people in the other tribes. They are the people whose values, attitudes, and beliefs are different than ours.
In these discordant times, there is no longer we, the people. There are only wee people, they don’t trust each other, and the size of the trust gaps between and among them has widened significantly over the past several years.
The Pew Research Center is a definitive source of information on trust. In April of 2018, Pew decided to intensify its research on trust, facts and democracy. Since then, it has published more than 30 pieces presenting research and findings that document the across the board diminution of trust and various factors impacting that downward trajectory.
In July of 2019, Pew reported that 64% of those surveyed felt that people’s trust in each other was shrinking. Non-whites, poorer, less educated, and younger adults had lower levels of personal trust than other Americans.
This same study revealed that 75% of those surveyed felt “trust in the federal government was shrinking.” Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to agree (82% vs 66%).
A Pew study released in December, focusing on trust in the news media, showed a comparable large divide between Democrats and Republicans, with 86% of Democrats “having a lot/some trust in the news from national news organizations” versus 64% of Republicans. Trump’s strongest Republican supporters were the least trusting of national news organizations, with only 58% having a lot or some trust in them.
The partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans has become a chasm on policy issues and has also contributed to highly negative perceptions of those in the opposite party. In a report issued near the beginning of 2019, Pew observed that “twenty years ago, and even as recently as 2014, the top priorities of Democrats and Republicans were much more aligned than they were today.”
As the table below shows, in 2019 there was no agreement at all on the top priority issues:
Another Pew study released in October disclosed that Democrats and Republicans did agree on one thing — that they can’t agree. 73% of those partisans surveyed said “On important issues facing the country, most Republican voters and Democratic voters not only disagree over plans and policies, but also cannot agree on basic facts.”
This agreement on the disagreements caused around 80% of the partisans in each party to give “cold” ratings to those in the opposite party. 75% of the Democrats surveyed said Republicans are more close-minded than most Americans. 63% of the Republicans said Democrats are more unpatriotic than most Americans.
Moving away from the partisan divide, and back to an area that unites many Americans in terms of absence of trust, there is the social media. The annual survey conducted by Edelman Intelligence for its 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer found that only 34% of respondents in the U.S. and Canada trusted social media and that 73% worried about “false information or fake news being used as a weapon.”
Finally, there is the level of trust in President Donald Trump and the impact that his presidency has had on the overall state of trust in the United States. On December 16, 2019, the Washington Post reported the President Trump had made 15,413 ‘false or misleading claims’ in his 1,055 days in office. Given this, the question naturally arises: can you trust a liar?
There is a saying that “Trust starts with truth and ends with truth.” If that saying were accurate, there would be no trust in Donald Trump.
It does not apply, however, to Trump or today’s Washington. Peter Baker described this situation best in the opening sentence of his December 9 New York Times article, titled “Lies, Damn Lies and Washington,” stating, “There are days in Washington lately when it feels like the truth itself is on trial. Monday was one of those days.”
Unfortunately, truth was not just on trial on that Monday, it has been on trial for the entire period that Trump has been in office. And the verdict has been handed down. It is that when it comes to the President’s words and actions, we are living in a post-truth society.
This post-truth society is being constructed by fabulists who generate an alternative reality that appeals to those on the Trump side of the political divide. This fabricated reality impacts not only the political arena but the very existence of trust in America and it has for some time.
On January 21, 2018, Uri Friedman wrote an incisive article for the Atlantic titled “Trust is Collapsing in America.” In his piece, Friedman points out, based upon research by the global communications firm Edelman, that there has been a decline of in trust across the board, and the level of trust in “various institutions has never before recorded such steep drops in trust in the United States.” In fact, Friedman reports, “America is now home to the least trusting informed public of the 28 countries surveyed, right below South Africa.”
The Trump presidency has not only affected trust within the United States, it has had a huge negative impact on trust of America around the world. That’s what Stephen P. Walt writes in his 2017 Foreign Policy article “America Can’t be Trusted Anymore.” Walt supports this claim by citing Pew Research showing global confidence or trust in U.S. leadership “has dropped from an average of 64 percent at the end of the Obama administration to roughly 22 percent during Trump’s first year in office.”
If trust within and toward the U.S. was collapsing during Trump’s first year, it has been in free fall in the almost two years since then. There is no stronger evidence of this condition domestically than the ongoing impeachment proceedings, which have provided a mirror and magnifying glass reflecting and enlarging the size of the trust fissures in the U.S. The video showing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and French President Emmanuel Macron talking about and apparently mocking Trump during a reception at the December NATO summit in London illustrates the lack of regard there is on the international stage for Trump’s trumpery and leadership.
