A signpost called Trust at the crossroads of America’s diverging and evermore partisan pathways

Our fallibility and shortcomings as human beings are essential to our nature, and the trust that develops between us as individuals, as well as between us and our governing institutions, are how we can sustain this wild experiment that we know as the United States of America

Review: Trust – America’s Best Chance, by Pete Buttigieg, 2020, 215 pp., Liveright/Norton

Endeavoring to read and produce a review of a book called Trust amid the events of recent days was both a challenge and an unexpected inspiration. For Trust – America’s Best Chance, written by former Democratic candidate for President, Pete Buttigieg, is really about the lack of it – a reality so vividly on display in the United States today.

The volume is both a call for restoration of public trust, and an analysis of the danger lurking, should we fail to stem its rapid decay in the United States.

Turning the pages, the very worst of what is the focus of Buttigieg’s second book was playing out before the nation: The U.S. Capitol building, and the sacred institutions that it houses, came under an unprecedented and horrifying assault by an unleashed mob of partisans. At least as disconcerting, while this invasion began to pour down upon the seat of our government, efforts were under way inside to overturn the results of our most treasured mechanism of maintaining a cohesive society – our election.

We are still a young nation that consists mostly of the descendants of immigrants, some who came of their own volition and many others as unwilling slaves. Outside of the traditions and legacies held by indigenous groups, we do not possess an expansive shared history complete with ties to geography, culture, religion, and language, on which to build our society.

Instead, we rely on a created identity and shared narratives, whether real or fictitious, and our own innovations and inventions that include our Constitution, our system of government, our political process, and our individual places as a component of the larger American experiment. This fabric of ideas and institutions is what enables us to generate a sense of belonging to one another, and a foundation of trust upon which we can move forward, and perhaps most importantly, so that we can do so while feverishly disagreeing, without the collapse of our society.

Plainly on display during the traumatic events of Jan. 6, but throughout the highly contentious 2020 election cycle as well, partisanship in the United States feels that it might have reached a point of no return.

Within the pages of Trust, written over the summer of 2020 and published a month before Election Day, Buttigieg acknowledges the precipice of partisan furor upon which we struggle to find footing. Despite the chasm of decline and dissolution that lies below us should we fall, Buttigieg remains steadfast in his belief that these problems are fixable. But, he argues, we must be serious about restoring trust, because we are running out of time.

A puzzling panelist who then immediately made sense

Throughout the primary season of 2019 and into the early months of 2020, Buttigieg was my preferred candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. And for me, this electoral journey began many months before he was known to much of the country.

I first encountered Buttigieg, then the little publicized Mayor of South Bend, Ind., during my first semester as a graduate student at the University of Texas in late 2017. He appeared as part of a panel, How Cities Are Tackling Climate Change, during the annual Texas Tribune Fest. Alongside Buttigieg, the panel featured three prominent mayors or former mayors of Texas cities – Steve Adler of Austin, Annise Parker of Houston, and Ron Nirenberg of San Antonio.

I chose to attend the panel out of a keen interest in the subject of discussion but also, as someone new to Texas at the time, to get a feeling for who was leading cities in my new state of residence, and how they plan to tackle the crises of tomorrow. I remember thinking it strange to see Buttigieg included among the speakers, the mayor of a Midwest city with roughly 100,000 residents, I knew primarily as the home of the University of Notre Dame.

When the panel began, and I heard Buttigieg talk for the first time, his previously puzzling inclusion immediately made perfect sense. He was deliberate, clearly highly educated with an academic approach to sense making, and yet he managed to convey his ideas with an approachable and down-to-earth demeanor. I was impressed, and as one does to demonstrate approval in our modern, hyper-connected world, opened the Twitter app on my phone, and clicked the follow button.

In April 2019, much of the country would begin to experience something similar to what I had about a year and a half before. From the old Studebaker car factory in South Bend – a monument to the city’s membership in the faded manufacturing glory of the Rust Belt, shuttered over a half century ago – Peter Paul Montgomery Buttigieg, 37 years old, declared his intentions to run for President of the United States.

