So-called shock polls seldom shock. But in April, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of U.S. adults and found something revelatory. Fifty-eight percent of Americans said that life, “for people like them,” was better 50 years ago than it is today.
Fifty years ago was 1973. Now consider the apparently untroubled idyll of 1973 America. The Paris Peace Accords rendered the Vietnam War, in which more than 50,000 Americans had already died fighting Communism, officially lost (but not entirely over). OPEC nations imposed an oil embargo on the United States, sending fuel prices skyward and contributing to the onset of a recession. All the while, Watergate was galloping along, with regularly televised Senate hearings and the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the alleged misconduct of a sitting president. And American cities were awash in record lawlessness, with violent crime having shot up 126 percent between 1960 to 1970 and set to increase another 64 percent by 1980.
We have no shortage of conflicts and challenges in 2023. But is life in the United States worse than in 1973? Item by item, no. Not even close. American troops aren’t fighting in a foreign war; Ukrainians are. (And even in 1973, a total of 68 Americans were killed in Vietnam.) The 1973 oil shock was the largest in history. In 2023, oil prices are down almost 11 percent from a year earlier. Whatever unsavory business dealings may be swirling around the Biden family, the president is not facing resignation or removal because of them. And while the crime rate has risen significantly in the past few years, the crime spike of the immediate postwar decades makes our age look paradisiacal.
The year 1973, much like the years surrounding it, was hell; 2023 just feels like it.
The question is why. What exactly is so bad about the United States today? We must ask because, despite the itemized comparison, something does seem frightfully, and peculiarly, wrong with present-day America. Not just wrong, but off-kilter, disorienting.
Donald Trump, the former president and current frontrunner for the Republican nomination, faces 37 federal charges, including obstruction of justice and illegally retaining government secrets. And the public is split between those who want to put Trump in jail and those who want to jail Joe Biden for orchestrating Trump’s indictment. So, again we must ask: What’s wrong with us?
There are many popular answers: We’re more and more politically divided. We’re more ideologically extreme than we’ve ever been. At the same time, we’re losing our attachment to the traditional American values of God, family, and country. We’ve become too isolated. And so on.
These are all more or less true. But they are only pieces of a puzzle. To solve it, we need a sense of the composite image that we’re aiming for. And there is, in fact, a greater national affliction that runs through these partial explanations and connects them to a still wider range of current misfortunes: American society is losing its capacity to trust.
According to poll after poll, we’re losing our trust in government, the economy, media, a slew of institutions, and one another. Pew estimates that in 1973, 47 percent of Americans believed that most Americans could be trusted. Today, it’s down to 32 percent. That 15-point drop explains a lot: Our political division and extremism, our rejection of faith and tradition, and our social isolation are connected to waning trust. And they’re just the start.
Francis Fukuyama defines trust as “the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, and cooperative behavior, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of other members of that community.” Trust is the key ingredient in what’s known as “social capital,” which we can define as the benefits accrued by people in social networks. And these benefits are plentiful. High-trust societies are characterized by increased wealth, less crime and corruption, and greater transparency. Low-trust societies are associated with impaired economies, higher crime and corruption, and ill-defined norms.
And there’s this: A free country without trust cannot long survive as a free country. Trust undergirds our social contract and thwarts the authoritarian tendencies of government. Loss of public trust, on the other hand, creates opportunities for state intervention. It’s when we can no longer enter into profitable relationships in good faith that the regulators, rule-makers, and enforcers come calling.
We’re not Colombia or Peru, where fewer than 10 percent of the population believes that “most people can be trusted.” But we’re sliding in the wrong direction. And the varied expressions of our low-trust crisis are loud and painful.
Americans now use politics to tell friend from foe. And we’re not just politically polarized. We’re becoming ideologically segregated. Data collected by Trafalgar last year show conservatives moving out of Democrat-dominant areas at record numbers. In 2020, Pew found that nearly half the country had stopped talking to someone because of a political disagreement (45 percent for conservative Republicans and a full 60 percent for liberal Democrats).
The divide goes well beyond the strictly political. Mixed social networks are unbraiding, with liberals and conservatives not only seeking out their own kind but opting for a different set of preferred cultural products. For decades, American popular culture was pre-dominantly liberal, and conservatives sampled it as individuals but lived outside it as a group. Today, there are left and right popular cultures. Whatever one may think of the new arrangement, it’s extended our polarization deep into our day-to-day experience. Conservatives and liberals tend to laugh at different comedians, watch different shows, and listen to different music. In 2021, the anti-Biden rap song “Let’s Go Brandon,” by Loza Alexander, rose to number 10 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart base.
