Whom Do You Trust?
By Steve Hochstadt
Whom do you trust? Many Americans might say, "Nobody." What they mean is that they don't trust any "official" sources of information. They listen attentively, however, to the crackpots of alarm. The ironic result, in an age of overwhelming access to information, is that many Americans are not only ignorant, but they believe in fairy tales.
Last week I wrote about how the belief of some Americans that their biggest enemy is their own government has increased gun sales. Many other writers have picked up this theme recently, as more and more right-wingers compare the US government to Nazis and Communists, claiming they need assault weapons for protection from tyranny at home.
The extreme voices against restrictions on gun ownership might distract us from a larger issue: those paranoid fears about a dictatorial government are just part of the broader American distrust of people who actually know what they are talking about.
Our major source of daily information about everything, produced by people whose professionalism and standards are admired across the world, is viewed with great distrust: in September, Gallup said that 60% of Americans had not very much or no trust in the national mass media. Most of the skeptics are conservatives who distrust media which they perceive as too liberal.
About 1 in 3 Americans has only a little or no trust in what scientists say about the environment. The doubters of science in general are mainly doubters of global warming in particular.
According to the far right, the nation's educators should also be mistrusted. Our whole system of colleges and universities is riddled with liberal bias; all the books written by all those professors are just propaganda. The very word "professor" is a term of scorn.
The Financial Trust Index created by the business schools of the University of Chicago and Northwestern University measures how the public feels about our financial system. In September, only one quarter of respondents said they trusted national banks. Only 1 in 6 trusted the stock market and large corporations.
The scare-mongers of the right say that reporters and scientists and teachers and bankers belong to a vast and secret plot being orchestrated by our elected government. The greatest doubters about government are those who think that it has already attacked Americans. In 2007, about 5% of Americans believed that the conservative Bush-Cheney administration "actively planned or assisted some aspects of" the 9-11 destruction of the World Trade towers and the killing of 3000 Americans. A much higher percentage now believe that the liberal Obama government is actively planning some form of dictatorial takeover of America.
The connection with partisan Republican politics is clear when you examine who promotes these ideas. For example, Floyd Brown developed the Willie Horton ad for George H. W. Bush in 1988 and founded Citizens United, which pushed for Bill Clinton's impeachment and challenged restrictions on corporate spending in elections. Now his Western Center for Journalism warns that the Department of Homeland Security is building a weapons center in Georgia in preparation for, well, he doesn't know exactly what, but he compares this to Hitler and Mao. In the final stages of the failed Romney campaign, Republican politicians and spokespeople announced their distrust of government statistics about unemployment and tax policy, and of any media poll which showed Obama in front.
I grew up at a time when many young people said, "Don't trust anyone over 30." During the '60s liberal Americans lost trust in government and in all "official" institutions. The accelerating dishonesty of Washington DC, including our Presidents, from the lies about Tonkin Gulf to the cover-up of My Lai to the Pentagon Papers to Watergate, seemed to prove that liberal distrust of government was a reasonable response.
Now it's conservatives who don't trust government or the official version of anything. Is that just the typical swing of the American political pendulum? Maybe, but here is a big difference. When all the facts were revealed, those who distrusted government during the '60s were shown to be right. Today the ordinary Americans who think that scientists and bankers and legislators and presidents are conspiring against America are possessed by crackpot ideas. They are being deluded and whipped into a frenzy by a tiny group of lazy but calculating people, who get rich and famous by shouting the loudest, most irrational, but also most dangerous lies they can conjure up about "traitors". Who are the traitors? They are all the people who have worked hard to acquire skills and knowledge about how the world works, about science and politics and finance and society. But if what they say makes you uncomfortable, it's much easier to latch on to the fables of the far right.
Those who mumbled that the world was coming to an end, that everyone was out to get them, that WE HAD BETTER BEWARE, used to get the treatment they deserved, medical attention for the mentally disturbed. Now those who offer the same message are given microphones and megaphones and millions.
Steve Hochstadt is a professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and the author of Sources of the Holocaust (Palgrave, 2004) and Shanghai-Geschichten: Die jüdische Flucht nach China (Berlin: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2007). This article was originally published at L.A. Progressive.