Summing up, we do not believe it is an overstatement to assert that America the nation has a trust crisis. In fact, “The Trust Crisis” was the title of the cover story for the July 2019 issue of the Harvard Business Review.
The trust crisis the story referred to was between businesses and their stakeholders. The trust crisis in the U.S. is not just with businesses. It is not unidimensional. It is multifaceted. It is encompassing.
What can be done to address this crisis and to begin to rebuild and restore trust? Some would suggest to look for new sources for developing trust. University of Chicago professor of law M. Todd Henderson is one of those proposing such an approach. He has co-authored a book, The Trust Revolution: How the Digitization of Trust will Revolutionize Business and Government.
In an article in the Review Section of the October 19–20 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Professor Henderson identifies digitally dependent businesses such as Uber and Airbnb as examples of using technology to ensure trust. He notes, “One key difference between these companies and government is that they provide trust through a decentralized platform rather than a centralized bureaucracy.” He concludes his article by stating, “To solve the challenges of the century ahead and unlock new possibilities for trusting our fellow human beings, government will need to let go of the idea that is the only reliable provider of trust.”
We agree with the professor that government should not be the “only reliable provider of trust.” But neither should technology. In fact, un- or under-regulated business may not be exactly trustworthy.
Consider that in 2018 more than 3,000 sexual assaults were reported occurring during Uber U.S. rides. And, this Halloween, 5 people were killed at an Airbnb mansion party in San Francisco. Throw Facebook privacy and its myriad other problems into this mix and one can see that in certain instances — perhaps many — technology and digitization may reduce trust rather than increasing it.
Brad Smith, President of Microsoft, recognizes that technology is a dual-edged sword that in and of itself is not an answer to trust. He demonstrates this recognition in the new book he co-authored: Tools & Weapons: The Promise and Peril of the Digital Age. In its foreword, Bill Gates writes “…there are also times when it is in everyone’s best interest for the government to step in with more regulations.”
So is the answer to restoring trust in America a more interventionist role for government? No.
Government does have a role to play. But because of the multidimensional nature of the nation’s trust crisis, government playing the right role and doing the right things is only part of the answer. In addition, institutions, businesses, the traditional news media, the providers and users of social media, and those in the political arena — to name just a few — must all play essential and important roles in solving the trust equation.
The most important role must be assumed, however, by we the people. As Adlai Stevenson aptly put it, “As citizens of this democracy, you are the rulers and the ruled, the law-givers and the law-abiding, the beginning and the end.”
We concur wholeheartedly with Stevenson’s perspective. And, that is why we opened our book, Renewing the American Dream: A Citizen’s Guide for Restoring our Competitive Advantage, published in 2010, with A Citizen’s Call to Arms.
In that call, we stated that 2009 was the worst of times, that we were in an undeclared war on the home front. That war was one to renew America and the American Dream by restoring the economic and social fabric of the U.S.
We went on to say:
Winning this war is not the job of government or business. It is ours. As citizens, we need to arm ourselves and join forces to win it. This is not simply about casting a vote or toeing the party line. It is about education and engagement. It is about doing what is necessary to renew America and the American dream.
In 2010, we observed that 2010–2019 would be the decisive decade, and that the decisions made and actions taken in that time period would determine the future of America and the American dream. Now, that 2019 has come and gone, we must report sadly that 2010 -2019 was indecisive and inconclusive.
While the economy is booming and there are jobs aplenty today, income inequality has exploded and our social fabric is shredded. As a result of this combination, trust has imploded. Because America is the land of opportunity and second chances, there is a new decisive decade confronting us. It is now 2020–2029.
This might be seen as an attempt to back away from our earlier assessment, and it is. In point of fact, though, we reduced our expectations for what was possible in the short period of time of ten years in Working the Pivot Points: To Make America Work Again, published in 2013.
In that work, we examined pivot points throughout American history, such as women getting the right to vote, civil rights, and equal educational opportunity, how long it took to accomplish them, and their implications for addressing the major pivot point areas confronting us today, such as the loss of manufacturing jobs, a decline in small business entrepreneurship, and the immigration dilemma.
