In a fascinating—and trending toward dystopic—article in this Sunday’s Washington Post’s Outlook, Bill Bishop, co-author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, examines the global decline in trust, not just of the politics in the United States, but in the institutions we once assumed were unassailable—religion, neighborhoods, schools, law enforcement, and government writ large. I read Outlook’s front-page headline, Americans have lost faith in institutions. That’s not because of Trump or ‘fake news’, shortly before the Sunday morning news shows took on the latest Trump tweets claiming former President Obama had authorized wiretaps of Trump himself at the Trump Tower in New York.
I watched, gobsmacked and dumbstruck, as Trump’s deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, wandered aimlessly (and yet somehow confidently) through the brambles of Trumpian fiction even as This Week’s ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz tried over and over again to guide Sanders away from the thorns. Here is just one half-minute of the exchange between Sanders and Raddatz:
RADDATZ: Was the principal source the Breitbart story, which links to The New York Times? But The New York Times doesn’t say anything definitive. Donald Trump does. There is nothing equivocating about what he says. “I just found out that Obama had my wires tapped.” That’s not look into something. He says it happened.
HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look, I think the bigger thing is you guys are always telling us to take the media seriously. Well, we are today. We’re taking the reports that places like The New York Times, FOX News, BBC, multiple outlets have reported this. All we’re saying is let’s take a closer look. Let’s look into this. If this happened, if this is accurate, this is the biggest overreach and the biggest scandal.
RADDATZ: The president of the United States is accusing the former president of wiretapping him.
SANDERS: I think that this is, again, something that if this happened, Martha.
RADDATZ: If, if, if, if.
SANDERS: I agree.
RADDATZ: Why is the president saying it did happen?
SANDERS: Look, I think he’s going off of information that he’s seen that has led him to believe that this is a very real potential. And if it is, this is the greatest overreach and the greatest abuse of power that I think we have ever seen and a huge attack on democracy itself. And the American people have a right to know if this took place.
This is gaslighting, pure and simple, and it’s gaslighting by a public servant on behalf of a President who, with no stomach or talent for direct confrontation or reasoned debate, sends staff like Sanders into the grinding maw of a properly-skeptical media. How in the world can anyone trust the words that come from the mouths of spokespersons who daily have to re-diagram the convoluted Trumpspeak that flows from the President’s Twitter account? And, if you can’t trust the messenger, how can you trust the message? You can’t.
Now, as trust in America fades—internally and externally—with every pre-dawn tweet from the thumbs of a paranoid gaslighter, we are becoming unrecognizable and unknowable again.
And that brings me back to the Bishop article, which is worth reading on several levels: First, it will comfort or discomfort you by confirming your suspicions that not all is right with the world around you (if, in fact, you needed any confirmation); second, Bishop drills down through the history of this Hydra-headed loss of trust with meticulously-prepared and clearly-presented polling data from the Gallup Organization on topics ranging from community, public schools, the economy, organized labor, the church and organized religion, and the media; and third, the article may serve as call to action despite Bishop’s dark forecast for increasingly mistrustful times to come.
What intrigued me most about Bishop’s conclusions was the demonstrated decline in trust throughout the global community. Suspicions abound on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific, and even unto the ends of the Earth.
This excerpt from the article drives Bishop’s point home:
“’Declining trust in government has spread across almost all advanced industrial democracies since the 1960s/1970s,’ writes political scientist Russell Dalton. ‘Regardless of political history, electoral system, or style of government, most contemporary publics are less trustful of government than they were in the era of their grandparents.’ We haven’t simply changed our attitudes. We’ve voted with our feet, walking away from the institutions we supported for generations.”
What I believe Bishop and Dalton are saying is loss of trust, progressing globally, correlates with the loss of trust in government and other institutions here at home. How can any foreign government, already feeling the loss of trust from its own constituency, have any faith in the word of a U.S. President who lashes out irresponsibly at all hours of the day or night on social media, and whose conspiracy-riven rants drive deeper the wedge of division between his own citizens? How can we expect any nation to trust anything we say or do when we cannot even trust ourselves to handle something so basic and foundational as an election? How can we say, “trust us” when we cannot trust ourselves to call out a liar here at home?
The ancient mapmakers, unable to see the globe with satellite clarity, labeled much of the world outside their surveys as terra incognita, or unknown land. The map we know of the United States—one encompassing geography as well as democracy—was not complete until the early-19th century, and over the following 200 years, we rose to a place of prominence on the map of the world. Our word was trusted, our institutions and bonds of friendship were strong and reliable. Our terrain—as a nation worthy of trust—was mapped and marked as safe.
Now, as trust in America fades—internally and externally—with every pre-dawn tweet from the thumbs of a paranoid gaslighter, we are becoming unrecognizable and unknowable again. If we cannot trust our leaders and institutions, and if the world follows suit, as they must, we will fade from the map of the known world.
We will become Trumpterra Incognita.