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Collective vs. Individual Mistrust

Is collective mistrust of government the result of realistic failures?

Key points

  • Americans' trust in government is at an all-time low.
  • Confidence in newspapers and television news is also at an all-time low.
  • Collective mistrust taps into widespread individual mistrust.

In 1958, about three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time. But trust in government began eroding during the 1960s, amid the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the decline continued in the 1970s hitting a low point in 1973 with the Watergate scandal and worsening economic struggles. Confidence in government recovered in the mid-1980s during the Reagan years but fell below the Watergate-era numbers in the early-1990s. Public trust reached a three-decade high shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks but declined after it turned out that the intelligence assessments of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were incorrect. Since 2007, the share of people saying they can trust the government always or most of the time has not surpassed 30 percent. Today, two in ten Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time.

The New York Times reported that after news of the Justice Department’s inquiry into former President Trump’s handling of confidential documents, voters held nearly identical views from those earlier in the summer on whether they thought he had committed serious federal crimes. The public’s view of Mr. Trump’s fight against the election results also remained largely unchanged, with 38 percent saying he had just exercised his right to contest the election. New facts have no effect on more than one-third of the American public (Ruth Igielnik, September 22, 2022).

Americans' confidence in newspapers and television news has fallen to a new low. Just 16 percent of U.S. adults now say they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in newspapers and 11 percent in television news. Confidence in television news was at its highest in 1993—46 percent.

How can we understand this collective lack of trust? Is it a result of realistic failures of the government or is it something else?

No doubt there have been many examples of the government mishandling national problems—most recently the Covid pandemic and the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. However, the Biden administration has also responded nimbly to the Russian attack on Ukraine and Congress has passed more meaningful legislation in the last year than has passed in the last 10 years. But that does not seem to influence the lack of trust in the government. This year's Gallup poll marks new lows in confidence for all three branches of the federal government—the Supreme Court (25 percent), the presidency (23 percent), and Congress. Perhaps we have to look at a psychological explanation for this widespread lack of trust.

An individual who was traumatized in childhood has little reason to trust others and will reject information that is inconsistent with their pre-existing beliefs. As therapists, we may consider such people “hard to reach,” yet they are simply showing an adaptation to an environment where information from attachment figures was likely to be misleading. Many forms of mental disorder are manifestations of basic mistrust, hypervigilance, or a complete inability to trust others as a source of knowledge about the world.

President Biden often uses the refrain, “Trust me…” But that is a problem. There is a wide swath of Americans, including most Republicans, who do not trust him or anyone else in authority. Supporters of former president Donald Trump trust him because he rails against established authority and articulates their basic mistrust. They rail against Anthony Fauci and refuse to be vaccinated. Eighty-one percent of the “definitely not” group are more likely to believe the false ideas that vaccines contain fetal cells, cause infertility, or change our DNA. This may explain why they think the vaccine is a bigger risk to their health than COVID-19.

When Trump took a more conciliatory position about Covid and told a crowd in Dallas that he took a Covid booster shot, he was booed. Donald Trump has an uncanny knack to tap into basic mistrust either because he shares it or he is able to intuit it and manipulate it for his own ends. But either way, the widespread vein of mistrust that runs through American society goes beyond Trump. Charles Lindbergh, Charles Coughlin and Senator Joseph McCarthy were able to mobilize it as well.