Trump Exploits Institutional Distrust

In his letter terminating former FBI director James Comey, President Donald Trump states, “It is essential that we find new leadership for the FBI that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission.” His hope to restore trust in the FBI is laudable. Unfortunately, Trump’s own words and actions undermine his stated intention. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he called the FBI “corrupt” numerous times, and alleged “collusion” between the FBI, Department of Justice, and State Department. Firing the FBI director overseeing an investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election, including possible ties with Trump’s campaign, does not engender trust that the new director will be independent of the president. Trump has not sought to heal the suspicion Americans have toward our institutions — he foments and exploits distrust as a means of garnering support for himself.

On NPR’s Morning Edition, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argued institutions are vital for a healthy democracy and lamented the current prevailing distrust of institutions in the United States:

I worry a great deal about all of those surveys that are out that Americans, in particular, are becoming distrustful of our institutions — that Americans are beginning to say they’re either irrelevant or they’re corrupt or they certainly don’t speak to me. But the institutions are actually still functioning.

The American populace has quantifiably low confidence in our national institutions, whether public or private. This distrust is often warranted. Politicians more interested in partisan victories than the common good, churches protecting clergy who commit atrocities, corporations seeking profits over the well-being of people, news media more interested in flash and novelty than in nuance and context, all erode trust.

Gallup, June, 2016

In such environments, healthy skepticism is bound to calcify into impenetrable cynicism. We abandon the shared goal of making institutions worthy of our trust. Instead we retreat into our echo chambers, listening, for example, only to news sources that confirm our views.

Trump has not directed his attacks solely at the FBI, but to other institutions as well. He claimed the Senate’s rules constitute an “archaic system,” that is, “really a bad thing for the country.” During the campaign he questioned the impartiality of a federal judge and since becoming president, he has continued to undermine the judiciary’s reputation, particularly when judges offer rulings he doesn’t like.

Trump may say he wants to restore institutional trustworthiness, but he seems to think trustworthiness would only come if those institutions show loyalty to him. He does not praise the virtue of a free press as his predecessors did, he dismisses stories he doesn’t like as “Fake news,” and calls the press, “the enemy of the American people.” In discussing the FBI, Trump has never called for a bureau or director independent of political pressures. He instead bashed the FBI when it announced it was recommending no charges against his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, and praised the FBI when it announced it was re-opening the investigation into her e-mails. That is, Trump measures an institution’s trustworthiness by how much that institution benefits him.

Throughout the 2016 campaign Trump boasted he was the only person who could solve our nation’s problems. On a range of topics — e.g., caring for veterans, trade, fighting ISIS, appreciating the Bible — Trump regularly claimed nobody was better than he was. Most notably during his speech at the Republican National Convention, he said of the political arena, despite never holding political office, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” We might dismiss these statements as a salesman’s braggadocio. But the effect of these words from the president of the United States is far more damaging.

Trump isn’t merely displaying enormous hubris in his boasts of knowing more than anyone else. These boasts are part of a larger and cynical divide-and-conquer strategy. First, Trump exacerbates the vacuum of institutional distrust. Then he attempts to step into the vacuum and become the sole object of our trust. The president aims for a cult of personality. In essence, he argues, “You don’t trust these institutions, and for good reason. You should put your trust in me because I know better than anyone else.” The irony of all this is Trump’s historically low approval ratings at this point in a presidency show he is not engendering the trust he seeks. In fact it is becoming more likely he will do more to damage to American trust in the institution of the presidency.

This brings us back to Secretary Rice. In the same interview mentioned above, she praised the wisdom of the American founders to form institutions that would curb the excesses of human folly. She reminds us we are not built to be a nation that revolves around a singular person, no matter how big their personality.

No country can rely on just a single personality to carry it forward. And so what the American Founding Fathers understood was that institutions were built for human imperfection, not human perfection. And so for instance, they constrained the executive by embedding it in a balance with other institutions, a very powerful legislature.

They also gave us courts, independent jurists. They left room for civil society, which meant that citizens could directly associate in order to bring pressure on their governments. And they gave us a free press. They understood that you might have in the presidency someone who wanted to arrogate power into themselves. And they believed that was dangerous, having just experienced King George. And so they built a balanced system.

The work of restoring trust in our institutions will be long and take many shapes as the problems leading to our suspicion is unique to each case — it will look different to engender confidence again in the medical system than in Congress. But this is urgent and necessary work. We should push our institutions and the people who lead them to earn back our trust. We should also reject attempts by the president to exploit our distrust of institutions for his own gain.