On a snowy day earlier this month, Washington, D.C., felt eerie. While the district rarely gets snow — the 41⁄2 inches it received that weekend were the most in years — it was hardly the only strange thing. From my stance on the east edge of the National Mall, my view of the Capitol and its dome, protruding nearly 300 feet above ground, was largely obscured by fences and military vehicles. It looked like a war zone.
That’s been the case since early January. Thousands of National Guard members have patrolled the Capitol grounds in Washington for nearly two months now. After Inauguration Day, when 25,000 Guard members were on duty in the city, many returned home. But high, razor-wire fencing still surrounds the Capitol lot, and some 6,000 uniformed and armed troops stand guard.
After the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, the increased security made sense. Federal law enforcement officials feared demonstrations surrounding the impeachment proceedings, and they continue to monitor threats circling around March 4 — the original inauguration date for U.S. presidents. (Some QAnon conspiracists are convinced Trump will be installed as president that day.)
Beyond mid-March, though, the National Guard’s future in the city is hazy. Internal communications suggest the troops may remain until fall, while Capitol police chief Yogananda Pittman requested some of the safety measures, including fencing, be made permanent.
A desire to protect our Capitol, our temple of democracy, is certainly rational. Preventing another Jan. 6 attack should be the desire and goal of every American. But what transpired that day was beyond a security breach. It was indicative of a movement that is invading and vandalizing far more in American democracy than the halls of its Capitol.
It was a physical manifestation of our nation’s decaying trust.
Americans are losing trust in their institutions, and when that trust is gone, mayhem arises. We see violence. We see attempts to subvert democracy, and we get armed guards patrolling the Capitol.
A moral crisis
David Brooks, the columnist and cultural commentator, warned us. In an October 2020 article in The Atlantic, he wrote that every 60 years or so, America goes through a moral crisis, of sorts. Those moments of “moral convulsion” are sparked by a general disgust for and distrust in society. Morality sinks; trust plummets; contempt skyrockets.
“These are moments of agitation and excitement, frenzy and accusation, mobilization and passion,” he said.
Brooks cautioned that America was on the verge of one of these moments. The COVID-19 pandemic, the social unrest and the pandemonium of an approaching election proved his point. But the “polarization” pundits decried — and the “unity” policymakers continue to invoke — are simplistic propositions of a much more complicated, and much deeper, issue.
America has a trust problem. We are divided on what and who and how we trust.
One recent Pew Research Center report said, “One of the few things that Republicans and Democrats could agree on during Trump’s tenure is that they didn’t share the same set of facts.” During the Trump presidency, Americans on different sides of the political aisle turned to opposite sources for information: one Pew survey, which asked voters about 30 media outlets, found that Democrats trusted 22 of them, while Republicans distrusted 20. The two sides trusted “two nearly inverse media environments,” the report said.
The mistrust in the media — sparked by the fractured, partisan nature of national broadcast, digital and print outlets, the media’s own missteps, and Trump’s branding of media as “the enemy of the people” — led to an onslaught of confusion about facts and truth. More Americans now say made-up news or information is a bigger problem than violent crime, climate change, racism, terrorism or sexism, Pew reports.
The media isn’t the only institution that’s seen a dropoff in approval. As recently as 1985, organized religion topped the list of Gallup’s most trusted institutions. Today, just 36% of Americans have confidence in organized religion — an all-time low.
Government is not much better. In 1964, 77% of Americans said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing all or most of the time. In January of last year, an Ipsos poll reported the level of trust at 53%. By July, as economic struggles, racial tensions and the pandemic conglomerated, that number dropped below 30%.
Perhaps the only thing more worrisome than declining trust in institutions is declining trust in one another. The vast majority of our nation’s adults — nearly 4 in 5 — say we have too little confidence in our fellow Americans, according to Pew.
Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and Utah writer Shaylyn Romney Garrett note that America has been here before. In their new book “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again,” they discuss America’s historic levels of trust as an inverted U-curve — peaking with high levels of community, cooperation and interdependence, then settling into higher levels of independence and egoism.
This curve — from “I” to “we” to “I” — charts where America is now, and where we go next. “Whether we continue in our downward drift or reverse course through a process of mastery depends entirely upon our exercise of agency,” Romney Garrett wrote in a Deseret News op-ed late last year.
This decline is reflective of a deeper mistrust than skepticism for institutions. Social trust, this ability to confide in the people around us, is the truest measure of the “moral quality of a society,” Brooks wrote. “When people in a church lose faith or trust in God, the church collapses,” he continued. “When people in a society lose faith or trust in their institutions and in each other, the nation collapses.”
