Erosion of Trust

Alan Zendell, June 12, 2017

Mountains and huge institutions rarely collapse all at once. Under constant battering by opposition and internal decay, they erode a little at a time until, when their once-strong foundations have rotted to the core, they come crashing down.

We saw it happen to the Soviet Union almost thirty years ago. In retrospect the warning signs were clear. Despite the seemingly overwhelming power of the Kremlin, the satellite Baltic nations began demanding independence in the late 1980s. In the face of mounting revolutionary pressure at home, the Soviet Union’s resources were insufficient to stop the tide of history. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and one by one, subject states broke away. Even with all those portents, when the world woke up one morning in 1991 to find that the Soviet Union no longer existed, most of us were stunned.

Erosion is slow but implacable. Bits crumble, and eventually a weakened substructure is revealed. It looks to me like that is exactly what is happening to the Trump presidency. Independents who voted for him were the first to abandon him. In each of his five months in office, his popularity and approval ratings have steadily declined, until his support among his own party has dropped to around 80%, which political historians consider a critical danger sign. And his base, whoever they actually are, shrinks in every poll.

Last weekend, four Republican Senators spoke out. While none of them overtly withdrew support for the president, they were all highly critical of his behavior. It’s not difficult to read between the lines. They are not only embarrassed by this administration, they see its legislative agenda floundering with little chance of advancing ahead of the 2018 election. They’ve also seen Congress’s approval rating fall even lower than Trump’s, and that has to have their frustration level near the breaking point. Whether Trump survives or goes down, they’ll all still be there answering to angry voters.

Yesterday, Washington Post business writer Steven Pearlstein titled his Sunday column “It’s Time for Business Leaders to Dump Trump.” Business leaders are already bailing, with many large corporate CEOs having publicly distanced themselves from the administration which was supposed to be their champion. “Distancing themselves” is one of those phrases that implies a lot more than it says. If we’re hiking in the mountains and we see a rattlesnake on the trail, we put distance between it and us. When a tsunami warning is issued we get as far from the shoreline as we can. And when a massive ship is about to sink, people jump into lifeboats and get as far away as possible to avoid being sucked under with it.

And Trump’s cabinet? More and more we hear appeals to put country ahead of party. Secretary of State Tillerson looks exhausted every time he takes the podium. He is undercut almost every time the President tweets or speaks. How long can he be expected to support policies he strongly disagrees with?

Perhaps the most frustrated cabinet member is National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster. Pearlstein’s Sunday business column addressed that too. He drew on the distinguished military correspondent Tom Ricks, a big fan of McMaster. According to Pearlstein, “Ricks was encouraged that someone of [McMaster’s] intelligence, integrity, and experience would be there to educate the new president and restrain some of his worst instincts.” But after watching McMaster “contort himself and the truth over the past three months,” Ricks wrote an article in Politico urging McMaster to resign for the good of the country.

Attorney General Sessions was the first major politician to support Trump’s candidacy. He was rewarded for his loyalty by an appointment any ambitious lawyer would crave, but he couldn’t possibly have anticipated the quagmire his new job would become. He, like most of Trump’s supporters, held their noses at his campaign tactics hoping that once he was elected he would be different. They’ve said that for nearly five months, and things keep getting worse. Two months in, Sessions had to recuse himself from the Russia mess, and today under enormous pressure, after trying hard to avoid public testimony, he had to agree to appear in open session before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Does he wish he could turn back the clock?

Sessions is too good a politician to give false testimony, but what about Trump asserting that he too will testify? He repeatedly accuses James Comey of lying, but doesn’t seem to hear the silence that invokes on both sides of the aisle, where most observers believe Comey told the truth. Ask yourself honestly – do you believe Trump would lie under oath if he thought he could get away with it? Does anything about his conduct in the last two years, or in his entire career convince us he’d be truthful? And if his tweets and public statements, whether before Congress or anywhere else, continue to cause disruption and dig ever deeper holes for him, what then?

In the end erosion, like entropy, always wins.

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