While news media tends to focus on Trump’s often silly tweets, a much bigger problem gets short shrift. Public confidence in institutions critical to the preservation of US democracy is deteriorating. These include the intelligence agencies, the justice system and the news media. The loss of confidence is the direct result of Trump’s repeated accusations that these institutions are out to get him and cannot be trusted.
The attacks on the intelligence community were so brazen they reminded some of the Watergate scandal and President Richard Nixon’s desperate attempts to avoid impeachment.
Remember when all 17 US intelligence agencies issued a joint report that concluded Russia had clearly interfered with the 2016 US presidential election by hacking the DNC e-mail server and releasing information damaging to Hillary Clinton during the election campaign? Trump’s response was to question the conclusion as well as the competence of the agencies.
When FBI Director James Comey was continuing the investigation to see if there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in orchestrating the hack and if there was any obstruction of justice on the part of the White House in the conduct of the investigation, Trump fired him claiming it was a ” Witch hunt“.
This was after a one-on-one dinner meeting between the two where Trump asked Comey to swear “loyalty” to him and to stop the FBI’s investigation of Mike Flynn, Trump’s national security advisor who was fired earlier for lying. Trump’s personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz claims these conversations never happened.
For someone who so vehemently professes innocence for all things Russian, Trump’s verbal assaults and behaviour betray the conduct of a guilty person. And on Russia that is exactly how most Americans see Trump.
An AP/NORC poll taken after FBI Director James Comey’s sworn testimony before Congress about his dinner meeting with Trump found that 68% of Americans were concerned “that President Trump or members of his campaign had inappropriate contact with members of the Russian government”. A majority, 61%, was also of the opinion that “President Trump tried to obstruct the investigation into whether or not his campaign had ties to Russia”. Reinforcing this majority view, an earlier ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 61% of the country felt that Trump fired Comey to protect himself. Only 27% felt Comey was fired for the good of the country.
With sentiments such as these, it was not surprising that 72% of Americans indicated they had little or no trust in what Trump had to say about the Russia issue.
What is surprising but also disturbing is that in the same poll, 55% of Americans had little or no trust in what Comey had to say on Russia. Throughout his career Comey has had a solid reputation as a straight shooter. Trump on the other hand has the reputation of a notorious liar. Where do these public doubts spring from?
Digging a little deeper into the data reveals a very strong partisan bias to the response. Among Republicans, 76% said they had little or no trust in Comey. For Democrats the corresponding figure was 39%. It seems that telling the truth doesn’t really matter that much in American politics these days. All that matters is whether it’s good for your party or not, truth be damned.
As a result of this partisan attitude, it is not surprising the AP/NORC poll found that presently only 29% of Americans had “a great deal of confidence” in the FBI. Most, 52%, had “only some confidence”, and 18% had “hardly any” at all. Three years ago when Gallup asked Americans to rate different government agencies on how good a job each was doing, it found that 58% of Americans felt the FBI was doing an excellent or good job. It was the second most highly rated agency of all that were rated.
What Trump has done to undermine America’s national security agencies and specifically the FBI has no doubt left Putin dumbstruck with awe and admiration.
But Trump was not the only bad actor in this play. Both the Republican and Democratic parties have attacked Director Comey in recent years when investigations were undertaken by Comey that were not favorable to their parties. Democrats didn’t look too kindly on him when he was investigating Clinton’s private e-mail server. Although in retrospect some of Comey’s public announcements were of questionable wisdom — some Democrats claim it robbed Clinton of the presidency — it’s clear his motivation was not driven by some partisan agenda. The man was trying to do his job as best he could. Sometimes his best wasn’t good enough.
These attacks on Director Comey and the FBI left the public with the impression that the FBI (and in a broader sense the Justice Department) had become politicized and the validity of its work was cast in doubt. The persistent partisan propaganda from both Republicans and Democrats has been so effective in psychologically conditioning many Americans, that only 26% say they are either “extremely” or “very confident” in the ability of the Justice Department to conduct a fair and impartial investigation of Trump’s possible ties to Russia through independent special counsel and former FBI chief Robert Mueller. And a third of Americans, 36%, have little or no confidence in such an investigation. Poll findings like these make it abundantly clear that the reputation of the FBI has taken a big hit.
