Americans Have Lost Trust in Government For Good Reason

Americans Have Lost Trust in Government For Good Reason

Donald Trump’s “The system is rigged” resonates because it reflects what ordinary people think. According to Gallup, only three institutions — the military, small business, and the police — are trusted by more than half. Gallup shows that Americans are as likely to trust Internet news (which the media scorns as “unfiltered”), as T.V. news and newspapers. Trust in Congress, meanwhile, has collapsed from one in three to one in 10 since 2000.

These figures foretell the emergence of anti-status-quo presidential candidates, who promise to restore confidence in our institutions. Any status-quo candidate should be defeated unless the conversation is shifted to peripheral issues, such as character and personality. Indeed, “Restore America’s Greatness” Donald Trump and “A Political Revolution is Coming” Bernie Sanders reflect the burgeoning anti-establishment fervor of main street America. 


Congress has approval ratings approaching zero. Common explanations are that Congress is too partisan, divided, dysfunctional, and lazy. The presidential primaries suggest a more important reason: The bases of both parties reject status-quo candidates as not working for their interests and being in the pocket of special interests. The appeal of both Trump and Sanders is that they do not appear beholden to the fat-cat corporations and the mega wealthy. Trump gained the nomination with this message; Sanders came close to spoiling the coronation of Hillary Clinton with a similar one. And the Tea Party movement, maligned rather than embraced by the Republican establishment, has used similar rhetoric in its successful primary challenges against establishment candidates since its founding in 2009. It will continue to do so. 


Main Street America sees the FBI, after its charade investigation of the Clinton email scandal, as simply doing the administration’s dirty work. The “chance” tarmac meeting of Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, described even by The Washington Post as “making everyone look bad,” was the final straw. As we learn more (largely from the Internet) about questionable immunity deals, smashed blackberries, and chemically wiped messages under subpoena, Americans see that the FBI is not the blindfolded lady of justice they once thought but just another appendage of the political establishment. As the FBI head James Comey has squandered his reputation, a reform-minded president should replace him with a fiercely independent director who puts the FBI’s reputation above politics.

Arguably, the FBI is only part of the bigger problem of an out-of-control Department of Justice headed by Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch. A whole separate article would be required to delve into the problems plaguing the Justice Department.


American taxpayers have the highest tax morale among affluent countries according to OECD statistics. Tax morale erodes quickly when taxpayers conclude the IRS is not fair and even-handed. The U.S. federal tax code has few defenders, except special interests. It is a convoluted mess; yet no major political party proposes serious steps towards fairness and equity in taxation. Instead, they prefer to talk big and do nothing.

The Obama administration has done more than its share to destroy the reputation of the IRS. We have learned that the IRS grants tax exempt status based on political affiliations or beliefs and that the IRS may target returns of individuals whose politics it does not like. Such views are fortified by the IRS’s sabotage of Congressional investigations. Department heads plead the Fifth before Congress without consequences; the head of the IRS ignores congressional subpoenas; and the IRS slow-walks investigations until they die. The IRS treatment of the Clinton Foundation is, once again, a topic for another article.

The Intelligence Community

The avalanche of Wikileaks disclosures exposes the dark underbelly of the Clinton campaign, including, among other embarrassments, Clinton’s contradictory Wall Street speeches, dirty tricks against Sanders, insulting remarks about Catholics, and secret coordination with the press and with justice and state-department agencies on the email scandal investigation.

The Clinton campaign dismisses the leaks as a Russian anti-Clinton campaign, not deserving of comment. Just as critics of the Iraq war claim that the intel community gave assurances of WMD to please Bush, the Clinton campaign needs an intelligence “slam dunk” on the Kremlin hacks. Indeed, the media has reported that both candidates were assured of the “high confidence” of the intelligence community of Russian guilt. Politifact, however, quotes Russian involvement as “plausible, but something for which the jury at this stage is very much still out.” Why the rush if not for the campaign? 

Public Education

Our public education system churns out young people whose skills do not qualify them for jobs and denies the underprivileged school choice. According to international test-score statistics, U.S. pupils rank 26th in math, 21st in science, and 17th in reading of the 34 OECD countries. The usual remedy from teachers’ unions and politicians is increased spending, but we already spend $115,000 per pupil (5th among the 34 OECD countries). The true remedy is to disrupt the status quo in which the providers (teachers and their unions) call the shots rather than the customers (the children and their parents). It is not by chance that teachers’ unions are the largest contributors to the Democratic Party, which resists major changes in the way we educate our children in return. 

The Mainstream Media

The electorate is evenly divided between Right and Left, but only 7 percent of journalists self-identify as Republicans. Twenty-eight percent identify as Democratic and the rest claim the label of “independent.” Thus, a liberal media decides which candidates are “worthy” and affords them positive coverage. In the 2016 campaign, all pretense of impartiality has been dropped. The mainstream media has decided that Donald Trump is not fit to be president as the multitude of rabid editorials testify. Leading newspapers, such as The New York Times appear to be coordinating their news (not editorial coverage) to promote Clinton and inflict as much damage on the Trump campaign as possible.

If Trump gets some half of the American vote, this means that voters size candidates up in quite a different manner from the elite press. That elite press, therefore, might find it enlightening to learn something about the views of the electorate. Instead, the media agrees that Trump supporters are deplorables, either to be ignored or parodied. The media ignores, for instance, the fact that Trump supporters have higher incomes and education levels than the average U.S. citizen. They are not the redneck, shotgun and Bible carrying, racist hayseeds the media describes.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is American democracy’s last defense against arbitrary politicization of the American legal system. The Supreme Court has been our rock against the excesses of Roosevelt’s New Deal and racial discrimination and engineered the difficult resolution of a tied election (Bush versus Gore). Still, the Supreme Court’s trustworthiness rating has dropped from one in two to one in three over the past 15 years. Were it not for the inherent public trust in the Supreme Court, the rating would likely have fallen more. Few can deny that the Supreme Court has become politicized. Nominees are subject to litmus tests; Supreme Court decisions are anticipated based on the political affiliation of the judges rather than on what the Constitution, precedent, or the merits of the law require. With the legitimacy of the Supreme Court in doubt, our republic may be in mortal danger.

The Political Parties

The biggest decline in trust has been in the political parties themselves. Trust in government fell from 42 percent under Reagan to 21 percent today, most of the decline among Republicans. Grass roots frustration began in the George W. Bush years, particularly in the second term when Republican policies were not defended against constant Democratic attacks, and when Bush refused to veto any spending bills despite a mounting deficit. The grass roots did not like the Bush Administration’s policies, but they largely kept quiet. Frustration accelerated when grass roots Republicans worked hard to achieve control of the House and then the Senate, all for naught even though the Constitution gives Congress potent checks on the President. Republican Party leaders have been slow to understand how angry the rank and file have become over this apparent betrayal — as evidenced by the millions of dollars wealthy donors bet on Jeb Bush’s hopeless campaign.

Washington either does not understand the perfect storm gathering or chooses to ignore it. Had the Republican establishment admitted that the people had a reason to be angry and would henceforth embrace a popular reform agenda, they could have been the dominant political force for a generation. Instead, they face extinction. A Trump loss will merely estrange grass-roots Republicans further. They may even bolt for a third party. In any event, Republican elites seem to think that defeating Trump will make all their problems go away, allowing them to return to business as usual. What wishful thinking.

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