Seeds of doubt: Why enemies of Democracy always target the public trust of government

Gun Rights

When the Nixon scandals were at their height, 36 percent of Americans told pollsters they still had a “high degree of trust in the American government.” According to Pew, that metric stands at 16 percent.

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In 2016, Russian intelligence hacked both the RNC and the DNC. They never revealed the dirt they got on the RNC, but, at Donald Trump’s request, they handed off DNC data including Hillary’s emails to the media with the (successful) goal of destroying America’s trust in her.

Yesterday, we learned from reporting by The Guardian that Alexander Smirnov, the Russian agent who began peddling lies about Hunter and Joe Biden and Ukraine in time for the 2020 election and was recently arrested for lying about that to the FBI, was paid $600,000 by people affiliated with Donald Trump. All to destroy our trust in the Bidens.

This is part of a larger pattern that is tearing America apart.

The crisis with the Supreme Court; the racist mass shooters in Buffalo, El Paso, and white supremacist militias; Republican primary candidates trying to one-up each other on their willingness to refuse to count all the ballots in the upcoming 2024 election; and our surpassing 1 million deaths from Covid all derive from the same thing: the destruction of trust in American politics and society.

As I wrote yesterday, Donald Trump destroyed our trust in our public health institutions for his own political gain, so we have massively more Covid deaths than, for example, Australia. As the New York Times noted in May of 2022:

“If the United States had the same Covid death rate as Australia, about 900,000 lives would have been saved.”

The single factor their investigation identified that most accounted for the difference between American and Australian deaths was the trust people have in their government, society, and each other:

“Dozens of interviews, along with survey data and scientific studies from around the world, point to a lifesaving trait that Australians displayed from the top of government to the hospital floor, and that Americans have shown they lack: trust, in science and institutions, but especially in one another.”

Loss of trust also creates a space for violent racist tropes like Tucker Carlson’s “Great Replacement Theory” to fester into domestic terrorist mass murders like we’ve seen repeatedly since Trump stepped onto the world stage in 2015.

These symptoms of the loss of trust are all the consequence of an ongoing campaign, launched in the United States as part of the Reagan Revolution in the 1980s by a small group of rightwing billionaires, to cripple our country’s ability to protect its citizens or, as Steve Bannon said in the first weeks of the Trump administration, to “deconstruct the administrative state.”

Their early goal, when the movement was first laid out by Louis Powell with his infamous Memo in 1971, was to lower their own taxes and increase their profits by cutting our government’s protective regulations. Their plan was to seize control of our government and exploit it for their own gain, not to destroy it.

To get enough people to vote for politicians who would cut taxes on the morbidly rich, subsidize fossil fuels, and deregulate toxins they brought in religious fanatics, white supremacists, and insecure men obsessed with guns. Their main message was that you cannot trust the American government.

As Ronald Reagan loved to repeat:

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’“

Seeing this dynamic at play in the years since the Reagan Revolution, and exploiting it as an opportunity to truly damage the United States, Russia, China, and several other nations piggybacked on GOP efforts in 2015/2016 by launching massive social media campaigns to encourage mistrust, promote conspiracy theories, and exploit the racism that permeates American society.

If you want to destroy a nation, Putin and Xi knew, you simply destroy its people’s trust in their own neighbors and government.

Their goal was to pit Americans against each other to weaken our democracy and thus our example to the world; Trump’s 2016 campaign was Russia’s first major success. China got in the game more recently with TikTok and their own social media trolls on other platforms, in anticipation of an invasion of Taiwan.

While the billionaires back in the 1970s wanted to increase their wealth (and have massively succeeded), the Russians wanted to help elect Republican politicians who would support their 2014 invasion of Ukraine, and the Chinese want Taiwan. The collective result of these efforts has been a hollowing out of the single most important thing that makes America both a free nation and a viable world power.

That element so essential to the functioning of government is: trust.

Trust, at the end of the day, is the only currency governments can trade in. Trust is so critical it largely defines the stability of a nation’s money, both at home and around the world.

Even a government’s use of force, over the long term, requires trust or it will be fought back against with force, as we saw in the American Revolution, the Civil War, January 6th, and have seen repeatedly around the world in the centuries since.

Trust is the single most important thing any government has; it is truly what makes a nation viable. Its essential importance to a functioning society is what makes trust the thing enemies of democracies always target first.

When Donald Trump, Paul Manafort, and Vladimir Putin first set out to destroy the government of the United States, they aimed their efforts at this single most important part of any nation’s ability to survive: trust.