The loss of public trust in federal agencies whose responsibility is to keep us safe has serious consequences. In a country where millions of citizens have access to guns it opens the door to acts of political violence. When the public begins to feel that institutions designed to protect us but instead fail us, social research has found that a significant number of Americans are tempted to support violent political action to remedy the failure. In a national study conducted in 2010, social scientist Nathan Kalmoe found that between 5% and 14% of Americans supported violent actions in such circumstances. This included approval of statements like:
- “When politicians are damaging the country, citizens should send threats to scare them straight.”
- “Sometimes the only way to stop bad government is with physical force.”
- “Some of the problems citizens have with government could be fixed with a few well aimed bullets.”
The last statement is a chilling reminder of the shooting of GOP House Whip Steve Scalise and others by a mentally ill individual at a baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia in June. The toxic political divisions that Trump and the Republican and Democratic parties have sown among American voters leave one with the uneasy feeling that we haven’t seen the last of such tragedies.
Trump’s disastrous relationship with the nation’s intelligence agencies is not the only significant democratic institution Trump has tried to cripple. His attacks on mainstream news media (except Fox News) as the author of “fake news” have been unrelenting. His angry tweets are often directed at news organizations like CNN, MSNBC, Washington Post, and the New York Times that dig out the facts on his Russia entanglements.
Polls show that during this period, public trust in news media generally has been diminished. However, a closer analysis of the data reveals the response is more complex. For mainstream television news outlets, the public tends to trust those they watch and not trust those they don’t. So, for example, the viewers of Fox News will say they trust Fox News but not CNN while the reverse is true of CNN viewers. It seems that public trust of news outlets has become as partisan as which party the public trusts on important national issues.
But Trump didn’t damage public trust in news media on his own. Not by a long shot. Fox News played a central role in this sad outcome. Due to its special relationship with Trump, Fox News decided to abrogate its journalistic responsibility to cover Trump’s shenanigans in a fair and balanced way. It agreed with Trump that all mainstream news outlets, except Fox News, are the purveyors of fake news. In effect, this one mainstream news outlet that gets bigger audiences than any other cable news network, has become a propaganda arm of the Trump White House. The consequence of this decision is a deeply divided America where for many political ideology trumps facts and truth.
The pervasive propaganda coming out of Fox News is the main reason why about a third of American voters will in public opinion polls support Trump’s word regardless of facts that would lead most reasonable people to conclude the opposite to be true.
Why are so many Americans susceptible to Trump’s siren call?
In one word — trust.
Whatever trust this group had in traditional politicians, be they Republican or Democrat, was shattered by the Great Recession of 2008, an economic tsunami second only to the Great Depression of 1929. Trump, a nonpolitician promising to bring back lost jobs and for many, a return to the middle class, was the only individual they felt they could trust. For them, facts and truth were spent words. True to their word, they have trusted him to this day, no matter what nonsense came out of his mouth, including his attacks on the most vital institutions of US democracy.
How much damage Trump can inflict on these institutions before their trust in him begins to erode is anyone’s guess. A recent AP/NORC poll found that 65% of Americans feel Trump has little or no respect for the country’s democratic institutions and traditions. However, most Republican voters disagree–69% say Trump has a great deal or fair amount of respect for these institutions.
Republican voters and Americans generally are certainly not getting any leadership from the Republican Party. With some notable exceptions, the GOP seems to have lost its moral compass in not challenging Trump’s excesses. With a majority in both houses of Congress it is the only party that has the authority to make Trump stop misbehaving. But it does nothing. It’s like having a Russian spy in the White House seems no big deal these days.
As noted, the motivation for Trump undermining public confidence in these institutions seems that of a man guilty of something. If that is the case then for Trump they represent an existential danger. Evidence from any of these institutions that there was collusion with Russia from anyone in his campaign to interfere in the election by damaging the character of Hillary Clinton, or that Trump or anyone in his White House attempted to obstruct the Justice Department investigation of this matter, would signal the beginning of the end of his regime.
An outpouring of public anger would force the Republicans to act. At that point Trump’s options would be somewhat dismal.
As Trump sees it, he has to destroy these institutions before they destroy him.
But if Trump is not guilty of anything, as he claims, then he should stop acting as if he is.
Oleh Iwanyshyn has been involved in public opinion polling since the mid-70s, first with the Institute for Behavioral Research at York University, then the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and more recently with ViewStats Research, a company he cofounded in 1997. He writes on the role of public opinion polls in matters of politics and public policy. His articles have appeared in iPolitics, The Hill Times, and National NewsWatch. For more, see his blog poll stuff.