Our conclusions are summarized in the book’s Epilogue. “Patience, Persistence and Principles” is its last section. The first paragraph of that section reads as follows:
As we close this book, it becomes clear that working and moving forward on the pivot points is a long hard slog. It is a marathon and not a 100-yard dash. It requires patience and persistence and the ability to come back again and again after defeats.
Given this, we cautioned that we needed to give pivot persons (citizens and civic leaders) time to achieve the necessary and desired outcomes. And, in the last paragraph of that last section, we observe:
It may not be this year. It may not be the next. It may take till the end of this decade — and possibly even longer. Eventually, it will be done because time is on the side of those with patience, persistence, and principles to work the pivot points to make America work again.
That was 2013. Trust was not one of the major pivot points we identified at that time. It was definitely a problem area. President Trump transformed it into a pivot point by 2019 because he is a trust buster.
Not a trust buster in the sense of Teddy Roosevelt who used the power of the presidency to exercise the government’s right to regulate businesses that were engaged in unreasonable practices or too powerful within an industry sector. But as a self-centered individual who has used the power of the presidency to elevate his personal interests above those of the country and to increase partisanship and polarization, thus busting trust.
Trust was in a troubled state when Trump began campaigning. In point of fact, he channeled the anger and alienation of a segment of the population during his campaign to win the Republican nomination for President, and then to win the presidency itself.
Trump had a choice when he came into office. He could have decided to govern and communicate in a manner which would bring the nation’s citizens closer together or to tear them further apart. He chose the latter.
He amplified the anger and alienation of his supporters by adding his own secret sauce. That sauce is fake news. Fake news is created by distorting, inverting, and perverting reality and accusing others of the actions in which you are engaged.
President Trump is without question the ultimate prevaricator and purveyor of fake news. His fake news has not drained the swamp. Instead, it has created a form of swamp fever that has infected his constituency, including many of those elected politicians in Washington who have decided to become his acolytes, extending and communicating his and their own brand of fake news.
One of the most recent and egregious examples of Trump’s use of fake news was the six-page missive that he sent to Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi on the day before the impeachment vote was to be held. In his letter, Trump argued his case not rationally, eloquently, or logically but in his usual attacking, misleading, and bombastic style.
He stated “By proceeding with your invalid impeachment, you are violating your oath of office, you are breaking your allegiance to the Constitution, and you are declaring open war on American democracy.” These are the very charges against Trump, turned around and levied against those leading the impeachment process against him.
Trump went further to declare, “This is nothing more than an illegal, partisan attempted coup that will based on recent sentiment fail at the voting booth.” The Oxford Dictionary defines coup as “a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of government.”
The impeachment process was none of the above, even by the wildest stretch of the imagination. As for “failing at the voting booth,” in the oath of office taken by members of the House of Representatives, they solemnly to “support and defend the Constitution,” not a president, a party, or to win elections.
In spite of taking that oath of office themselves, the Republicans involved in the impeachment process consistently put all of those other things first, and their support and defense of the Constitution last. Following the President’s less than shining example, they offered their own brand of fake news throughout the impeachment hearings and multiplied it ten times over in the so-called “debate” before the casting of the impeachment vote.
In that debate, among many other ludicrous charges, congressional Republicans referred to the impeachment as a scam; compared the President Trump to Jesus Christ; and asked how could the Democrats even consider impeaching someone who had received 63 million votes for President?
A scam? Let’s go back to the Oxford dictionary again. It defines scam as “a dishonest scheme; a fraud.”
The impeachment itself was definitely not a scam. It was conducted in accordance with the Constitution and rules from prior impeachment proceedings. If there was any scamming going on, it was by the Republicans charging that it was a scam and refusing to consider or accept any of the damning facts presented in the President’s own edited transcript of the Ukrainian phone call or by those who testified during the impeachment hearings regarding it.
Jesus Christ? Jesus Christ! Donald Trump! Even though some of Trump’s followers are evangelical Christians, and others support him with a religious fervor, there is no valid comparison. Anyone who makes it is committing a sacrilegious act and should head immediately to the confessional to ask for forgiveness.
Impeaching a President who received nearly 63 million votes nationally? Pardon us, but the impeachment was based upon Trump’s behavior as President. It had nothing to do at all with his national vote count. If total vote count mattered, Hillary Clinton, who received nearly 66 million votes nationally, would be President.
Another favorite Republican talking point is to forget about impeachment and let the voters decide in the election how they feel about Trump’s performance. The answer to this is they did so in the mid-term elections of 2018.
