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Trump could damage public trust in government for generations

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His actions threaten public trust not just in his administration but in the White House as an institution.
It’s a startling reality of the current White House: You can’ t believe anything President Donald Trump and his staff say. The latest example came this week — after on Monday found that Trump had about ISIS during a meeting with Russian officials. Reportedly, the gaffe came because Trump was bragging about the quality of his intelligence. “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day, ” he reportedly said. At first, White House officials insisted that the report was “false, ” offering that claimed “at no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed.” (The allegations never had to do with intelligence sources or methods, but rather the substance of the intelligence itself.) Then within 24 hours, Trump effectively refuted the White House press shop’s line — on Twitter Tuesday that he had given classified intel to Russians and arguing that he was allowed to do it. This wasn’ t the first time the Trump administration lied to the public — not even in the past week. Previously, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. At first, the White House insisted that Trump had fired Comey upon the recommendation of the Justice Department because Comey had mishandled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Trump later NBC News anchor Lester Holt that he was in fact “going to fire regardless of recommendation” and that the FBI’s ongoing investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 election was on his mind. As if calling his own White House staff’s bluff wasn’ t bad enough, Trump then went on to that the American public shouldn’ t expect “perfect accuracy” from his White House because he’s very busy. Before the FBI scandal, there was the very first time that White House press secretary Sean Spicer went to the podium. Then, he argued that Trump’s Inauguration Day drew bigger crowds than President Barack Obama’s — a claim that was easily disproved by of the crowds. Shortly after, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway infamously defended Spicer by arguing that the administration was “alternative facts.” This is not how the presidency normally works. It’s normal, if unfortunate, that all presidents and their staffs have misled the American public on occasion. But the Trump administration’s habit of lying even about basic facts is simply not normal. All of this has led me to a question: Could Trump’s lies and scandals damage the White House as an institution — not just while he’s in office, but in the long term? It’s not unprecedented. Political historians and scholars widely agree, for example, that the pervasive dishonesty of the Johnson and Nixon administrations during the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal damaged faith in the government in the long term. “If you have an administration where it becomes clear over time that the president is lying, that the president is manipulating the truth, [and] that the president is abusing power, that can have an extraordinarily damaging effect not just for him, not just for Republicans, but for overall confidence in government institutions, ” Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University, told me. Experts caution that it’s far too early to make any definitive conclusions about where this is all going. We don’ t know yet where the FBI’s investigation into Trump and Russia will end up. We don’ t know what other things Trump will do in the next four or eight years. We don’ t know whether the public’s blame for any scandal or bad outcomes will ultimately fall on Trump himself, the Republican Party, or the federal government. But the experts I spoke to generally agreed that there are some similarities between the political scandals of today and some of the bigger political scandals of the past — and that could be very bad for basic trust in government. Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor who studies mass media, describes the effects of the Vietnam War (where American involvement escalated through the 1960s and early’ 70s until the war ended in 1975) and Watergate (which ended with President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974) as “a one-two punch” on public trust. In public polls throughout the 1960s,’ 70s, and beyond, faith in the federal government plummeted. The American National Election Studies has Americans on the question, “How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right — just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?” Since the’ 60s, the number of Americans answering “just about always” or “most of the time” has generally been on a downward trend, despite some rebounds here and there. This goes beyond partisanship. It’s true that US views of government have become more polarized: Republicans generally report more trust in government if Republicans are in power, and the same applies to Democrats. But Americans have consistently reported far lower levels of trust — with a few exceptions, like after the 9/11 terrorist attacks — since Vietnam and Watergate regardless of party, based on. It’s hard to separate the Vietnam War and Watergate from other issues. The ensuing years also produced massive economic problems in the 1970s, the Iran-Contra scandal under Ronald Reagan, the Monica Lewinsky scandal under Bill Clinton, the lies that led to the Iraq War under George W. Bush, and the Great Recession. Still, the Vietnam War and Watergate played particularly large roles, experts argued, in sinking public trust in government institutions. “The American people felt lied to by the Johnson administration [over Vietnam] , and what Watergate does is just compound the problem, ” Timothy Naftali, a historian at New York University and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, told me. “You are already seeing a decline in government after Johnson. Nixon just makes it much worse, and brings it even lower. But it’s the combination — the one-two punch of Vietnam and Watergate — that sends trust levels down, and [they’ ve] consistently not risen from those levels.” This had consequences on policy. For example, the public generally became more skeptical of interventionist foreign policy after the Vietnam War — a phenomenon that supporters of interventionist policies often called Zelizer argued that Watergate also helped give rise to the “small government” mantra that Reagan championed and typical Republicans follow to this day on economic and regulatory issues: “It became a lot easier for conservatives to come in and say, ‘Yeah, we agree. Even though it was a Republican who was in office in 1974, we learned that government is corrupt, and that in the end markets are better.’ ” Whether this is good or bad depends on your political leanings. But the net effect is that the public and political leaders became less friendly to aggressive intervention in the economy, believing that the government was too inept and corrupt to be trusted. One caveat: It’s possible that the period after World War II was the outlier — people trusted government more in the aftermath of a major war and during a period of economic expansion. That would mean the current low levels of trust are really a return to the historical normal. Yet even if that’s true, levels of trust still fell after Vietnam and Watergate; it’s possible trust in government would have remained higher otherwise. The question now is whether we’ re seeing a similar dynamic with Trump. Scholars are skeptical of drawing any direct comparisons between Trump and Watergate, given that there is still no smoking gun on the investigation into whether his campaign and Russia colluded to sway the 2016 election. Still, there are some notable similarities between the Trump administration and the Nixon White House. As news of Watergate trickled out, “I would come home from classes or the library every day and I’ d tune in to the 5: 30 national news just to see what latest horrible thing came lumbering out of the forest, ” Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University, said. “Without saying this is like Watergate itself, there is that sense of, ‘What horrible thing or outrageous thing happened today?’ I have that same feeling that I had 40 years ago.” Unsurprisingly, this has greatly damaged public opinion of Trump: His approval rating now lingers at around 38 percent, according to. But what if this hurts not just Trump’s presidency but future ones as well — by leading to a situation that, like Watergate, damages faith in government in the long term? “Already we’ ve seen some debasement in the idea of what the presidency is, ” Zelizer said. “If you have someone who’s willing to tweet all kinds of outrageous behaviors and in some ways mock the institution, whether people like him or not, I think it’s already diminished some of the standing of the presidency.

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