Is This a Crisis of Trust — Or Trustworthiness?

15 Nov, 2016


Is This a Crisis of Trust — Or Trustworthiness?

Donald Trump’s come-from-behind, polls-defying victory offers further evidence of the deepening distrust Americans have of big institutions.

Running as a political entrepreneur, Trump won despite an antagonistic relationship with his own party’s establishment. He was opposed by some of the biggest names in the country’s business sector — from Wall Street to Silicon Valley — and treated media elites and almost all political “insiders” with gleeful scorn.

Trump’s stunning win also speaks volumes about the electorate’s distrust of major pollsters — or at least of the prestige media’s ability to interpret the polls well enough to successfully predict the outcome.

Washington is a changed place, and public affairs professionals will now have to navigate unfamiliar waters. “There’s a sea change,” says David Demarest, the Council’s 2016‒2017 chairman and communications director in the Bush-Quayle White House. “It isn’t just the [Trump victory] that is significant. What strikes me is that there’s such distrust of regular systems of government. It’s significant that so many Americans have come to feel disillusioned and disenfranchised by government itself.”

These Americans’ distrust of the “mainstream media” will only be intensified by the election. As POLITICO Playbook put it, the “entire Washington political-media complex completely missed the mark. Not by inches or feet, but by miles.”

And those who have felt disenfranchised weren’t confined to Trump supporters. Bernie Sanders’ supporters expressed their own form of disenchantment during the Democratic primaries. Many are still angry with the Democratic National Committee, arguing that Sanders could have beaten Trump.

Robert Hurley, a professor at Fordham’s business school and author of The Decision to Trust, says the distrust of large and established institutions on display in the election should not be dismissed as merely irrational or uninformed.

“We don’t have a trust problem so much as a trustworthiness problem,” Hurley says. “Some of these institutions — Congress, notably — really are dysfunctional, and they send constant signals of their dysfunction. Absent a major crisis, members of Congress seem incapable of working together.”

Operating in such a fractious and uncertain environment will call for leadership of a high order.

With Republicans now controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, we’re accustomed to thinking that a high degree of bipartisanship might not be required. Under ordinary conditions, that would be the case, but this time it’s different: Republicans on Capitol Hill are hardly united on some key issues, such as trade and infrastructure spending. They are deeply divided even in their attitudes toward the president-elect, which some GOP members of Congress opposed. To enact their own legislative program, they will have to work amicably together, and there is no guarantee that they will.

Also, Democrats did pick up more seats in the House and Senate and will do what they can to make their voices heard. For all these reasons, we shouldn’t expect bipartisanship anytime soon, according to Council President Doug Pinkham. “Three things are required for bipartisanship in Congress,” he says. “One of those is a compelling national cause, like a crisis, to draw people together. The other two are strong leadership from the White House and a vibrant economy where people are willing to work together on issues such as trade and the environment.”

The election was tight enough that Trump can hardly claim a mandate. Given how intense the opposition to his candidacy was — from Republicans as well as Democrats — “reconciliation at the national level will be incredibly difficult and will take leadership from both sides of the aisle,” Pinkham says.

Even so, Trump can accomplish some goals with executive orders, and there is enough that Republicans do agree on that they can enact some policy objectives. And among these areas in which lobbyists can expect legislative action will be those of great importance to corporate clients, such as tax reduction, regulatory reform and health care.

In part because Trump lambasted lobbyists during his campaign, they might in fact see a boom in their business. Consultants and professional associations will be kept busy just trying to figure out for their clients and their members exactly what just happened politically and how it should affect their policy priorities.

Operating in such a fractious and uncertain environment will call for leadership of a high order. Trump has shown scant evidence of any capacity for compromise with his adversaries, which is one important characteristic of leaders.

There has been much talk about Trump’s statement that he intends to “drain the swamp.” He recently announced that that he will require lobbyists to deregister before working in his administration — and require that they not lobby for five years after leaving administration jobs. Although this is not an unprecedented move by an incoming president, there is still concern that there may be reluctance from his administration to draw on the expertise of lobbyists at a time when the Washington “outsiders” will need all the help they can get just learning how the federal government operates.

It will be interesting to see if Trump turns to outside expertise despite the rhetoric that came out of his campaign. Demarest remembers compromise and collaboration as key to some of the successes of the George H.W. Bush administration.

“I was fortunate to work with a president who understood that leadership requires resisting the reflex to demand that it is ‘your way or the highway,’” Demarest says, “That doesn’t mean abandoning one’s principles. He did not enjoy the luxury of working with a Republican Congress, but he still got the Americans with Disabilities Act passed and successfully prosecuted the first Gulf War. We still got a lot done on the international trade front. All these things were accomplished in a bipartisan way, by reaching across the aisle — and that will still be necessary to make significant progress on many pressing issues.”

In this turbulent climate, the challenge for corporations and trade associations “is to be a voice of reason, to demonstrate an understanding of all sides of an issue and offer creative solutions that people can work with,” Pinkham says. “The way to win is to merge our interests with the public’s interests and help politicians achieve meaningful policy goals. If we do that, then we succeed.”