Trump destroyed our trust that our leaders would behave with integrity and not lie to us, telling over 30,000 documented lies during his four years in office, including lies about Covid that led to at least 500,000 unnecessary American deaths.

Trump destroyed our trust in our election systems, which will make a coup much easier the next time his followers try to overthrow our government. Trump destroyed our trust in each other with his racist, xenophobic, and misogynist rhetoric and policies.

Trump destroyed the trust the rest of the world had in America by pulling us out of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement, trying to blackmail Ukraine, and working to destroy NATO.

Putin and Xi daily try to destroy Americans’ trust in each other with an army of bots and trolls running social media campaigns supporting racist domestic terrorists, medical crackpots, and violent racists.

Most recently, in a desperate effort to destroy Americans’ trust in President Biden, Jim Jordan and James Comer collaborated with our nation’s enemies by quoting a fugitive Chinese spy, Gal Luft, and a Russian intelligence agent, Alexander Smirnoff, presenting naked lies about America’s leader.

The useful idiots who own and appear on rightwing media do everything they can to destroy Americans’ trust in each other, particularly across racial and gender divides, most recently using our children and schools as their foils.

Meanwhile, for 40 years the Republican Party took Russian blood money and election support from the weapon industry’s front group, the NRA, and the result last year was over 45,000 gun deaths in America. The entire European Union, with over 100 million more people than the US, recorded about 7000 such deaths (including suicides).

No other country in the world regularly has mass shootings like we do here in America; school children can no longer trust in their own safety, particularly since the Supreme Court’s corrupt Heller decision.

Trust is further collapsing as the institutions we’ve historically relied on are turning against American values.

Two presidents who were rejected by a majority of American voters put four rightwing fanatics on the Supreme Court; those justices are now taking nakedly political positions with which a majority of Americans disagree, further diminishing our trust in our governmental and political institutions.

Giant fossil fuel companies, intent on extracting as much money as they can as quickly as they can, destroy trust by funding climate denial while gaslighting us about their own supposed efforts to go green.

Massive insurance and pharmaceutical companies rip us off on a daily basis, and then pour so much corrupt money into our political system that most Americans now believe we’re helpless to do anything about it.

Hedge funds and bankers get rich at the expense of trusting communities and average Americans by exploiting loopholes their wholly-owned politicians drilled into our regulatory system.

America is literally the only developed country in the world where people go deeply into debt to big banks to get a college education, and our bank-owned politicians have destroyed the trust of a generation by rigging our laws so people can’t even leverage their home or declare bankruptcy to pay off or discharge their student debt.

America is also the only developed country in the world without a national healthcare system, because Republicans insist you can’t trust such government-run systems. As a result, we pay more than twice as much for medicine and medical care than anybody else in the world.

Our Citizens United pay-to-play system of politics has broken our trust; we are the only developed country in the world where a half-million families go bankrupt every year because somebody got sick.

We do not even trust our media anymore because it has become so consolidated in so few hands that people like the former CEO of CBS, Les Moonves, felt free to brag about how much damage Donald Trump was doing to America while making huge profits for his network.

Social media companies use algorithms that amplify outrage, anger, and hate to enhance their profits; the resulting loss of social trust is showing up in everything from teenage suicide statistics to the January 6th attempt to murder the Vice President and the Speaker of the House.

Now Putin and Trump are using our loss of trust to convince Republican lawmakers to abandon a fellow democracy — Ukraine — and useful idiots like Rand Paul, Mike Johnson, and Republicans in the House are enthusiastically following along.

If America is to survive as a functioning democracy, we must recover and restore trust while diminishing the power massive corporate monopolies (including media monopolies) have over our everyday lives.

That means overturning corrupt Supreme Court decisions that allow politicians to pick or purge voters; that give the morbidly rich the “right” to own their very own politicians; and that limit the ability of working people to form a union.

Political dark money and racial/religious hatred are like heroin or fentanyl being injected into the bloodstream of our nation. Over the short term they numb us; over the long term they kill our trust in democracy itself.

After the Nixon bribery scandals, Congress outlawed most dark money and numerous states made serious efforts to clean up centuries of partisan and racial gerrymanders. Five Republicans on the Supreme Court single-handedly undid most of those good-government efforts, and now Republicans in Congress and at the state level are doubling down, using racial and gender hate as a political recruiting tool.

This fall’s election may be our last chance to put and keep people worthy of our trust in office and thus save our republic.

Jeff Dean (AP), Charlie Neibergall (AP), Evan Vucci (AP), Stefan Jeremiah (AP)

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