How do we restore trust in government? President Reagan famously said that government is the problem, not the solution. Today, only 12% of Americans have confidence in Congress. Increasing trust, philosopher Onora O’Neill posits, is the wrong aim. The correct aim is to place more trust in the trustworthy, and less trust in the untrustworthy.
What does she mean? Ms. O’Neill argues that if you were asked whether you trust the first grade teacher or the soldier, you would ask trust to do what? That is the correct question. You trust the teacher to teach your child, but not to build rockets. You trust the soldier to defend us, but not to perform open heart surgery. Intelligently placed and intelligently refuted trust, she maintains, is the proper aim.
What then are the characteristics of trustworthy individuals? Ms. O’Neill argues that those persons are honest, competent and reliable. We would not trust our friend who always shows up an hour late to organize a conference. We would not trust our gardener to write a legal contract. We tend to shed those in our lives who are dishonest. Why don’t we do that politically?
Let’s look at Trump through O’Neill’s lens. Mr. Trump is not someone with whom the word “honest” is associated. He has told more than 20,000 lies during his time in office, making him one of the most mendacious holders of the White House in our history. He has lied about President Obama’s birthplace, the crowd size at his inauguration, Mexico paying for a border wall, the Mueller report exonerating him, and asking Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden. President Trump has been impeached and a staggering number of his associates have faced criminal indictments.
There are various measures of Mr. Trump’s competence as President. More than 145,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, the highest number of deaths in the world. The number of deaths is climbing as he refuses to implement measures to mitigate the pandemic. The 11.2% unemployment rate is the highest since World War II. Forbes says that the real unemployment rate may be greater than 20% making it the highest rate since the Great Depression. The cratered economy will likely take years to recover, despite Trump’s promises that the virus will magically disappear and the economy will magically rebound.
Trump has not been a reliable world leader either. He has coddled autocrats like Putin and Duterte, whom he seems to emulate, and attacked our friends and allies. He has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord, normalization of relations with Cuba, the Trans Pacific Partnership, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that sought to prevent Iran from securing nuclear weapons. An unspoken truth across Administrations, even when there are sharp political differences, is that agreements must be upheld so that world leaders can rely upon on our word. Not under Trump. He did the same in his business as he was notorious for not upholding his end of a contract, devastating small business owners in the process. It is to be seen whether other nations will rely on the U.S. anytime in the near future, because if voters continue to usher in untrustworthy leaders, that is how the world will treat us.
Trump has projected his own untrustworthiness on to the institutions of government, and our bedrock constitutional norms, radically magnifying Reagan’s dour screed. Trump has ignored climate scientists that are trying to save our planet; doctors that our trying to save us from the global pandemic; and intelligence officers that are trying to protect us from foreign threats. He has claimed he knows more than our generals and gutted our diplomatic corps. He has attacked freedom of the press with his fake claims of “fake news;” freedom of association by blinding protestors and sending in anonymous federal agents to pluck Americans off the streets into unmarked vans; and religious liberty by allowing religious views to trump civil liberty, which will ultimately mean we will all be denied services or jobs because the boss’ religious views differ from our own.
The United States has faced dire challenges before and survived. We will do so again. We must start by electing folks this November who are trustworthy — who are honest, competent and reliable. Our government officials and agencies should proactively demonstrate their own trustworthiness by being more public about what they are achieving for the American public. Public confidence is highest in our men and women in uniform, in part because the stories of their heroism since 9/11 has received daily coverage. We should also revere the civil servants, like Dr. Fauci, who toil every day to make us safer and our lives better.
Government also must hear those who have been ignored for too long, who feel that they have been left behind. That is why some voters voted for both Barrack Obama and Donald Trump, because they hoped those men could deliver what prior Administrations had not. Too many Americans cannot make ends meet; too many do not have quality, affordable health care; too many cannot afford housing or education; too many do not have clean water; too many get trampled by our criminal justice system. Americans can’t breathe. Addressing the needs of the American people, not the privileged few, will show that the government is trustworthy, restore the trust and confidence we seek, and lay the foundation for an American renaissance. Investing in trustworthiness is the key this November.