Federal Government Distrust

By Brian A. Howey

The last two American presidential assassinations — coming about 60 years apart — set in motion different yields when it comes to trust in government. When bullets felled President William McKinley in Buffalo in 1901, the subsequent ascension of President Theodore Roosevelt commenced a progressive movement that largely persisted over six decades, bringing us the New Deal and the Great Society.

And it was 60 years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas that ultimately led to a gradual unraveling of our public trust. Yes, the bullets of Dallas brought about the Great Society and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 two years later under President Lyndon B. Johnson, but those were quickly followed by the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s resignation in disgrace, and a rise of a conservative movement beginning with Barry Goldwater in 1964.

When the National Election Study began asking about trust in government in 1958 for Pew Research, about three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time. Today, Pew reports that 25% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say they trust the federal government just about always or most of the time, compared with 8% of Republicans and Republican-leaning Americans.

This may have come to a head when President Reagan held a press conference on Aug. 12, 1986, in which he uttered this famous phrase still quoted by his GOP acolytes: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’ ”

Donald Trump adroitly tapped into this notion three decades later. During Trump’s presidency, there had been overt damning of the federal government. This ranged from his unproven allegations that the 2016 and 2020 elections were “rigged” and then “stolen,” to the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrection, to defining the federal bureaucracy as the “deep state,” to his public distrust of the U.S. intelligence network and the federal courts, to his Stalinist definition of the news media as “fake news” and as the “enemy of the American people.”

Reuters reported that the annual Edelman Trust Barometer reported in Davos, Switzerland in 2017 (the year Trump came to power) revealed that faith in the Chinese government jumped 8 points to 84%, while in the United States it fell 14 points to 33%. “The United States is enduring an unprecedented crisis of trust,” said Richard Edelman, head of the communications marketing firm that commissioned the research.

By 2021, after a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Edelman reported: “With a growing trust gap and trust declines worldwide, people are looking for leadership and solutions as they reject talking heads who they deem not credible. In fact, none of the societal leaders we track — government leaders, CEOs, journalists and even religious leaders — are trusted to do what is right, with drops in trust scores for all.”

Reagan explained in his January 1989 farewell address, “Back in the 1960’s when I began, it seemed to me that we’d begun reversing the order of things; that through more and more rules and regulations and confiscatory taxes, the government was taking more of our money, more of our options and more of our freedom. I went into politics in part to put up my hand and say, ‘Stop.’ I was a citizen politician, and it seemed the right thing for a citizen to do.”

The bookend to decades of acute conservative criticism of the federal government came last Sunday when Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Baird of Indiana reacted to last week’s news that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy had been booted from office in a historical first, followed days later by the surprise attack on Israel by Hamas. “Our disunity on Capitol Hill is weakening America’s position as a global leader and hindering our ability to respond to the atrocities committed by Hamas on the Israeli people,” Baird posted on X. “We must stop these political games and show leadership during this international emergency.”

But that’s the federal government. State governments fare much better. When Morning Consult did its governor approval ratings in all 50 states last July, not a single sitting state executive had a higher disapproval than approval, and most (including Gov. Eric Holcomb at 55% approve, 35% disapprove) were well above 50%. Only three governors had approval below 50%.

As for the Trump era, in an essay for the Brookings Institute, Elaine Kamarck, founder of the Center of Effective Public Management, asks a series of questions: Did Trump weaken the powers of Congress? Has Trump damaged our system of shared power between the federal government and the states? Has Trump weakened the judiciary? Did Trump weaken the press? Was Trump able to exert control over the civil service?

The answer to all of these questions is “No.”

“The fact that Trump did not tear down the major guardrails of democracy does not mean that all is well in the United States,” Karmarck said in July 2021. “The lesson is that democracy requires constant care and constant mobilization.”

Yes, that’s the lesson: Democracy demands maintenance.

-Brian Howey is senior writer and columnist for Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.