Following the Supreme Court’s rejection of Texas’ attempt to sue a few of its sister states for not running elections in a way that might have produced the result it preferred, two things happened. One was that some, like me for example, noted that the Court was not the rigged, partisan tool of Darth Cheeto that Linda Greenhouse had written about for four brutally long years.
The other was the trivializing of the Court’s holding to law in the face of Trumpian pressure. Don’t praise the Court, was the cry of the passionate left, for doing the absolute least it could do, by upholding the law and refusing to bend to the whims of the crazy people. They’re still awful partisan hacks, even if they didn’t succumb this time.
For years, we’ve been informed that Roe v. Wade was doomed. That Obergefell was toast. Just look at Shelby County v. Holder, which proves that Chief Justice John Roberts is a racist devil, they screamed. The passionate are owed rulings with which they agree, and refuse to accept that any outcome with which they disagree could be rendered in good faith. The former is too obvious for appreciation. The latter too horrible for acceptance.
And now, with 59, or is it 60, failed suits brought to undo the election of Joe Biden, with goofy alternate slates of electors pretending to vote for the “real” winner, with somewhat less than half a nation doubting the outcome and some smaller percentage of fellow citizens ready to act upon their beliefs in order to preserve their delusional grasp of the Constitution, these same highly educated, deeply passionate, zealots wonder why these armed MAGA-hatted loonies refuse to accept that the courts of the states and the United States, who have ruled, and ruled again, haven’t finally and conclusively resolved these disputes?
The New York Times’ most despised columnist, Brett Stephens, says it’s a matter of trust.
But the catastrophe of Trump’s presidency doesn’t mainly lie in the visible damage it has caused. It’s in the invisible damage. Trump was a corrosive. What he mainly corroded was social trust — the most important element in any successful society.
The value of social trust was raised by Reagan’s secretary of state, George Schultz. who turned 100 years of age and wrote about what he learned in his century.
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.”
Stephens points out that Trump alone isn’t responsible for the “declining” trust in our institutions, and may well be the culmination of it. It’s long been my belief that Trump was our warning and punishment for the failures of governance preceding him. Congressional paralysis and executive overreach produce corrosive cynicism and blind outrage rather than healthy skepticism and good faith disagreement. America gave up on competence, knowledge and civility. In its place, we got Trump.
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.
We are, at this moment in time, in a post-factual society. That’s not to say there was some earlier, bucolic time when there were no factions in our society that indulged in their fantasies, but that there was a time when most of our society accepted a shared reality, when we understood and recognized that facts were facts, even when they didn’t cut our way. Walter Cronkite didn’t make stuff up to push an agenda, and we all watched and understood that what we were told was reliable. What we did with it from there was another matter, but at least we were working with the same reality. At least most of us were. At least most of us wanted to.
The claims of Trump’s “rigged” elections are, to any rational and somewhat knowledgeable person, examples of how deeply people believe, and how little they care, about facts. The same is true of those who contend that everything in our society is racist, sexist, awful and existential. No doubt the comments that will follow this post will argue why one side’s claims are true, while the other’s are not. Or that these aren’t comparable, for even if their tribe’s fantasies are false, they’re not as evil as the other tribes, rendering any comparison false.
What is missed in this hissing war is that we may disagree about what’s right and wrong, true and false, good and evil, but our cynicism has made it impossible to rely on any trusted institution to resolve our differences. We, like Trump, can’t accept losing and will say and do anything to prevail. We feel no cognitive dissonance about it because we trust no one and nothing to tell us we’re wrong, or at least that we lose. We reject the idea that we should accept the loss.
Is trust the only missing factor that’s brought society to this nadir? I don’t know. But attacking the trustworthiness of the institutions that have sustained us this far leaves us without anything to trust, and the attacks have been relentless and have come from both sides. You can’t trust our system only when you get the outcome you prefer, but undermine trust when you don’t. This produces two things. The first is a president like Donald Trump, our warning and our punishment for being so cynical. After that, the only option is blood in the streets, as there is no institution left to resolve our disagreements in which we trust. Is that really where we want to end up?