In that election, the Democrats had a net gain of 41 seats, enabling them to wrest control of the House. 31 of the Democrats voting on the impeachment came from cross-over districts that Trump carried in 2016. 28 of those Democrats voted yes on the two articles of impeachment and a 29th voted yes on one article but not the other.
Based upon these numbers, it is clear that impeachment proceedings would not have been held and there would have been no impeachment if the Republicans had not lost control of the House after the 2018 elections.
No one can tell what will happen in 2020 in terms of election results. What can be certain is that if Donald Trump continues to run for President again, he will undoubtedly intensify his trust-busting activities, promote extreme political partisanship in his own image and likeness, and do all that he can to divide the country even further. This will make the challenge of restoring trust throughout the nation much more challenging.
George T. Conway III, Steve Schmidt, John Weaver, and Rick Wilson, four prominent individuals who have worked in and supported Republican political campaigns, understand the threat Trump poses to the country on many levels. That is why they along with some other Republicans have founded the Lincoln Project “to defeat Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box…”
In an op ed in the New York Times on December 17, they explain,
Patriotism and the survival of our nation in the face of the crimes, corruption and corrosive nature of Donald Trump are a higher calling than mere politics. As Americans, we must stem the damage he and his followers, are doing to the rule of law, the Constitution and the American character.
Conway, Schmidt, Weaver, and Wilson have been joined in the opposition to Trump by an unlikely companion. That is the evangelical Christian magazine, Christianity Today, which was founded by Billy Graham.
In a stinging editorial published on December 19, the magazine states Trump should be removed from office. The editorial opines that the facts are unambiguous that Trump committed an impeachable act, but “more importantly it is profoundly immoral.”
It elaborates that “the reason many are not shocked by this is that this president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration.” It provides examples, including “His Twitter feed alone — with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies and slanders — is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”
The Christianity Today editorial also addresses those evangelical Trump supporters who try to justify defending Trump’s egregious and offensive behavior by citing his achievements such as the appointment of Supreme Court nominees and stewardship of the economy. It pushes those excuses aside, declaring, “None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.”
Christianity Today’s indictment of Trump is compelling. And, in a perfect world, Trump would have been impeached and then removed from office. But the world is not perfect.
That is, except for Donald Trump and his phone conversation with the president of Ukraine, which was perfect. Come to think of it, there are two other perfect touchpoints. They are the comments by Senator Mitch McConnell and Senator Lindsey Graham that they would not be “impartial” or “fair” jurors in an impeachment trial. Those statements are perfectly absurd and illustrate the Machiavellian nature of the Republican protection of Trump.
Returning from that faux perfection to this imperfect world, it is important to keep a sense of humor. Humor is the healing balm that enables concerned citizens to maintain composure as they prepare to gird up their loins to join the battle to rebuild trust in the United States of America.
Since political partisanship will prevent the impeachment and removal of Trump from office, that rebuilding must begin by concerned citizens coming together with like-minded individuals who will put our democracy, Constitution, and country first to defeat Trump in the 2020 presidential elections.
That will be the starting point. After that is accomplished, we can reach across the aisle politically, religiously, and geographically. We can collaborate with other patriotic 21st century American citizens who are interested in the common good, issue oriented, informed, independent, and involved, to have a positive impact on the other dimensions of trust.
What if Trump is re-elected? Then, the answer will be to turn to prayer. Not to pray for Trump, but to pray for America and for the restoration of its head, heart and soul. And, as theologian Reinhold Neibuhr wrote, to pray for serenity:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
Courage to change the things I can.
And wisdom to know the difference.
Then, after praying, the next step will be to persevere. To keep on keeping on. To realize that these things can be changed. Starting the rebuilding of trust process will just take a little bit longer. As we noted earlier in this blog, “Eventually it will be done, because time is on the side of those with patience, persistence, and principles to work the pivot points to make America work again.”
Trust was our designated word for 2019 because of its absence. We are confident that because of the American character, and Americans who will not give up on fulfilling the American creed, it will be a word of the year again at some time in the future because of its presence.
As we stated in a February 2012 Huffington Post blog,
While in God we trust may be our motto, in good we trust must be our motive. As long as “we the people” make choices based upon a motive and not just a motto this democracy will endure.
It will endure because we have both a spiritual and moral compass. It will endure because we have both a heart and a soul. It will endure because both God and Good will bless America.
That was our belief and opinion nearly eight years ago. It remains our belief and opinion in January 2020. In closing, we say Trust U.S.
Happy new year!
Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.