As I walked around the perimeter of the Capitol grounds, blocked off by fences 10 feet high, I thought of how we got here. The Guardsmen, cold and tired, protect our Capitol from a threat they hadn’t seen in over a month. They pass the time humming to themselves or whistling at birds. I saw two of them attempt to corner a squirrel and catch it in their backpack.
These are women and men with day jobs and families. But their deployment at the Capitol, for the time being, is deemed necessary. An armed guard around the People’s House is the result of distrust and betrayed trust. The central tenets of democracy are trust in one another and trust in our institutions. When we lose one, democracy cannot function. When we betray both, democracy cannot stand.
Blame for the Jan. 6 attack has been leveled on all sides. Some spread the lie that it was spearheaded by antifa or other left-wing groups. Some falsely chalk it up to some combination of left-wing rioters, uninformed Republicans and about “150 knuckleheads” who support Donald Trump. Many others, like House minority leader Mitch McConnell, place the blame squarely upon Trump and his supporters. “74 million Americans did not invade the Capitol. Several hundred rioters did. And 74 million Americans did not engineer the campaign of disinformation and rage that provoked it. One person did,” McConnell said.
Falsehood, then, is the chief perpetrator of the attack on our Temple of Democracy. “It is the lie that caused the division,” Sen. Mitt Romney affirmed. “It is in the service of that lie that a mob invaded the Capitol on January 6th.”
But American mistrust did not spawn with this election process, nor was it the result of the election alone. Distrust has been building for years. Distrust is what gives the political extremes a voice. Collective distrust is the only fuel populism needs to take hold.
The two sides of distrust
Researchers at VU University Amsterdam chalk up “institutional and political distrust” as the common thread weaving extreme right-wing and left-wing political groups in European democracies together. Extreme American groups are no different.
Distrust is not always a bad thing, though. Distrust is a fundamental part of democracy when used as a tool to keep power in check. This “liberal distrust,” as political scientist Eri Bertsou writes, is already built into democracy — in checks and balances, in the Constitution, in governmental controls. (“Liberal,” in this sense, is a reference to classical liberalism.) But when citizens believe these monitoring institutions have failed, and take matters into their own hands, distrust turns from a tool to a weapon. While liberal distrust aims to “avoid the creation of a distrusting citizenry,” Bertsou explains, political distrust does just that — and impedes governance.
America is wading through a rolling sea of distrust — and not the good kind. When liberal distrust should have prevailed, political distrust won the day.
Standing in the cold
As an epidemic of distrust continues to spread, our National Guard is playing the role of the front-line workers — taking the brunt of others’ negligence. When they could be at home, working their civilian jobs and spending time with families, they spend long hours in the cold, rest in parking garages and stand guard against an invisible threat. (“They signed up for it,” one Capitol policeman told me gruffly.)
The purpose of the Capitol building they guard, and of a centralized government, is to govern. The legislative branch creates law and serves as a check to other branches. It exercises this liberal distrust. But when political distrust overrules, fueled by anti-governmental populism, Congress needs to be protected.
The American republic was won by guns and soldiers, but it shouldn’t have to be guarded — at least internally — by the same. I doubt Congress, when ratifying the 12th Amendment in 1804, envisioned votes being counted in a locked-down room with an armed guard holding off a mob. Democracy isn’t meant to function that way. A government for and by the people should be supported by the people, not hindered by them.
The best form of long-term Capitol defense, then, is not the National Guard, but trust in each other. That starts with a willingness to listen. Immediate threats call for immediate solutions. But a functioning democracy — and one that promotes transparency and tact — demands trust. There is no other solution.
One part of the solution is the leaders we select. A trustworthy government requires trustworthy politicians — ones that promote trust in our institutions, like our elections or our checks and balances, not cloaks them in skepticism. But the biggest victim of our current state of distrust may not be distrust in political leaders. Rather, it starts from the bottom.
The cankerous political discord has torn families and neighbors apart, as Deseret News opinion writer Aubrey Eyre recently illustrated. The physical isolation accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic, though necessary, has likely deepened those divides. A year before the pandemic, Pew data showed 79% of Americans believed we had too little confidence in each other. Rebuilding that confidence, especially with neighbors, co-workers or other casual acquaintances, is difficult when we rarely interact in person.
The best form of long-term Capitol defense is not the National Guard, but trust.
Trust in religious institutions is tanking, too, and a growing number of Americans have replaced church community with political tribalism. And as America becomes more secular, the role of churches in society — especially local congregations that traditionally play a humanitarian role in the community — becomes less defined. But growing numbers of believers, too, are stepping aside from organized religion and pursuing spirituality on their own. The solution for churches, as Yuval Levin writes, is to offer more and demand more; as churches become less congregated, they require less on the part of their congregants. “A recovery of trust in our religious institutions first requires a recovery of confidence on their part as well,” Levin said.