It’s worth dwelling for a moment on “Let’s Go Brandon.” Among other things, the song is notable for being a right-wing hit with profane lyrics. While the NASCAR chant from which it’s derived hides the F-bomb, the song spells it out, over and over: “Don’t nobody like his ass, huh? F—k Joe Biden.” What exactly happened to the American right, with its formerly buttoned-up “conservative temperament”? It lost trust in the old ways of conservatism. The new right is now distrustful of “RINOs,” who are in turn distrustful of MAGA Republicans. And so we have the famous “party in disarray.” Increased distrust between radicals and liberals has proved more manageable for Democrats—so far. But that cohesion is maintained by radical pressure, liberal fear, and political expedience, not affinity. The point is, the trust deficiency has emerged within both parties and not just between them.
And it’s distorting American life in grotesque ways. It would be wrong to claim that the six-day period of April 13–18, 2023 is perfectly representative of present-day America. But you can’t say that the bloodshed of that week doesn’t tell us something dreadful about the age we live in. On April 13, 16-year-old Ralph Yarl was sent to pick up his twin brothers at a home in Kansas City, Missouri. He mistakenly rang the bell of the wrong house and was shot twice through the glass front door. On April 15, 20-year-old Kaylin Gillis was in a car with her friends, looking for another friend’s home in upstate New York. They pulled into the wrong driveway and were in the process of pulling back out when Gillis was shot and killed by the house’s resident. And on April 18, 21-year-old Heather Roth mistakenly got into a car she thought was hers in a supermarket parking lot in Elgin, Texas. A man was already sitting in the passenger seat, so Roth soon realized her mistake, exited the vehicle, and got inside a friend’s car. The man whose car she had initially entered came over and opened fire, wounding Roth and nearly killing her friend, 18-year-old Payton Washington.
Three innocent mistakes, three shootings, one dead. In less than one week. For all the lurid gun violence in this country, what’s especially bleak about these incidents is that they arose from entirely pedestrian encounters. Everyone has knocked on the wrong door, rung the wrong bell, pulled into the wrong driveway. And to be sure, many did so in mid-April without incident. But a string of shootings when “no worries, have a good one” would have sufficed doesn’t happen in a society with a bedrock of common trust.
Few indications of our trust deficit are so grisly as this. In fact, it’s mostly atmospheric, weaving through the headlines and trends that make up our days. What, for example, is the obsession with cryptocurrency if not a declaration of distrust in our traditional monetary system? What about the rise in homeschooling—still up some 30 percent since 2019? Or the growing anti-work movement, which preaches that the employer-employee relationship is a big swindle? And for those who do go to work, there’s mandatory Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training, because you can’t be trusted to act like a decent human being. Nor are you to be trusted at the drug store, which is why the toothpaste you want is under lock and key. At the same time, our politics are littered with competing lawsuits and claims of election fraud. Public fact-checking is its own celebrated branch of journalism. And warnings come at regular intervals about deepfakes, data-mining scams, and assorted hi-tech thievery.
Okay, how did we get here? First steadily, then riotously. According to Robert Putnam, the social scientist and author of Bowling Alone, trust and social capital had risen steadily from the start of the 20th century and peaked in the mid-1960s. Then, Americans began to pull back from social networks and spend more time alone. No longer involved in group recreational activities (such as bowling leagues), people watched TV, worked, or commuted alone. When they lost steady ties to larger groups, their sense of trust faded. Trust had been eroding for decades in America by the time the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center found that the percentage of respondents in its General Social Survey who said “you can’t be too careful in dealing with people” went from 50.3 percent in 1972 to 63.9 percent in 2018.
By then, Donald Trump was president of the United States. Before he entered our politics, public lies were hardly unknown. But his running for and attaining the presidency opened the floodgates across the political spectrum. Lies great and small—from the fictional Steele Dossier that launched Russiagate to Trump’s petty claims about the size of his inauguration audience—became our daily sustenance. While Trump’s critics on the left derided the growing influence of the QAnon right, they themselves went all in on a lurid tale about Trump and the Kremlin.
Nothing, however, broke the back of American trust as conclusively as the events of 2020, beginning with the Covid pandemic. That was the year that saw the death of “the official story,” by which I mean the collapse of the dominant political and media narrative around a given event or development. Americans, sad to say, are not entirely wrong to be as distrustful as they now are. Many of them have come about their mistrust the hard way. They’ve been lied to—often by establishment figures and institutional authorities.