“My name is Pete Buttigieg. They call me Mayor Pete. I am a proud son of South Bend, Indiana. And I am running for President of the United States…  I recognize the audacity of doing this as a Midwestern millennial mayor. More than a little bold — at age 37— to seek the highest office in the land… There is a myth being sold to industrial and rural communities: the myth that we can stop the clock and turn it back… It comes from people who think the only way to reach communities like ours is through resentment and nostalgia, selling an impossible promise of returning to a bygone era that was never as great as advertised to begin with.”

Pete Buttigieg speaks to a crowd as part of his 2020 run for the Democratic nomination for President.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Buttigieg’s candidacy is historic for the fact that he was the first millennial, the generation to which I belong, to make a serious run for the White House. More importantly, and what I was unaware of until this time, Buttigieg would also be the first openly gay Democratic candidate for President, and second in the history of the United States, joining Fred Karger, a California political consultant who ran for the Republican nomination in 2012.

Coupled with his announcement that he was running for president, Buttigieg released his first book – Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future. All at once, Shortest Way Home is an autobiography, a memoir, and an almost academic book about proper approaches to policymaking.

Bolstered by the success of Shortest Way Home, a string of widely-shared appearances on television, and a fierce ground game of campaign stops, Buttigieg climbed the ladder from near obscurity to serious contender for his party’s nomination. He would go on to narrowly win the Iowa caucuses, becoming the first openly gay nominee in history to win primary presidential delegates. Buttigieg would ultimately not carry the nomination, dropping out of the race on March 1, and endorsing Joe Biden.

Buttigieg promised to continue the campaign efforts on behalf of Biden to defeat Donald Trump later in the year, but as with everyone else, the COVID-19 pandemic halted his plans. He found himself quarantined back in South Bend, with husband Chasten, and dogs Truman and Buddy, and like many of us, searching for a way to remain useful and contribute to the rapidly changing world outside.

A model of the acute crisis of trust in America

It was during these months that Buttigieg decided to write his second book. This time, his efforts would not result in another autobiography-memoir-policy prescription work about himself. This time, he would instead apply a similar approach to developing a comprehensive understanding of the idea of trust, and how trust is perhaps the most vital piece of reversing the alarming direction that our public discourse has taken.

Trust is a modest contribution – a signpost more than a roadmap. Its purpose is to suggest that we pay more attention to the central role of trust,” the books says. “Our country’s ability to meet this moment depends not only on the wisdom of our policies or the justice of our ideals, but on our ability to cooperate to achieve anything at all.”

Buttigieg goes on to lay out a threefold model in which trust itself faces an acute crisis in the United States:

  1. Americans distrust the institutions on which we depend.
  2. Increasingly, we distrust one another.
  3. The world trusts America less than perhaps it ever has.

To trace the origins of these crises, get a clear view on these crises as they are happening now, and to demonstrate the imperative of rebuilding trust to resolve these crises, Trust is divided into four distinct sections.

First, we begin with the Necessity of Trust. In this chapter, Buttigieg draws upon experiences such as getting scammed by a baseball card dealer in his childhood, his time in Kabul, Afghanistan as a naval intelligence office, his time as a presidential candidate, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, to provide clear examples of when and how trust fails, when and how trust succeeds, and the repercussions of both.

He explains, “Trust is a necessity – personal, social, political. Patterns of trust can be felt as vividly as an encounter between two young men in a war zone, or as unconscious and implicit as the relationship between one driver passing through a green light and the other stopping at red… Our very system depends on an intricate distribution of trust, and without it the basic premise of our democratic society falls apart. Yet access to trust in and by institutions, from the first days of enslavement to the present-day economy, has been deeply unequal in our country.”

Second, we move through the Loss of Trust. In this chapter, Buttigieg takes us through a few examples in American history that have contributed to the degradation of trust, including false advertising in the 1950’s and 1960’s for cigarettes by companies that knew and concealed the harmful effects of smoking on health, the efforts of the U.S. government to downplay or cover up the true extent of its actions during the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal that sent a sitting president into a shameful resignation, and more recently the dishonest politics behind “climate skepticism”.

He explains, “And so today we find ourselves in a kind of multi-direction tug-of-war with fellow Americans, all while edging nearer to a cliff. Across fifty years, through a combination of failed policies, amoral technologies, and concerted, deliberate attacks, foreign and domestic, we have lost access to the basic levels of trust that democracy demands.”

