I’m beginning to think this whole sordid campaign is being blown along by an acrid gust of distrust. The two main candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, are remarkably distrustful. They have set the modern standards for withholding information – his not releasing tax and health records, her not holding regular news conferences or quickly disclosing her pneumonia diagnosis. Both have a problem with spontaneous, reciprocal communication with a hint of vulnerability.
Both ultimately hew to a distrustful, stark, combative, zero-sum view of life – the idea that making it in this world is an unforgiving slog and that, given other people’s selfish natures, vulnerability is dangerous.
Trump’s convention speech was the perfect embodiment of the politics of distrust. American families, he argued, are under threat from foreigners who are as violent and menacing as they are insidious. Clinton’s “Basket of Deplorables” riff comes from the same spiritual place. We have in our country, she jibed, millions of bigots, racists, xenophobes and haters – people who are so blackhearted that they are, as she put it, “irredeemable.”
The parishioners at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, felt that even the man who murdered their close friends was redeemable, but Clinton has written off vast chunks of her fellow citizens as beyond hope and redemption.
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But these nominees didn’t emerge in a vacuum. Distrustful politicians were nominated by an increasingly distrustful nation. A generation ago about half of all Americans felt they could trust the people around them, but now less than a third think other people are trustworthy.
Young people are the most distrustful of all; only about 19 percent of millennials believe other people can be trusted. But across all age groups there is a rising culture of paranoia and conspiracy-mongering. We set out a decade ago to democratize the Middle East, but we’ve ended up Middle Easternizing our democracy.
The true thing about distrust, in politics and in life generally, is that it is self-destructive. Distrustful people end up isolating themselves, alienating others and corroding their inner natures.
Over the past few decades, the decline in social trust has correlated to an epidemic of loneliness. In 1985, 10 percent of Americans said they had no close friend with whom they could discuss important matters. By 2004, 25 percent had no such friend.
When you refuse to lay yourself before others, others won’t lay themselves before you. An AARP study of Americans ages 45 and up found that 35 percent suffer from chronic loneliness, compared with 20 percent in a similar survey a decade ago. Suicide rates, which closely correlate with loneliness, have been spiking since 1999. The culture of distrust isn’t the only isolating factor, but it plays a role.
The rise of distrust correlates with a decline in community bonds and a surge of unmerited cynicism. Only 31 percent of millennials say there is a great deal of difference between the two political parties. Only 52 percent of adults say they are extremely proud to be Americans, down from 70 percent in 2003.
The rise of distrust has corroded intimacy. When you go on social media you see people who long for friendship. People are posting and liking private photos on public places like Snapchat and Facebook.
But the pervasive atmosphere of distrust undermines actual intimacy, which involves progressive self-disclosure, vulnerability, emotional risk and spontaneous and unpredictable face-to-face conversations.
Instead, what you see in social media is often the illusion of intimacy. The sharing is tightly curated – in a way carefully designed to mitigate unpredictability, danger, vulnerability and actual intimacy. There is, as Stephen Marche once put it, “a phony nonchalance.” It’s possible to have weeks of affirming online banter without ever doing a trust-fall into another’s arms.
As Garry Shandling once joked, “My friends tell me I have an intimacy problem, but they don’t really know me.”
Distrust leads to these self-reinforcing spirals. As Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University observed recently, in distrustful societies parents are less likely to teach their children about tolerance and respect for others. More distrust leads to tighter regulations, which leads to slower growth, which leads to sour mentalities and more distrust.
Furthermore, fear is the great enemy of intimacy. But the loss of intimacy makes society more isolated. Isolation leads to more fear. More fear leads to fear-mongering leaders. And before long you wind up in this death spiral.
The great religions and the wisest political philosophies have always counseled going the other way. They’ve always advised that real strength is found in comradeship, and there’s no possibility of that if you are building walls. They have generally championed the paradoxical leap – that even in the midst of an avalanche of calumny, somebody’s got to greet distrust with vulnerability, skepticism with innocence, cynicism with faith and hostility with affection.
Our candidates aren’t doing it, but that really is the realistic path to strength.