Where we are now in the world and in politics is astonishing to many of us. The rise of Trump and the vote for Brexit have been characterized by a lack of trust. In both cases, British and American voters decided they cannot trust the prevailing political and economic climate. People also no longer trust news sources and simply choose to side with the source that shares their political bent.
Is this populism or is it something more vehement? When trust in specialists and experts collapses, it could be an early sign that society is set to collapse. That's because we are each specialists and experts in our own way. If you can't trust experts who specialize in politics, science, economics, and the dissemination of information, then whom can you trust? In the end, what makes these people different from you and me?
Politicians aren't much more than glorified motivational speakers, and just about anyone can become a motivational speaker, but it still helps to have a certain level of expertise. Looking behind the scenes at what it takes to become a motivational speaker, "Charisma can take you only so far. Expertise and experience grant you credibility." You should "pinpoint areas of expertise that will be able to assist you as a successful orator. This might or might not include academic excellence, workplace success, new discoveries, a remarkable life story and the list can go on forever."
Expertise and experience help speakers motivate people. Yet all manner of expertise and experience didn't motivate people to vote for any of the politicians who ran against Trump. Nor did the expertise of EU administrators prompt British voters to remain in that union. Both Trump and the Brexiters used polemics to capitalize on our ever-growing lack of trust in politicians, experts, and the media.
"This isn't just about politics," says sociologist and political economist William Davies. "In fact, much of what we believe to be true about the world is actually taken on trust, via newspapers, experts, officials and broadcasters." Davies points out that a climate of continuous scandals coming to the surface has led people to stop trusting "elites."
I would contend it's even more than a lack of trust in elites and news organizations. This is about our growing lack of trust in each other, and it's the people who use polemics to extort our lack of trust. Somewhere along the way, it became more appealing to vote for someone who said, "This is a bunch of baloney, and I'm going to change things." Whoever says they're going to change the system is someone we want to vote for. Yet why do we trust them? What makes them more trustworthy than the people who are in the system?
Our view of evidence works in strange ways. Ostensibly, we use evidence to create policy. Researchers from Princeton and Stanford devised a study to test how evidence affects policy-making. The researchers instructed two groups of people to imagine they were loan officers. A recent college graduate with a good credit history and a well-paying job was applying for a mortgage loan. Researchers told the first group of participants that the applicant hadn't paid a $5,000 debt on a credit card. They told the second group that the applicant's debt was either $5,000 or $25,000. They gave the second group time to think about whether they should grant the mortgage loan, and gave them the opportunity to wait until further evidence came up, or make the decision. Then, after a bit of a wait, they told the second group the figure was $5,000.
You would think the latter group would be more likely to deny the loan. After all, at the outset they knew the applicant hadn't paid off a debt that was at least $5,000, and could have been $25,000. But the uncertainty and lack of clarity led this group to be much more lenient. Only 21 percent of group-2 participants denied the loan, while 71 percent of group-1 participants -- the people who knew the loan applicant owed $5,000 right away -- denied it.
Now, imagine the person asking for the loan was Donald Trump. When he ran for President, he asked people for a vote of confidence. However, he wouldn't release his tax returns. Shouldn't his lack of clarity have been enough evidence right away to condemn him? It wasn't. Since people didn't have enough hard evidence he's a crook, they gave him the benefit of the doubt, just like the people who gave the loan applicant in the study the benefit of the doubt.
At the same time, some people are losing trust and not giving the benefit of the doubt to, for example, scientists who claim they have evidence of climate change. Or, they're losing trust in news outlets that report what scientists say.
According to Davies, the allegation is that "public life in general has become fraudulent." When Trump calls the press "enemies of the people," he makes the allegation that press is fraudulent. Now, we have Trump's own fixer, Michael Cohen, claiming Trump is fraudulent. In an interview with ABC, Cohen said, "[Trump] knows the truth. I know the truth. Others know the truth. And here is the truth: people of the United States of America, people of the world, don't believe what he is saying. The man doesn't tell the truth. And it is sad that I should take responsibility for his dirty deeds."
He's talking, of course, about how Trump instructed him to make hush-money payments to porn stars and now Trump denies it.
The fraudulent nature of Trump's presidency is clear, and here's another clarity and truth we need to recognize: we're sitting on a nuclear powder keg involving two world powers whose leaders are untrustworthy. America has 1,267 deployed strategic warheads, while Russia has at least 1,796.
The situation is more dangerous than any of us suspect. Trump has already removed us from the Iran nuclear treaty, effectively demonstrating our enemy status with Iran, and Russia supports Iran. Putin is improving Russia's relationship with China, even as Trump has stoked up a trade war with China. Furthermore, Trump's Africa strategy is designed to go against both China and Russia.
None of these things might equal nuclear war, but we shouldn't trust Trump not to go to war in the event that he can find an excuse. He has no expertise, just polemics. Eventually, those polemics could hurt America more than we've ever imagined.