It’s 1973. The Watergate scandal that would ultimately doom the presidency of Richard M. Nixon is roiling that administration. But it’s not the only breach of public trust dogging the Nixon White House.
Vice President Spiro Agnew was enveloped in a bribery scandal, dating back to his time as Baltimore county executive, when he took kickbacks from county contractors, a practice that continued into his time as vice president. Under active investigation from the U.S. Attorney’s office for suspicion of criminal conspiracy, bribery, extortion, and tax fraud, Agnew cut a deal. He pled guilty to a single count of tax fraud and resigned the office of vice president, replaced by Grand Rapids’ own Gerald R. Ford.
From this story we can extract two observations about our current political environment.
First, the execution of a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, the south Florida home of former president Donald J. Trump, was in a very specific sense something we had not seen before. It’s true that no former president has had his home searched by the feds. But in general, it’s far from the first time that high-ranking officials of the United States government have been under criminal investigation.
And even here we need further clarification. As Kevin Williamson so aptly and succinctly pointed out in National Review, “Donald Trump is a former president, not a mystical sacrosanct being.” Trump is Joe Q. Citizen now. Sure, he’s entitled to maintain some of the trappings of the presidency, like constant Secret Service protection. But he’s a private citizen, and law enforcement serves search warrants on private citizens all the time.
This brings us to the second observation about our political environment.
Americans’ faith in our institutions has been eroding over time. Since 1979, Gallup has been surveying Americans about their faith in 14 critical American institutions, such as the government, the media, the church, the military, and the judiciary. In 1979, 50% of Americans had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in these institutions. In 2022, that number hit an all-time low of 27%.
This cynicism toward the core institutions of civil society is far from unwarranted. The people in many, if not most, of these institutions have become cynical operators in their own right. As the social scientist Yuval Levin has regularly noted, people in these institutions no longer seek to serve them and serve the ends for which they were created. They seek to serve themselves by making these institutions serve them, often as platforms for vainglorious self-promotion.
While examples of this behavior are obvious in Congress and the presidency (Trump clearly saw the office, or at least the seeking of the office, as the only platform bigger than a prime-time TV game show), they’re also present in law enforcement, particularly the FBI.
The FBI has a long history of being a tool to serve political interests. For much of its life, it served the interests of J. Edgar Hoover, elevating him to probably the most powerful unelected figure in American governance, a man who had the dirt on just about everyone. For more recent examples, one need only look at the origins of and conduct of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation into the Trump campaign.
Based on a fraudulent dossier of salacious allegations, the FBI set out after evidence of collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. They found precious little. High-stakes FISA warrants were obtained on uncorroborated information. In the course of the investigation, an incestuousness among FBI agents politically opposed to Trump was revealed. The subsequent Mueller probe snapped up lower-level hangers-on in the Trump world but didn’t touch the Trump family, let alone Trump himself.
Meanwhile, large swaths of one of those other vital American institutions—the media—continually promised partisan viewers and readers that the walls were closing in on Trump. It was only a matter of time before Robert Mueller would dash into a phonebooth, rip off his suit and tie to reveal the Superman insignia, fly into the White House, slap the cuffs on Trump, and frog-march him off to Guantanamo Bay or wherever so he could never again trouble the sensibilities of decent Americans.
But none of that ever happened.
In a way outstripping their experience of the early to mid-70s, Americans feel like they’re being lied to constantly. By health officials. By law enforcement. By politicians. By the media. The result is an environment in American civic life where trust that things work the way they’re supposed to has nearly vanished. Citizens don’t trust their state. Political rivals don’t trust their counterparts. Neighbors don’t trust neighbors, especially when the slime of politics, which has seeped out of the one body of government that is supposed to handle politics has seeped into those neighborly relations.
Because people in positions of power and responsibility wielded that power without a sense of virtue or responsibility, we now suffer our current crisis.
Investigations, like the current one into Trump, necessitate a level of trust in the people carrying them out. The information that is public, and the information that can reasonably be made public in the course of an investigation, is limited. It’s typically the policy of the Justice Department not to comment on ongoing investigations or ever to acknowledge when an investigation has ended. So we’ll learn the bulk of the Mar-a-Lago raid story only after all the loose ends have been tied up. People need to be able to trust that those carrying out these serious responsibilities are doing so in an upstanding way.
In 1972, Spiro Agnew was compelled to resign because of his participation in a bribery kickback scheme that had little to do with his role as vice president, because people trusted those who brought those charges. Today, with that sense of trust absent, when former President Trump has his palatial mansion searched for evidence pertaining to potential violations of the Espionage Act and obstructions of justice, the result is political opponents once again believing that the walls are closing in on him even as supporters draw ever closer to his cause.
This isn’t what a well-functioning republic should look like. But it’s what you get when no one trusts anyone else.
(This op-ed appeared originally in the August 18, 2022, edition of the Detroit News.)