I was reminded of this again reading an extraordinary essay in The Washington Post by former Secretary of State George Shultz, who turned 100 on Sunday. His central lesson after a life that spanned combat service in World War II, labor disputes in steel plants, the dismantling of segregation and making peace with the Soviets: “Trust is the coin of the realm.”
“When trust was in the room, whatever room that was — the family room, the schoolroom, the locker room, the office room, the government room or the military room — good things happened,” Shultz wrote. “When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen. Everything else is details.”
What Shultz attests from personal experience is extensively documented in scholarly literature, too. In high-trust societies — think of Canada or Sweden — people tend to flourish. In low-trust societies — Lebanon or Brazil — they generally don’t.
Trump’s presidency is hardly the sole cause of America’s declining trust in our institutions, which has been going on for a long time. In some ways, his was the culmination of that decline.
But it’s hard to think of any person in my lifetime who so perfectly epitomizes the politics of distrust, or one who so aggressively promotes it. Trump has taught his opponents not to believe a word he says, his followers not to believe a word anyone else says, and much of the rest of the country to believe nobody and nothing at all.
He has detonated a bomb under the epistemological foundations of a civilization that is increasingly unable to distinguish between facts and falsehoods, evidence and fantasy. He has instructed tens of millions of people to accept the commandment, That which you can get away with, is true.
Apologists for this president might rejoin that there are also examples of this form of politics on the other side of the aisle, notably in the person of Bill Clinton. That’s true. But it only causes one to wonder why so many of the same conservatives who vehemently objected to Clinton on moral grounds vehemently support Trump on the absence of moral grounds.
It may take Americans decades to figure out just what kind of damage Trump did in these last four years, and how to go about repairing it. The good news: no global thermonuclear war. The bad: a different kind of radioactivity that first destroys our trust in institutions, then in others, and finally in ourselves. What the half-life is for that kind of isotope remains unmeasured.
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