In 2020, “Two weeks to stop the spread” would stretch into two years of ceaseless prevarication. First, public health officials declared that masks were useless. Then, when masks were made more available, the same officials exaggerated their efficacy. First, we were assured that Covid emerged from a wet market in Wuhan, China. Then, as contrary evidence seeped out, we were told that, yes, perhaps the virus was manufactured in a Chinese lab. Each new Covid variant was heralded by dread warnings that children would now be more susceptible to serious illness. Lawmakers and teachers’ unions could thereby justify the continued shuttering of schools. But as each variant passed, it became clear that, among children, deaths from Covid would remain exceedingly rare. Meanwhile, infection waves came and went in state after state with no seeming connection to the capricious lockdown rules of the moment.
When George Floyd was murdered in May 2020, a second layer of institutional deception was added to the first. As deadly riots tore through American cities, political leaders and media figures explained to us that we were witnessing a “mostly peaceful” demonstration for social justice. The dissimulation reached its apogee with the infamous “Fiery but Mostly Peaceful Protests” chyron beneath footage of a riot in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
These and other lies sowed distrust in a broad swath of the population. For the conspiracy-minded, they provided an opening. Anti-establishment figures were there to counter with their own lies about the dangers of the Covid vaccines, Bill Gates’s effort to track you with microchips in your bloodstream, and a secret elite plan to remake the world by launching the pandemic. The year ended—and how could it not?—with a presidential election that a third of registered voters believed was rigged.
And if you believed the official narratives of 2020, you had a separate set of justifications for your distrust. If masks were truly a life-saving barrier between you and Covid, your maskless neighbor became a life-threatening monster. If the marchers were right about American law enforcement, then police were municipal génocidaires. And if the social-justice professionals were right about institutional and even unconscious racism, then everyone was a potential bigot—a carrier of deadly ideas. Even your own self. Which is where the regulators and rule-makers found an opportunity, and so you must be get sensitivity training if you make your living around other people.
Three years later, we’re swimming in the deceptions of both the official-story writers and the anti-establishment conspiracy theorists. Of the former, there is no bolder lie peddled, and with more institutional heft, than the claim that gender is merely “assigned at birth” and not biological. This straightforward absurdity is embraced in the liberal corridors of power from the president on down. It’s fed to us in media of every sort, from movies and television shows to daily front-page headlines. And it’s also the now-canonical position of our major medical, psychological, and educational bodies. The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Psychological Association, the Endocrine Society, and the American Psychiatric Association all support so-called gender-affirming care for minors. They recommend, to varying degrees, the use of puberty blockers and hormones in treating kids who say at that moment that they wish to be another gender. Sober institutions we once relied on to abide by the rules of reality are now embracing the surreal. This isn’t the place to argue about the known and unknown dangers of these treatments or the right of free adults to be anything they want. We’re talking here about the lie, the bold-faced, italicized, and underlined lie that sex isn’t biological. That’s the new official story, and most Americans aren’t buying it.
We also now know that Donald Trump did not conspire with Vladimir Putin to win the 2016 election. And the Durham Report has detailed the many complex ways that the FBI and the Justice Department abused the trust of the American people in service of the official Russian-collusion story.
And while Joe Biden’s lies don’t get as much attention as Trump’s, they have proved to be just as inexhaustible. Biden lied during a presidential debate when he suggested that his son’s incriminating laptop was Russian disinformation. He lied to the American people about the prospects for a clean exit in Afghanistan. He lies every time he speaks the words “Inflation Reduction Act.” Add to these his more absurd lies—about getting arrested for civil-rights activism, where he went to school, and when and how he first became an LGBTQ ally in the early 1960s.
Nor can we neglect the ongoing proliferation of unofficial lies: The January 6 insurrection was an inside job, Ukraine isn’t succeeding against Putin’s forces, and the Covid vaccine has killed everyone from the actor Lance Reddick to the vlogger Diamond (of Diamond and Silk) to baseball legend Hank Aaron. Meanwhile, the Trump right’s penchant for claiming election fraud remains undaunted.
Two figures in American life currently stand out for their contributions to the trust crisis, serving as megaphones for lies and paradoxically as champions of the deceived. One is a man of the left and the other is a man of the right, but in their distrust of everyday reality, they preach the exact same mush. These are Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Tucker Carlson.
