Trust (IV)

I had hoped, at this point in the examination, to start exploring ways of rebuilding our institutions — and so rebuilding our trust in them. We need better protective mechanisms: circuit breakers, tripwires; some sort of fail-safe that will spare future generations the havoc of the last four years. I had hoped: I’m looking forward to a day — some time soon, please — when events no longer move faster than my meager 70wpm. But the announcement — by tweet, of course — that negotiations on a second major relief bill would be suspended “until after I am reelected on November 3rd” sent the markets (predictably) downward; the hours-later tweet demanding congressional action on a relief bill did nothing to allay anyone’s anxiety.

Trust makes the world work. But let’s shrink that just a little bit. Trust makes a relationship work, a business work; it makes local government work; it makes a country work: a citizen’s trust that the institutions of government won’t get everything right, and won’t execute perfectly, but they’ll get more things right than wrong and will operate as a brake on excesses attempted by (just for example) an out-of-control executive. A citizen’s trust that government’s word is its bond, and that policies won’t change at whim, that any course correction or major alteration will be the result of carefully considered facts and subject to rigorous debate. (The individual’s trust extends to diplomatic relations, too: allies want reliable and rock-steady partners, not erratic and unreliable fair-weather friends.)

The Trump tweets — like everything Trump — put on display, again, the open contempt not just for facts and reality but for his fellow citizens (including his bafflingly steadfast base). He insults our intelligence with his non sequiturs, nonsensical pronouncements, and nonproductive “solutions” to the actual problems of real people. But such is the unplumbable depth of the narcissist’s self-delusion, that the history of the universe is significant only because it culminated in his spiritually, emotionally, and financially impoverished existence.

The Biden presidency — and we must hope and pray, all of us, that there will be a Biden presidency — will take on several difficult tasks from the very start. Rebuilding public trust in government and the institutions of government is both the base and summit. Some trust in government can be rebuilt by the steady and competent execution of a plan to restore public health and recover something resembling our long-ago normal lives. The experts have been right all along: “It’s the economy, Stupid” is good electoral strategy, but when a deadly and highly contagious pathogen is in the air then the economy must take a back seat. Mask-wearing isn’t a matter of personal choice or personal virtue, it’s a matter of good policy for this moment. It’s worth noting that on any given day in the last week there have been more new cases of Covid-19 in the White House than in all of New Zealand or Taiwan.

Leadership matters: “We choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” A leader leads: at a critical moment in history he doesn’t take his people where they want to go, but where they need to go. Moses led us through the desert; Kennedy started us on a journey to the moon and the stars. Trump doesn’t lead so much as blunder about, a human pinball content to rebound off the bumpers forever, in any direction whatsoever so long as our attention is on him. “I’m a leader and I had to lead,” he says. “Churchill didn’t stay in his basement.” Yes, he did. A true leader can lead from anywhere; the charlatan needs the crowd far more than they need him.

The leader, to paraphrase JFK, charts a particular course not because it serves him but because it serves all. It isn’t easy, especially when the road is a difficult and possibly unpleasant one; but it is necessary. It’s the hard road; the high road; the road to redemption.

Trust (III)

“Trust is what makes the world work.” Right now, the world is not working for too many people in America. There is widespread distrust of government. Only the ruling class benefits when political gamesmanship takes the place of statesmanship: people busy with their lives, people trying to make ends meet, have neither time nor inclination to analyze the reasons; they know only that their needs are not being met, they tune out the politicians, and they don’t show up at the polls. The ultimate consequence of this systemic voter suppression is to make nearly every seat a safe seat; and so the pols respond not to the real needs of their constituents but to the loudest voices: those who exercise their voting rights. And though it might serve the elected officials well, by keeping them in office — lifetime sinecures, really — it amounts to the death-spiral of democracy by discouraging ever larger numbers from bothering to vote.

Trust makes the world work: in education, in commerce, in finance, in government. If we can’t trust our institutions to do their jobs, they fail us and all future generations. Cronyism and baksheesh are the ways of desert tribes and banana republics, not the beacon of the free world. In the United States today we see that virtually no one trusts government institutions: if it isn’t a deep distrust born of police excesses, systemic injustices, and income disparities that affect every aspect of life; then it is wild conspiracy theories about vaccines, school curricula, voting rights, and climate science. The market for tinfoil hats has never been stronger.

