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.

Change Agent Podcast, First Episode

The first episode of Change Agent, a new podcast hosted by Carey Watson, MD is now available. This week she interviews Dr. Brigid McCaw about the creation and evolution of Kaiser Permanente’s innovative Family Violence Prevention Program. I’m very excited for this podcast and am really proud of Carey’s hard work putting this together.

You can listen above to the episode. You can stream the podcast on her website or on Soundcloud. You can also subscribe via iTunes or Stitcher. New episodes will be available weekly on Wednesday. Please leave some comments and reviews to help get the word out.

Announcing the Change Agent Podcast

I’m excited to announce a new podcast, Change Agent, hosted by Carey Watson, MD. (Carey is not only my favorite gynecologist, she’s also my wife.) Each week she interviews social entrepreneurs in the field of family violence prevention and advocacy. These leaders are creating new ways to bring wholeness and justice to families in the San Francisco Bay Area.

You can listen above to the first season’s introduction. In the future, you can stream the podcast on her website or on Soundcloud. You can also subscribe via iTunes or Stitcher. New episodes will be available weekly on Wednesday. Please leave some comments and reviews to help get the word out.

Say Yes, Do Good with Others, The Trump Presidency: Who Will We Become, Part 6

This is the final installment of a short series of posts leading to Donald Trump’s inauguration. I want to ask the question of Christians who opposed his candidacy: Who will we become as we resist President Trump’s policies that contradict what we believe are God’s political values?

As of today Donald Trump is the 45th president of the United States. We no longer have to speculate what his presidency will look like as it is now a reality. Those of us Christians who opposed his candidacy have to renew our commitment to working against the his policies born out of xenophobic, sexist, and racist rhetoric. There will likely be much to protest, to stand against, and say, “This is unjust and it is not who we as a nation should be.”

As I wrote in my first post of this series, “We may want to define ourselves by what we are not. Finding identity in being a Christian who didn’t vote for President Trump doesn’t tell us anything about our true convictions or hopes. Such a self-definition won’t sustain us for very long, nor will it protect us from the very real sins of wrath and pride.” I want to continue this line of thought. Protest alone, merely expressing what we oppose, will not be good enough. By all means, let us protest. Speak, write, assemble, and petition against unjust governmental actions. And may that protest provoke us to other positive action.

We need a protest born out of solidarity. It is in standing with those who will most be hurt by Trump’s policies that we will grow in compassion. Our quest for justice will have a human face for the quest won’t merely be theoretical, but we will know real people who hurt. When I first learned about the problems of mass incarceration through Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, my understanding and anger were well-informed, but largely abstract. When I began worshiping with inmates at San Quentin State Prison, however, I came to know wonderful men who have been hurt by unjust laws and policies. I no longer advocated alone for an abstract population. In worshiping at San Quentin, I found a community, both in the people with whom I went to the prison and, more importantly, the inmates who welcomed me into their congregation. I can say yes to their dignity and the fact God is transforming their lives.

If we find Trump’s treatment of refugees appalling, let us make an effort to tangibly help. Give money to refugee organizations. Petition our elected leaders on their behalf. Most importantly, look for ways to be with refugee families in our area. Get to know those families and the others who stand in solidarity with them. Say yes to their inherent worth and our shared humanity.

The work will be hard and we will need friends who can encourage us. Most importantly we need to know the people who will be most affected by Trump’s policies. Knowing these folks will inspire us when the work exhausts us. It will be infinitely harder to give up or retreat to abstract argument when we can place names and faces to people who need us to stand on the margins with them, who need us to say yes to the image of God they bear.

When we commit to positive work in community with those on our society’s margins, our “No” to Trump’s policies will be born out of our “Yes” to our neighbors and the work the Holy Spirit is doing.

(I have one final note that is not entirely related to this post. While my posts have focused on calling our elected officials to uphold God’s political values, I want to make clear I do not expect our government leaders to establish God’s kingdom. I believe God’s political agenda, which welcomes to the center those on the margins as well as cares for creation [see: Psalm 146], is a common good. My opposition to Trump as president has not been because his theology isn’t sufficient—that is, I’m not looking from him the same thing I would look from a pastor. I did not want Trump to be president because I thought his policies and rhetoric would not be in the interest of the common good. Further, though I do not think the United States is the “city on the hill,” I do want to see its flourishing as a force of justice in the world. To that end, I did not support Trump’s candidacy because I had concerns his policies and temperament would do real harm to our republic.)

What Makes You Angry? The Trump Presidency: Who Will We Become, Part 5

In a short series of posts leading to Donald Trump’s inauguration, I want to ask the question of Christians who opposed his candidacy: Who will we become as we resist President Trump’s policies that contradict what we believe are God’s political values?

I once spoke with a Catholic nun who helped run a chapter of community organizers in Los Angeles. I wasn’t familiar with that sort of work as this was years before the most famous community organizer in history, Barack Obama, ran for president. As the sister shared what her group did and I spoke about the needs in my community, she looked at me and said, “What makes you angry? Because in this work you need a certain amount of anger to keep at it.”

That question has stuck with me for over ten years. My posts in this series have so far focused on commitments and practices that will help us not let our anger boil over so that we dehumanize our neighbors. For this post I want to turn to the right expressions of anger.

Anger is a natural reaction to a perceived injustice. Anger is not bad in and of itself. What we do when angry, however, can be constructive or sinful. Gentleness and anger are not mutually exclusive. We can still treat others kindly as we let our anger motivate us to work for justice. Let us remember, the biblical authors speak of God as being slow to anger, but God’s anger does come. We see constructive anger in the prophets. Jesus shows his anger several times in the Gospels, including when he drives the money changers out of the Temple. The Apostle Paul expresses his anger in his epistles, often when some Christians put unnecessary roadblocks between other Christians and God.

For followers of Christ, we have a two-fold challenge when it comes to anger. First, we have to ensure that we are angry at the right things. Oppression, injustice, and lies are all worthwhile things to become angry about. Second, we have to express our anger in ways that build up and effect positive change. To be sure, we need the destruction and deconstruction of bad systems before we can build something good, but our goal must always be to establish a more just society.

If Donald Trump governs anything like he promised in his campaign, we will have plenty to be angry about: actions and policies that hurt the widow, orphan, and stranger, as well as demagogic speech. The anger we feel might just be the Holy Spirit speaking to us, motivating us to constructive action. We have to turn to Scripture and our faith communities to help us discern whether our anger is born of God or not. Godly anger needs a healthy outlet for without one our anger can turn to cynicism and resentment. As the Twelve Steps remind us, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Organizing, petitioning elected officials, and especially standing in solidarity with people Trump’s policies will hurt are good expressions of our anger. Merely complaining among like-minded folks or posting on social media—including engaging in debates that generate more heat than light—are not to be confused with real action.

So, what makes you angry?