(Trigger warning: long, rambly blog post ahead!)
I blogged earlier about how I think Donald Trump and Pope Francis both play fast and loose with the awesome responsibilities of their respective positions (or, in Trump’s case, the position to which he has been elected). They wear the weight of their roles too lightly, in my view, and show too little respect for custom and tradition. Similarly, I blogged about a professor who, in my view, betrayed her scholarly duties by turning her creative writing classroom into a griping session about Donald Trump, and by saying that college professors must start breaking the rules of convention to speak out against Trump in their classrooms.
My sense is that a lot of readers think I’m just grinding my ideological axes here. I’ve been struggling to articulate what I mean, and I got closer to it in this piece from this afternoon saying that I can’t figure out precisely what to think about Professor Watchlist. It makes me queasy, but at the same time, if my kids were students at these colleges, I would want to know this information about their professors. In the update to the piece, I conceded that Jon Haidt and the Heterodox Academy editors are basically right to say that Professor Watchlist is not helping things (and if anybody has earned the moral status to make that kind of critique, it’s the Heterodox Academy folks) … yet my mind is still not settled on the matter. So let me try again.
The core of these problems is the loss of trust and confidence in our institutions. This is not something particular to Donald Trump, or Pope Francis, or arrogant left-wing college professors. It’s something we all live with, and struggle with — and if we don’t struggle with it, we aren’t really paying attention.
I was talking with a clergyman recently, a man late in his career, and who has seen a lot of trouble in his days. He is deeply disillusioned with the church, though not the faith. His decades in the priesthood have in some ways been an education in the difference between the church and the faith. Similarly, if you could hear experienced journalists talking shop, you might be surprised by how much despair they have over the profession. A big part of it is simply depression over the collapse of stable employment, but no small amount of it comes from despair over the profession itself, and its values. I’m thinking now of someone I once knew in the business, who is still a true believer in the nobility of journalism and the righteousness of journalists. This person, though quite experienced at the senior level, strikes you as on a perpetual Kool-Aid bender, in the Jim Jones sense — just never, ever stopping to consider whether journalists deserve the trust we want the public to put in us.
These are two worlds I either know personally or have lots of friends involved with. I would not be the least surprised if older lawyers said the same thing about the law, older politicians said the same thing about their profession, and bankers about theirs, and maybe even older teachers and professors said the same thing about their own line of work. If you, reader, are one of these people, I’d like to hear from you in the comments section, sharing your experiences. There is, it seems to me, a widespread sense of exhaustion, and an inchoate awareness that people who really believe in the integrity of institutions are either trying to position themselves to use the power remaining within them to their advantage, or are simply being played for suckers.
This is how you get a country where 20 percent of Trump voters in CNN exit polling said he was not “honest and trustworthy,” but voted for him anyway — and 17 percent of Trump voters said he was not qualified to be president, and 20 percent of Trump voters said he does not have the temperament to be president, but … you know.
What Trump will have when he takes over is power without authority, or at least authority that is deeply contested by half the country. This is a dangerous thing. But Trump is not alone. Look at this Gallup poll from earlier this year. Of the major institutions of American life on the list, only the military, small business, and police have the confidence of a majority of Americans. That’s astonishing. If that doesn’t worry you, you’re whistling past the graveyard.
Read this 2012 piece about the loss of trust in our national institutions, written by Ron Fournier and Sophie Quinton. When it was written, nobody could have predicted that Donald Trump would be the next president. It opens with the story of Johnny Whitmire, a middle-aged working class white man from Muncie, Indiana, whose life is in shambles. Excerpts:
Whitmire is an angry man. He is among a group of voters most skeptical of President Obama: non-college-educated white males. He feels betrayed — not just by Obama, who won his vote in 2008, but by the institutions that were supposed to protect him: his state, which laid off his wife; his government in Washington, which couldn’t rescue homeowners who had played by the rules; his bank, which failed to walk him through the correct paperwork or warn him about a potential mortgage hike; his city, which penalized him for somebody else’s error; and even his employer, a construction company he likes even though he got laid off. “I was middle class for 10 years, but it’s done,” Whitmire says. “I’ve lost my home. I live in a trailer now because of a mortgage company and an incompetent government.”
Whitmire is a story of Muncie, and Muncie is the story of America. In this place — dubbed “Middletown” by early 20th-century sociologists — people have lost faith in their institutions. Government, politics, corporations, the media, organized religion, organized labor, banks, businesses, and other mainstays of a healthy society are failing. It’s not just that the institutions are corrupt or broken; those clichés oversimplify an existential problem: With few notable exceptions, the nation’s onetime social pillars are ill-equipped for the 21st century. Most critically, they are failing to adapt quickly enough for a population buffeted by wrenching economic, technological, and demographic change.
Muncie is a microcosm of a nation whose motto could be, “In Nothing We Trust.” Seven in 10 Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track; eight in 10 are dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed. Only 23 percent have confidence in banks, and just 19 percent have confidence in big business. Less than half the population expresses “a great deal” of confidence in the public-school system or organized religion.
“We have lost our gods,” says Laura Hansen, an assistant professor of sociology at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass. “We lost [faith] in the media: Remember Walter Cronkite? We lost it in our culture: You can’t point to a movie star who might inspire us, because we know too much about them. We lost it in politics, because we know too much about politicians’ lives. We’ve lost it — that basic sense of trust and confidence — in everything.”