Third, we enter the here and now, Trust for a Deciding Decade, Buttigieg’s anointed moniker for the 2020’s. In just the first year of this decade, trust in American society has been put to the test in the most extreme ways.

In just 2020, a novel coronavirus emerges in China and quickly spreads to the rest of the world, but perhaps most lethal of all, a failure of collective action to respond to the pandemic in the United States produces a catastrophic death toll. An uproar of demands for long overdue racial and social justice, beginning with the murder of George Floyd on a street corner in Minneapolis, spreads across the country and once again lays bare the thoroughly distrustful and destructive relationship between communities of color and law enforcement. And an election cycle, which while Buttigieg wrote this book during the summer was among the most contentious that many of us can remember, but later deteriorates into a violent insurrection in the halls of the U.S. Capitol, which had not been breached with hostile intent since the War of 1812.

To attempt to address the experiences of the past year, Buttigieg takes us through a few other examples where trust has been pushed to the brink, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 2000 presidential election contested all the way to the Supreme Court, and the 2018 election for the Governor of Georgia marred by bitter charges of voter suppression.

He comes to a difficult conclusion, that we need to take serious efforts to mend the weaknesses in our system if we are to try to restore trust. He says, “Issues of democratic structure, process, and procedure have never been as sexy as the other issues of the day, but we have arrived at a point where it is as important to know what a candidate will do about voter registration as what as what they have put forward on say, health care, or taxes, or any other vital issue. Whether voters prioritize these structural issues will help to decide if the 2020s are to be remembered for what we built or for what was torn down.”

Finally, the book concludes with a chapter on Rebuilding Trust. Up until this point, this book is something of a very grim read, at least as grim as the events that occurred in the background while it was being written. But here, in the final chapter, Buttigieg wants to give us reasons for hope, and to motivate us to seriously commit to revamp and revitalize our sense of trust. To do this, Buttigieg reflects on some of his experiences as the mayor of South Bend during a time when the city had to reinvent itself in order to exist in the 21st century. He also draws on his decision to publicly come out as gay while serving as a mayor of a largely socially conservative city, in which perhaps not everyone was likely to respond with tolerance and understanding.

Most of all, Buttigieg wants to impart that our fallibility and shortcomings as human beings are essential to our nature, and the trust that develops between us as individuals, as well as between us and our governing institutions, are how we can sustain this wild experiment that we know as the United States of America.

He says, “Trust isn’t about perfection. It’s not about certainty. Trust only arises, is only needed, because we are so often less-than-credible beings. Trust in institutions is important precisely because we can’t all be checking in on them all the time. Trust in one another matters because we do not have the energy or the tools to be constantly verifying what others will do. The extraordinary power of trust is that it lets us proceed as though we are certain of what to expect from others, when the truth is that we are not.”

To conclude, I should address what has been a common reaction when I have recommended this book to friends and colleagues. The belief that Trust is mostly a book written by politician, who wants to make sure that his moment in the spotlight does not go to waste. And frankly, I do not think taking a clear opportunity to publish one’s ideas when their audience might be its largest and most receptive is necessarily a fault.

Instead, with Trust, Buttigieg demonstrates the same characteristics that earned my support as he sought the Democratic nomination for President – a patient and compassionate mind that expertly balances the academic and pragmatic sides of policymaking, with sympathy for those who have been left out by historical forces beyond their control, even those who are not likely to vote for him because he is gay.

As the incoming Biden administration takes office on Jan. 20, Buttigieg will be nominated as the 19th secretary of transportation. In this position, he will have opportunity to apply his uniquely cultivated insights and experiences to fixing the country’s crumbling infrastructure. If approved by Congress as expected, he will once again make history and become the United States’ first openly gay cabinet secretary.

He will join an administration that has a litany of towering tasks ahead of them, but none more important than restoring our collective trust. The three-fold crises of trust in the United States described in Buttigieg’s book is real. The visceral disgust many felt during the events of Jan. 6 should serve as reminder that all Americans, not just our political leadership, have our work cut out for us.

Few of us will remember 2020 fondly. But I hope, with the restoration of trust in our institutions and ultimately in ourselves, that as the year fades behind us we can begin to see one another again in the light of principle — shared principles of democracy, civility, and mutual respect. If we can do so, as Trust urges, we will remember the coming decade as a turning toward America truly becoming at one with its promise.

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