Community organizations, in general, no longer have the sway they once did. Putnam and Romney Garrett highlight the role of community organizations in their book “The Upswing.” During the first societal revival they discuss in the late 19th century, a number of organizations were formed: the NAACP, the American Legion, the Boy Scouts, the United Way, the Salvation Army USA. Today, such organizations are outshined by super PACs, social media and grassroots activism — which all have their place, but do little to build community trust across the board.
When we lose trust in government, we prevent government from functioning. When we lose trust in each other, we lose the essence of democracy. And when we let distrust create factions and fuel clans, democracy has to be guarded by rifles and soldiers.
Small, heroic acts
None of the guards around the Capitol wanted to talk to me. “We’re not allowed to answer questions,” was the most common response, even when (or especially when) I introduced myself as a journalist. The most I got out of one was that he’d been in Washington since before Jan. 6, and that he’s from California.
Most still have no idea when they are headed home. The National Guard doesn’t have to be at the Capitol permanently, though. Likewise, our deployment of distrust need not be a perpetual American fixture. We can’t expect the solution to come from Washington. Restoring trust may be aided by political leaders, but it starts with individuals.
The heart of America is not on Capitol Hill, as Deseret News opinion editor Boyd Matheson likes to remind us. “The heart and soul of America can only be found in the heart and soul of the American people,” he wrote. The inverse, too, must be true — the distrust that cankers the American psyche is not headquartered in Washington. It’s latched onto the hearts and souls of factions of Americans.
If we wish to purge the distrust in our institutions, we must first purge distrust in one another. Healing our country’s polarization will be awfully difficult until we view our neighbors and family members as such, not as political opposites. Pledging loyalty to extremism is much more difficult when you know loved ones are hurt by that decision. It’s much easier, however, if you limit your social circles to only those who think the same.
With vaccine rollout underway, the coming months will serve as a collective healing moment for our country from the virus. But the virus of distrust, too, can start to seep away if we begin to restore trust in each other. Returning to school and work can be an opportunity to find rapport in a co-worker or a classmate. Returning to the pews may require forgiveness for a lay leader or a fellow worshipper. Returning to the political arena — whether the voting stall or the public square — may require a degree of humility or submission.
These “small heroic acts,” as David Brooks calls them, are our path out of distrust. We won’t awake tomorrow with reborn trust in government or organized religion or community organizations. But we can arise tomorrow with a resolve to mend relationships with the people closest to us — we can mend social distrust at the most intimate levels.
From the extremes, everyone looks like enemies. That’s not how a government by the people should function. And a family, or a church, or a community is even less serviceable when populated by perceived adversaries.
Once we restore trust in individuals, our institutions can again function. There is power in like-minded people rallying together, and in differently-minded people finding common ground in structured ways. When we are united by trust in overarching principles and institutions, our democracy is safeguarded. “Ultimately, our ability to rebuild trust depends on our ability to join and stick to organizations,” David Brooks wrote.
Trusting individuals and organizations starts at ground level — in families, in neighborhoods, in communities. But our government was not built upon isolated states in America. We yearn for unity — to be united. Trust is what unites us. If we trust our institutions, we trust our collective Americanism.
Trust guards democracy
National Guardsmen may be gone by fall, but curing our nation’s malady of distrust will take longer than a few months. But it can start much sooner. While the guard continues to pace around our Capitol, we can start rebuilding relationships and social circles. Finding a place in organizations we believe in is tantamount. Finding a place in organizations we believe in, alongside people we may disagree with, is even better.
Guarding our democracy with trust is far more efficient — and far more feasible, in the long term — than doing so with guns and rifles. Restoring trust among individuals will not be done by armed crusades or feigned friendship. After a year of digital interaction, we’ve learned to communicate from a distance, yet we yearn for something real.
Should the American experiment ever fail, her demise will not come from an external threat, but from internal distrust. “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher,” Abraham Lincoln once said. “As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Even so, this nation of freemen continues its march with an armed guard around its Capitol. We have no power to adjudicate their arrival or departure. What we can decide, though, is when we reign in the extremes and restore trust.
As I stood just west of Union Square, peering through the fencing at a group of National Guardsmen, a biker zoomed past. “It’s like the ‘Twilight Zone!’” he shouted.
Not quite, I thought. This isn’t fictional or black-and-white. This is our democracy, in full color, trying to heal.
And the only possible remedy is a restoration of trust — starting with the people closest to us.