On the one hand, it is a deeply cynical, destructive and even existential argument. On the other hand, a lot people bought it. The good news is that Trump is not currently president. The bad news is that in stepping out, he dealt a near fatal blow to those institutions when he encouraged supporters to “fight like hell” and march on Capitol Hill. Of course, the system resisted and pushed back against Trump’s game. But the cost has been deep disarray, a shaken political realm that has yet to fully confront the image of a system-tarnishing president. In a governed democracy by unwritten standards, adding a dangerous precedent is one of the most unsettling things you can do. And who knows who will be forced to push the precedent further next time?
The most immediate question for American democracy is: why more people vote for donald trump in 2020 than in 2016? Surely they didn’t miss the news cycle of his entire presidency. It is impossible to have missed him systematically overthrowing the institutions on which governments rely. So could it be that they bought the story that institutions were unworthy of redemption? Has his presidency confirmed something on the deterioration of general social trust?
Consider the Edelman Trust Barometer. Since 2000, the public relations firm has conducted an annual global survey measuring public trust in institutions. report 2022who found that mistrust is now “society’s default emotion”, recorded a trend the breakdown of trust in institutions such as the government or the media.
While it’s easy to dismiss Trump’s crude nihilistic threat, it’s much harder to face the realities that allowed him to succeed. After decades of letting inequality grow, those with their hands on the levers of American democracy have suddenly found the will and the will to send thousands of dollars to the bank accounts of every American. American households increased their wealth by $13.5 trillion in 2020 thanks in part to generous government spending to keep the economy afloat. This may solve a big problem – how people were supposed to pay their rent and mortgages during the work shutdown – but it introduced a new one: Wait, so the government could have done it whenever it wanted?
Soon it became clear that even the wealth gains from the pandemic were not equal. Due to an unexpected stock market boom, more than 70% of the increase in household wealth went to Top 20% earners. Generally, workers with higher incomes have seen their lot improve due to the drastic economic changes of COVID. Meanwhile, temporary pandemic relief programs contributed to reducing child poverty in the United States before being retired at the end of 2021.
It is possible – sometimes rational, even – to conclude that successive American governments have not considered worsening income inequality as a pressing problem. It is rational to conclude that successive US governments have fallen asleep at the wheel, satisfied with general economic growth without paying attention to the direction of that growth.
That we have a social language for this is a significant achievement of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement. Its physical impact may have been short-lived, but its rhetorical impact is a reimagining of the public language of inequality. We have a 1% and a 99% – and by every measure imaginable, the lives of the 1% have improved, even during a global pandemic. Indeed, the wealthiest Americans have become incredibly wealthy in this time of great upheaval.
If there is comfort to be found in vague promises to use the pandemic as an opportunity to redesign society – wishes for a “great reset”, promises to “build back better” – the comfort is immediately quashed. by the reality that those very wishes have been hijacked by anti-science, anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown people to pretend baseless conspiracy theories who go so far as to suggest that the shutdowns are deliberately designed to hasten economic collapse.
These claims are not unique to the United States. There had tremors in Canada, where a convoy of truckers and their supporters occupied downtown Ottawa for weeks and demanded the Prime Minister’s dismissal. On the other side of the Atlantic, they popped up in the Netherlands, Germany and France.
It is hard to imagine how trust in national governments can be restored. It is not, a priori, apocalyptic. The lights are on and the trains run on time, for the most part. But civic trust, the stuff of nation building, believing that governments are capable of improving one’s life, seems to have faded.
In February, the Republican Party declared that the January 6 insurrection and the events that preceded it constituted “legitimate political speech.” At best, it is a direct attempt to downplay the events of that day. At worst, the Republicans’ statement implies that the political institutions of the United States are fraudulent and that any form of protest, including insurrection, is valid. This may get party votes in the upcoming midterm elections, but it will cost more than money: it will come at the cost of further deterioration in public trust.