When Donald Trump abruptly fired FBI director James Comey this week, a good part of America was disturbed. Is Trump hiding something? Is Comey a “showboat?” Should presidents under investigation even be able to fire the head investigator? Americans of all kinds have been put off balance by the people in D.C. lately. Why?
Because we don’t trust any of them.
I spent thirteen years working for the government. Never during that time did I need to work very hard to convince people of the old adage that “we are with the government and we are here to help you.” I am proud of my service. Hooray for me.
I worked for state government though, not the sinister federal government. I worked here in Indianapolis, not in the “swamp” of Washington. But like Comey, on a much smaller scale, I was not elected. I was just a run of the mill public servant.
I do not trust President Trump. He fuels that fire in a unique and modern way every day. He can’t be taken literally. Even his supporters say so. That is difficult to overcome in the quest to be trusted.
But is not trusting the government anything new? It is for me, but as my readers know already, I’m unique. For clarity, I had to check in with the Pew Research Center for some data on it.
Pew published a report earlier this month on the question of “public trust in the government.” Its focus was specific to the federal government and they have data on the issue that goes back to 1958. As is almost always the case, their research is fascinating.
It is clear from their graph that public trust in government is at or near historic lows. It is also clear that this slide has been far more steady than some would expect. Political scientists all agree these are chaotic times. This week after the controversial firing of Comey, comparisons to the Watergate scandal and the use of the word “Nixonian” began appearing in media reports across the land. But even the government of the early 1970s had more trust than today’s.
However, the research shows that there was a steady decline in public trust beginning in 1964 when nearly eighty percent of Americans trusted the government. By 1979, the data shows the number near twenty-five percent. Following the 1980 election, there were gains in the number, but the rate has spent most of the last thirty years between twenty and fifty percent.
The “government” is nothing more than a group of people. These people are all there because of choices the public has made, either directly or indirectly. So when only twenty percent of Americans “trust” the government, what would a rational American response be?
A search for new people would make sense. The problem there is that new candidates are not automatically “trustworthy” either. Trust has to be earned and earning it isn’t easy.
I had a long conversation with an elected official this week and he broke it down for me in a wonderfully simple way. He said that voters want to know that you are running because you care about them, and not yourself. He is certain that is why he has won a few times now, in the face of not so great odds.
Further, he gave me an example of how important that is. He said that his constituents don’t even know whether he is pro-choice or pro-life. When I responded to that with profanity laced shock, he quickly replied: “that’s not why they elected me. They just want to know that I am there to help them.”
That is trust. And trust is the foundation of self government that has slowly eroded over time. Politically speaking though, trust is the currency that is more valuable than just about anything. Candidates who have it win. Officials who keep it, get things done.
Oddly, Trump supporters still trust him. To be clear, I think most of them actually have faith he will produce outcomes they want. That is not the same kind of trust as, say, letting him babysit one’s children. I am confident history will show outcomes that hurt more than helped, but still the most valuable asset the president currently has is their trust.
His biggest liability is that he has no hope of growing that base. None.
Trump lawyers this week said his tax returns for the last the last ten years show he made almost no money off of Russia. Twenty percent of Americans probably trust that. Next week: an exclusive interview with the Tooth Fairy.