As I write this, reality has finally caught up with the reality-show president. After six months of denying the threat, doubting the science, denigrating public health professionals, Trump has tested positive for Covid-19. It is surprising that it has taken this long given his refusal to take the basic precautions recommended by public health officials around the world, as if an acknowledgement of vulnerability to disease (by wearing a mask, for example) is a sign of personal weakness. “I learned a lot about Covid,” he says glibly. “I learned it by really going to school. This is the real school. This isn’t the let’s-read-the-books school. And I get it. And I understand it. And it’s a very interesting thing and I’m going to be letting you know about it.” So ten months after the first warnings from our national security apparatus we are supposed to believe that he “gets it” because he has the disease. Warnings weren’t enough; briefings weren’t sufficient; 210,000 American deaths (and over 1 million worldwide) made no impact. As he has his entire adult life, Trump sees himself at the center of everything. Unless he is sick, a global pandemic has no real meaning.

We have gone from a government that many simply didn’t trust, to government that no one can trust. The reasons for past mistrust of government are many and varied, and help explain (in part) how we came to our present predicament. The reason nobody can trust today’s government is quite simple: when it is impossible to know whether anyone is speaking the truth it is safest to assume that none of them is. Some of the lies are obvious; some are outed as falsehoods soon after they are uttered; and still others might not be known until days later when they are flatly contradicted by the next statement of alternative fact.

The problem, of course, is that this is real life. We find ourselves now living not in the world where “up” and “down” are clear directions; instead we inhabit the conspiracy-driven dystopia of a Thomas Pynchon novel. It’s good entertainment but an abysmal alternative to science and the rule of law.

Trust (II)

Democracy cannot function without trust in government: people must know that their elected officials are working for the collective good, not for private gain nor for the limited benefit of (let us say) wealthy donors. This is the fundamental compact of democracy: Governments, Jefferson wrote, “are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The citizens of this nation live for this ideal and many have died for it; but too many people now believe themselves powerless in the face of a government that does not operate in their interest. Simply put, they do not trust their elected representatives.

And why should they? These same (“Trust me! I alone can fix it!”) elected officials, and their appointees, have failed the most fundamental tests. In a crisis — a worldwide pandemic, a health crisis that has claimed over 200,000 American lives and nearly a million around the globe — they have failed in every imaginable way: from literally throwing out the NSC manual on dealing with a pandemic; to pitting states against each other to acquire protective gear; to denying the seriousness of the problem; to pretending that it has already passed, even as the daily number of new cases outstrips the rate of March and April.

“We have serious problems in this country and we need serious people to solve them,” says President Andrew Shepherd in the 1995 movie, “The American President.” We did, we do.  And we do need serious people to solve them: people dedicated to an ideal, people who will work for the greater good. These are not the people currently in the White House or the Senate majority. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a gang less serious about solving your problems — they would much rather line their own pockets or amass power simply for its own sake. It’s easier than working, and apparently more rewarding.

In the last six months we have seen our government yawn at those 200,000 unnecessary deaths; release tear gas on citizens exercising their First Amendment rights; vow to revoke the health insurance of 21 million Americans during a pandemic; and call into question the results of a future election. The chief executive has called soldiers fallen in battle “losers” while he hides from protesters in a bunker. 

Serious people to solve our problems? Hardly. The people nominally in charge are the serious problems we face. While the House of Representatives continues to do its work, as best it can, the United States Senate — the self-styled “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” — perfects its transformation from functioning legislature to legislative graveyard, where bills supported by a majority of voters go to die. The Senate majority leader can’t be bothered, in the face of a pandemic that is on track to kill over a quarter million before Election Day, to bring a relief bill passed by the House in May to the floor for debate and a vote; but he will rush through a Supreme Court nomination — a nomination which has yet to be announced. Just what are the priorities here? Doing the People’s business has taken a back seat to entrenching a jurisprudence rejected by a solid majority of those same People.

No wonder Americans have lost faith and do not trust their government. They believe their government does not operate in their interests and feel powerless, unable to issue any corrective. What power, after all, does a single vote have? They are not wrong, but neither are they right: we have seen how just a few votes in the right places can swing an election. (That this has much to do with the Electoral College, itself a vestige of America’s original sin, is a topic for another day. For now the point is simply: every vote matters as we know from the painful experiences of 2000 and 2016, not to mention 1888, 1876, and 1824.) That feeling of helplessness is encouraged by established power structures and the incumbents who support and benefit from them: a poll tax is not the only voter-suppression tool, nor is it necessarily the most effective.

