Much of the angst, concern and anger in politics is laid at the feet of the current President. But, in reality, Donald Trump is a symptom of a broader disease in America, the fall of trust and civility in politics.
I mean, let’s be real here, did Donald Trump really make voters suddenly lose faith in the government? To believe this would mean Trump is responsible for people losing faith in vaccines, the electoral system, our judges and a host of other civic and societal institutions. Trump has hardly helped Americans trust government (even as half the country asks it to do more) but he certainly did not cause the breakdown in trust either.
It is true a President’s rhetoric can help set the tone for a nation but largely only among elites and partisans. For example, few felt comforted when former President Obama spoke about the value of America while on the other hand deriding Americans of different beliefs and values. The current President only has amplified this divide.
Americans have been losing faith in their government for decades. The proliferation of mass media, cultural cliques, and the decline of governmental effectiveness and rise of opinion journalism have all fed into this phenomenon. A recent Pew survey found American’s only express majority trust in the courts and the military (and those are well down from past years).
The above, combined with politicos (of all parties I might add) demonizing their opponents has only amplified deep divides in American politics. In some cases this can be cultural, (cling to guns and religion), others ideological (they want to bring socialism to America) and others racial. The lack of nuance in political discussions and the us vs. them mentality has led to a breakdown in the basic functions of not just government but also civic life.
Let me give you a real-life example of this. When was the last time you sat down with a friend, family member, wife, son, daughter, etc. and discussed an issue you know you disagree on? If you cannot even do this imagine what one must assume about giant blocs of people you have never met. It is easy to imagine a bunch of white evangelicals in Georgia want to oppress women and force them to have babies if you have never met them. It is much harder to do that if you meet them, interact with them and learn where they are coming from.
It should be noted a wide plurality of Americans express support for bipartisanship and trust in their fellow Americans. They just don’t behave in that fashion. They are drawn to the loudest and most ideologically driven candidates in primaries. They assume the worst about their fellow Americans as evidenced by trying to jam their views down their throats.
The 2016 Presidential primary was notable because of Trump. But, since Trump was elected, the only President able to win a campaign getting away with arguably sexist comments, Democratic candidates have followed suit.
On the campaign trail Beto O’Rourke routinely invokes the f-bomb. Bernie Sanders has even thrown out an expletive or two. Cussing in public campaigns is not completely new, it is more common though. Rather the most recent change is in how candidates describe their opponents, particularly Democrats describing the President.
Merely a day after the shooting in El Paso, TX, Beto O’Rourke described the President as a white nationalist and a racist. Sanders called him a “racist, ho is a xenophobe, who appeals and is trying to appeal to white nationalism.” Warren called him a white nationalist at a campaign event in Iowa. Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg and Kirsten Gillibrand have also echoed similar sentiments.
It is only older and more moderate candidates, most notably Joe Biden, who has not called out the President for being a racist or white nationalist. Obviously, Democrats are not doing this for fun. They are doing it fire up their base, which, yes, does hate the President.
To be fair, Trump and his supporters do the same thing. But if this is becoming the new normal in American politics things are going to go downhill quickly. Good luck building up societal trust in governmental institutions and uniting Americans around policies if they don’t trust anybody but those who agree with them.
This is a problem likely to only get worse whether Trump is in the White House or not next year. It is a problem Americans of all ethnicity, nationalities, races and beliefs will have to face. The longer discussion of why Americans don’t trust their government is put off, the harder it is to fix.