RFK Jr. is an omnidirectional conspiracy theorist. He sees himself as the pied piper of populists. You think some individual, agency, or corporation is lying and profiting from lies? Well, he thinks so, too. No matter whom or what you’re blaming, he agrees with you. Kennedy accuses just about every government agency, private concern, and institution of being bought off. He’s anti-vax, anti-Defense, anti-Wall Street. And naturally enough, he doesn’t think much of political parties. So even though he’s running for president as a Democrat, Republicans are more than welcome aboard the RFK train.
To the non-conspiratorial, RFK Jr. is boring. Paranoid lies all sound the same. And lies, when known to be lies, give you nothing to work with. But what isn’t boring is that he entered the race with an immediate 20 percent of support among Democrats. And it seems to be holding.
Tucker Carlson was fired by Fox News because his lies became too great a liability for the company. He now hosts an independent Twitter show. Its first episode was 10 minutes of fetid mendacity. Carlson asserts that Russia is a victim of Ukrainian aggression, that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and U.S. senator Lindsey Graham are salivating over war dead, and that extraterrestrial contact with Earth is an unimpeachable fact the U.S. government is covering up. His show also reveals the inevitable endpoint of the low-trust–conspiracy-theory route: anti-Semitism. At one point, Carlson describes the Jewish Zelensky as “sweaty and rat-like”—a characterization echoing Nazi propaganda.
How these two men fare in their relative pursuits will tell us much about the severity, duration, and political scope of our trust problem.
In such an environment, it would seem that a measure of distrust is only prudent. But the sources of our low-trust dilemma are also more complex than this. And it can be hard to distinguish between origins and manifestations of the problem. Is increased social isolation, for example, a cause or an effect of widespread distrust? In this case, as in several others, the answer is both. Isolated Americans by definition bypass the social bonds that instill trust. As their number grows, the number (and size) of trusting communities shrinks. But these people wouldn’t be isolating in the first place if they readily trusted others.
Our falling birth and marriage rates are also implicated. The National Center for Family and Marriage Research finds that the American marriage rate has fallen by nearly 60 percent over the past 50 years. Government statistics show that the birth rate has dropped by 20 percent since 2007. The fundamental unit of trust is the family. That’s where interdependence is learned and fostered. “There are three broad paths to sociability,” Fukuyama writes. “The first is based on family and kinship, the second on voluntary associations outside kinship such as schools, clubs, and professional organizations, and the third is the state.” Putnam chronicled the breakdown of voluntary associations almost 30 years ago, and our troubled relationship with the state needs no more elaboration. But current trends in marriage and birth suggest we’re foreclosing on this “first path” to sociability. Fewer Americans starting families means more Americans skipping the first crucial step in learning to trust. Single and childless Americans may trust their parents, but without learning to trust a spouse or child, they lack the full range of interdependent roles and connections that are writ large in a complex society. And as with social isolation, the dearth of new families is both a contributor to our trust crisis and a product of it. Less trusting people are less inclined to find mates and start families.
As faith is a near synonym of trust, it’s obvious that as Americans are becoming less religious, they are also becoming less trusting. In 2021, Gallup found that American “membership in houses of worship” fell “below 50 percent for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend.” Involvement in a church, mosque, or synagogue is not only a vital form of voluntary association. It can be, like the family, a source of moral instruction that inspires man to be kind and trusting to his fellow man.
Robert Putnam believes that once a person reaches adulthood, his degree of social trust or distrust mostly remains as it is. If he’s right, this suggests that we can recover from our trust deficit only when a new generation reaches adulthood in a more trusting environment. He also says that, historically, dips and peaks in Americans’ levels of trust correlate strongly with changes in leadership, war, and the economy. A country at peace, with forthright leaders and a strong economy, is, unsurprisingly, a recipe for trust.
Given these thoughts, there is reason for hope. And it has to do with a phenomenon we might not expect in a time of low trust. Americans are voting for president in record numbers. For a people who claim to doubt both politicians and the elections they run in, we have a funny way of showing it. Voter turnout in 2020 was the highest in more than a century. You don’t have to believe the official story or the counter-falsehood to make your voice heard and hold government accountable. Despite what the left says about threats to democracy and what the new right says about rigged elections, the United States remains a rugged democratic republic. Perhaps Americans trust in that more than they care to admit these days. They should. It’s always been everything to us: our voluntary association, our familial bond, and our faith.
Photo: Klaus Vedfelt
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