In the long term, big structural reforms will be needed; in the short term, the best corrective is the simplest: Vote.

Trust (I)

Every once in a while an idea is presented so strikingly that it forces you to look at things in a wholly different way. Sometimes the insight comes from a teacher; sometimes a friend, or a parent, or a coach; sometimes a peer or coworker. Sometimes it’s a random encounter on the street, or even one of the clucking heads on Fox — everyone is allowed the occasional, if unintentional, flash of brilliance. Frequently the new insight becomes, in hindsight, obvious: how could I have missed that? And often the answer is: because earlier proponents were simply not as articulate, or perhaps so blinkered by their own perceived brilliance that they struggle to communicate their ideas.

So it was that I attended, about thirty years ago, a panel discussion on public key cryptography. One of the speakers — whose name is on one of the critical pieces of that now-critical infrastructure — began by explaining the principle of trust. Asymmetric encryption — in which there is a public key known to the world and a private key known only to the holder — is important to electronic commerce because it assures the parties to the transaction that they are who they say they are. It is a trust mechanism: not an enforcer, but a reliable conveyor of fact. A message encrypted with the recipient’s public key can only be deciphered by her private key — ensuring message integrity; a message encrypted with the sender’s private key can only be verified using her public key — proving identity.

Well, yes, I was thinking, even then. But so what? “Trust,” said my panelist, “is what makes the world work.” And there it was. Simple. Obvious. And rarely articulated so starkly or so clearly. Trust that you are who you say you are; trust that you own what you say you own; trust that you will deliver on your promises to pay or to perform. The public key infrastructure (PKI) assures the first of these (identity) and goes a long way to assuring the second (truthfulness). It does nothing to assure the third — the kind of trust that is earned (reputation).

I mention all this because the Trump era presents a particular problem of trust: trust in government, trust in institutions, trust in the mechanisms that protect our liberty and propel our national and individual success. Americans no longer trust their government to keep them safe, help them thrive, and ensure that their children grow into a better world than they received from their own parents. Ironically, the solution for a very vocal minority has been to repose trust in a man who is utterly untrustworthy, who never tells the truth (except perhaps inadvertently), whose appalling and bottomless need for validation is his only motivation. He is incapable of empathy — and for that reason alone he cannot be trusted: he will never act for the common good because his personal benefit is the only thing he is capable of seeing.

Trust — like its fraternal twin, Respect — is earned. Without that foundation a leap of faith is a headlong plunge into the abyss. And yet: “Trust me. Believe me. I alone can fix it.” These words ring hollow to most people, but strike a chord with just enough of our compatriots whose faith in government was already so broken and battered that they opted for the grinning autocratic mountebank rather than the charmless competent technocrat.

Popular culture is full of references to the notion that America is not a country, it is an idea: the American Experiment, we call ourselves. The foundational document of our republic speaks of “a more perfect union”: the experiment is always evolving, always changing, always growing. This is — quite literally — progress. There have always been those who want to arrest it, or at least slow it. This idea finds spectacularly clear expression in the penultimate scene of “The American President”:

We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character, and you wave an old photo of the President’s girlfriend and you scream about patriotism. You tell them she’s to blame for their lot in life. And you go on television and you call her a whore.

Decades have passed and this speech is stunning not just for its clarity, but for its prescience. “He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid, and telling you who’s to blame.” This is the Trumpian tactic; this is McConnell at his cynical and dishonest worst. Replace “whore” with “anarchist socialist who wants to destroy America” and we are in the present. This is not the language of statesmen or problem solvers; it is the sentiment of men interested in power for its own sake, not for its use towards the common good and a common goal.

The question we all should be asking — and the press should be leading the way on this — is also simple: Why do you think that American citizens want to destroy America? What, exactly, is the reason for that? How do they benefit? And if you can’t answer that question, why are you saying such things? Why, in short, if you so claim to love America, do you so obviously hate your fellow Americans? Why do you not grant them the same courtesy, trust and respect you demand?

This is a nation of divergent and often opposing views. Democracy assumes that compromise will be reached in the back-and-forth of the legislative chambers. The winner-take-all view of today’s Republican Party does not acknowledge the possibility that theirs is not the only legitimate vision for America and its people; it takes instead the autocratic position that might makes right. “Trust us,” they say. “We know best.”

Trust and respect are earned every day; they are never given as of right. Electoral outcomes do not repose unfettered confidence; they are a signal that the winner should, instead, proceed to prove his case. That is the American way — and we stand on the precipice of forever losing it.