Trump Destroyed Our Faith in Government. How Do We Get It Back?
Trump has done irreparable harm to Americans’ faith in government, and the public’s tolerance of bureaucratic malfeasance may have reached a point of no return
Fresh off Michael Cohen’s testimony, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee last week unveiled a slate of 81 individuals and organizations subject to investigation as “threats against the rule of law.” For Democrats, the goal of these investigations is relatively simple: gather as much evidence of obstruction and wrongdoing as possible in the hopes of unearthing a “smoking gun” in their case against Trump, all to bolster an argument for drafting articles of impeachment against the president.
Meanwhile, Robert Mueller’s independent investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russian operatives is coming to a close, albeit with less of a legal dragnet than past scandals (27 charges and seven guilty pleas in Mueller’s investigation, compared to Watergate’s 69 charges and 68 guilty pleas, according to Axios). And, throughout all this tumult, a remarkable number of cabinet secretaries and senior officials have resigned amid corruption and ethics scandals of their own. Nine cabinet positions turned over in Trump’s first 14 months in office, according to a New York Times count, far eclipsing six during the same time period for the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations combined.
Corrupt political leadership has translated into dysfunction elsewhere in federal government, from the agency leaders who refine policy to the civil servants who are most Americans’ first point of contact with government bureaucracy. As critical agencies like the Department of State suffer prolonged vacancies in key posts, other offices, like the Environmental Protection Agency, have been eviscerated from the inside, falling victim to budget cuts and regressive policy. Even Trump’s quixotic governing style runs counter to the very rationality and predictability that effective bureaucracies are built on, triggering an alarming exodus of government employees.
This unprecedented level of disorder has had a predictable effect: the erosion of institutional memory within—and, in turn, the effectiveness of—the federal government. Meanwhile, according to the most recent Gallup polling, broad trust in the federal government has plummeted to its lowest point in more than two decades.
Trump isn’t the first president to treat the federal government with marked hostility. Ronald Reagan, for one, came into office with a mandate to beat back an executive branch that had grown more imperious thanks in large part to the New Deal. “As government expands, liberty contracts,” Reagan famously said.
But with voters, as with children, it’s easier to give than to take away. “Any conservative has to battle momentum,” Margaret O’Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington, says of the federal government’s post-New Deal expansion. “There is entrenchment: These agencies and programs employ thousands of people, and if you cut programs or shut things down, it creates a political reverberation. There are programs people depend on, and if it’s something in someone’s congressional district, the politics become problematic.”
Without that public legitimacy, the institutional resilience baked into the architecture of the American system falls apart.
But even Reagan’s deliberate neglect and Trump’s chaotic governance don’t spell permanent doom for federal agencies. Part of this institutional resilience is due to America’s role as the central nexus of global hegemony, says O’Mara. The machine that is the federal government, at this point in American history, is simply too big to fail, even when it stumbles. “What’s really remarkable about the last two years is how much has simply kept on working,” O’Mara says.
Indeed, Trump’s most significant and unique threat to the efficacy of government lies not in the damage he inflicts on institutions from within, but rather in his ability to destroy public faith in the government’s potential effectiveness—and therefore its political legitimacy, a metric largely shaped by how the president talks about civil service to the rest of America. Without that public legitimacy, the institutional resilience baked into the architecture of the American system falls apart.
Take the Teapot Dome scandal: After then-Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall leased production rights for the Teapot Dome oil field in Natrona County, Wyoming, to Mammoth Oil Company in 1922, Congress moved swiftly to investigate the deal for evidence of bribery. President Calvin Coolidge, meanwhile, rushed to appoint special investigators to uncover the scope of corruption. The system worked: The investigation found Fall guilty of taking bribes, and he became the first cabinet official to spend time in prison. But more importantly, Coolidge made a vocal case for good government—a case, historians argue, that helped set the groundwork for the expansion of the welfare state under the New Deal in response to the Great Depression.
“People were prosecuted, people went to jail … there was a sense that the [corruption] was contained,” says David Greenberg, a professor of history at Rutgers University. “Coolidge positioned himself as a man of rectitude, and despite some partisan jockeying in the public eye, the investigation wasn’t seen in partisan or ideological terms … it was used as an argument for more good government in a general way.”
The task of American institutions is not just to punish those implicated in current investigations, but to make an argument that the federal government can evolve beyond Trump-era chaos. “If Trump loses after one term, he can be seen as an aberration,’’ Greenberg says.
Whereas the Teapot Dome scandal was a lesson in the power of institutional resilience, Watergate serves as a reminder of its shortcomings. Richard Nixon’s landmark offense, which saw the administration scramble to cover up a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, was so severe in scope that public trust in government has virtually never recovered to the level of its glory days of the 1950s. According to Pew Research Center, trust plummeted from 54 percent in 1970 to 36 percent in 1975. And, unlike Coolidge’s push for normalcy, Reagan’s crusade against the tyranny of government made sheer antipathy toward bureaucrats and civil servants the norm for political leaders, with the brief idealistic respites of the Clinton and Obama presidencies as the only exceptions.
“[Watergate] eliminated the positive attributes of working for government, and between Nixon and Vietnam, the corruption and disillusionment helped fuel the argument that public servants are not that virtuous,” Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University, says. “When we had the New Deal, government was seen as a force for good … [that] excitement about going into the public service hasn’t existed in a long time.”
Instead of arguing the case for government as Coolidge did after Teapot Dome, the Reagan revolution fostered antipathy toward government into a central through line of modern conservatism. In 2001, anti-tax apostle Grover Norquist famously proclaimed, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Decades later, Steve Bannon, then the chief strategist in the Trump White House, made a similar pledge at the 2017 meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference: “If you look at the [Trump administration’s] lines of work,” Bannon said, “the third, broadly, line of work is what is deconstruction of the administrative state.”
As a result of this cultural shift, restoring the public’s belief in government as something not inherently corrupt and malevolent, Zelizer says, won’t just take an extraordinary effort by whoever occupies the Oval Office after Trump—it will be an act of faith by voters themselves, who have become desensitized by scandal after scandal. It seems the country desperately needs a Calvin Coolidge.
“Fatigue can be dangerous, especially when polls come out that say people essentially believe the president has committed crimes,” Zelizer says. “And if all of this is acceptable, there’s clearly a foundation for the next president to do things like this without retribution or punishment.”
This is where the “momentum” O’Mara mentioned earlier comes back to bite would-be reform. While politicians and civil servants can champion their own return to the democratic norms that Trump repeatedly abused, the public’s tolerance of corruption—and its trust in the government’s ability to correct corruption—may have reached a point of no return.