The authors say that 90 or so years ago, sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd documented the transition away from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. There was a widespread loss of trust back then, but we pulled through:
Perhaps the problem is merely cyclical. “To a degree unlike any time since the Lynds’ time, we’ve lost trust in one another and the institutions that are supposed to hold us together,” says James Connolly, director of the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University here. Yet unlike that earlier era, vibrant new institutions are not generally springing up to replace the old ones. And even when they do, they don’t always restore Americans’ faith in institutions and each other. Schools are worsening (especially relative to competitors abroad); politicians are limited to small-bore, partisan measures; and corporations’ power over people like Johnny Whitmire is rising. What if, this time, institutions don’t recover — and our faith dies with them?
Yes, frustrated citizens have tried to fill the vacuum. Like-minded “followers” and “friends” feed us news online; people sometimes barter on eBay rather than bow to big corporations; and parents increasingly homeschool their children rather than expose them to failing public schools and unsafe streets. But this is coping, not institutional adaptation. And sociologists say we need the control that institutions provide: It’s how things get done.
When people trust their institutions, they’re better able to solve common problems. Research shows that school principals are much more likely to turn around struggling schools in places where people have a history of working together and getting involved in their children’s education. Communities bonded by friendships formed at church are more likely to vote, volunteer, and perform everyday good deeds like helping someone find a job. And governments find it easier to persuade the public to make sacrifices for the common good when people trust that their political leaders have the community’s best interests at heart. “Institutions — even dysfunctional ones — are why we don’t run amok in the woods,” Hansen says.
Still, no metrics exist to measure life without institutions, because they’ve been around as long as humankind. The first institution was the first family. The tribe was the first community. The first tribe’s leader was the first politician, and its elders were the first legislature. Its guards, the first police force. Its storyteller, a teacher. Humans are coded to create communities, and communities beget institutions.
If you read the whole thing, and think about Johnny Whitmire of Muncie, Indiana, you think: Yep, that’s why we have Trump. #MAGA is for people like him, but also for people who haven’t been suffering like he has, but who just don’t believe in the system anymore.
Here’s something from that piece to chew on. In the words of a sociology professor: “You can’t point to a movie star who might inspire us, because we know too much about them. We lost it in politics, because we know too much about politicians’ lives.”
Is it possible that knowledge is not power, but actually, in a sense, weakness? Is social media making us lose trust in our leaders and institutions before we ever trusted them in the first place?
If you know anything said by the 19th century English writer Walter Bagehot, it is almost certainly his remark about why it is so important for the monarch to stay above politics:
We must not let in daylight upon magic. We must not bring the Queen into the combat of politics, or she will cease to be reverenced by all combatants; she will become one combatant among many.
What do you think Bagehot would make of Trump? Of course the US president is a politician by definition. We don’t have a neutral head of state, like the British monarch. But the American presidency has always had some real magic attending the office. It would be difficult for any president today to retain the magic of the American presidency. Trump will not be ennobled by the office, but will instead make it common. But then, if the office itself had not already lost its magic, a man like Donald Trump would never have been elected.
I wish Donald Trump — and Pope Francis, and bankers, generals, judges, professors, bishops, editors, and all other powerful men and women who hold positions that customarily come with authority — would have the opportunity to watch the new Netflix series The Crown, which deals with young Elizabeth II learning what it means to be sovereign. Here is the beginning of a great scene in which Elizabeth (Claire Foy) speaks with her grandmother (Queen Mary, the widow of her grandfather George V), discussing the role of the sovereign with regard to politics. Elizabeth had been pressured to lean on the aged and failing Prime Minister Churchill to resign for the good of the country when he was failing to lead. In the series’ telling, the young Queen was barely able to avoid making a decision to do so (or not) because circumstances changed:
In the series, Queen Mary serves as a reminder to the new monarch of the weight of the position she carries. In the second episode, after Elizabeth’s father dies, Queen Mary writes to the new queen:
I know how you loved your papa, my son. And I know you will be as devastated as I am by this loss. But you must put those sentiments to one side now, for duty calls.
The grief for your father’s death will be felt far and wide. Your people will need your strength and leadership.
I have seen three great monarchies brought down through their failure to separate personal indulgences from duty. You must not allow yourself to make similar mistakes.
And while you mourn your father, you must also mourn someone else: Elizabeth Mountbatten. For she has now been replaced by another person, Elizabeth Regina.
The two Elizabeths will frequently be in conflict with one another. The fact is, the Crown must win. Must always win.
Queen Mary is formidable and archaic. Her views are starchy for her time, and positively fossilized now. But the great wisdom she bestows on her granddaughter, at least for as long as she is alive (the actual Queen Mary died shortly into Elizabeth’s reign), is relevant to anyone in a position of authority: you have a duty to your calling that is more important than yourself. By doing your duty, you serve the people whose interests have been entrusted to you. This is true whether you are the monarch of Britain, the monarch of the Roman Catholic Church, or manager of the small-town savings & loan. As we see in the series, young Elizabeth rebels against the constraints of her new role, and there are figures who are slavishly traditionalist, and who fail to grasp the difference between upholding Tradition and being bound too tightly by traditionalism. Still, Queen Mary’s words about duty in that episode, as well as in the clip above, ought to speak to all of us.
If more of our institutional leaders regarded their leadership roles in terms of doing their duty, upholding traditions, and comporting themselves with the dignity that befits their station, I wonder if we might begin to find our way back.