Too Big To Trust

REVIEW: 'American Breakdown: Why We No Longer Trust Our Leaders and Institutions and How We Can Rebuild Confidence' by Gerard Baker

September 24, 2023

If you're a working opinion journalist in America, you've probably spent some time in the past few years toying with a book idea about our national crisis. The atmospherics of the moment all but demand it. What was once quaintly thought of as the news cycle has become a continuous blur of despond. Political problems crossbreed with cultural ailments and split opinions along lines so fresh and inconsistent that the terms left and right lose shades of meaning with each new debate. Wild claims disseminate via digital firehose and service competing ideological camps that no longer share a base reality.

And that's before we get to the significant failings of our recent elected officials, the scandals of our billion-dollar corporations, the prejudices of our legacy media, or the lies proffered by our public and private institutions. In other words, before we can even approach our real-world challenges, Americans are faced with an impenetrable fog of interests and biases that all but precludes thoughtful contemplation.

It's no wonder we've lost trust in just about everything. According to all major polls, American trust is nosediving across the board. We don't trust government, media, education, big business, technology, or one another. And this isn't merely unpleasant background noise. Mistrust and distrust are active players in the political and cultural life of the country, shaping our days as surely as any lawmaker, lobbying group, or media behemoth.

We could really use a grand theory right about now—something ingeniously simple to capture how we got here and point us toward clear solutions. But as Gerard Baker argues in the traumatically brilliant American Breakdown, the origins of our national trust crisis are complex and compounded, and it won't be resolved in one stroke.

Baker, editor at large at the Wall Street Journal, contends that the problem began with the United States' objectively poor performance on a number of fronts. "It's not that Americans have suddenly, for no reason, started distrusting institutions that merit trust," he writes. "It is that the institutions themselves have become untrustworthy." Here Baker wisely resists the low-hanging fruit of Trump-age resentment as an explanation in itself. "To focus on the most extreme and hateful manifestations of public disillusionment is to miss the underlying cause," he writes. "It is the guided leadership of the last twenty years rather than the response to it that explains America's current plight."

The evidence is compelling. As Baker notes, long before Donald Trump announced his candidacy, the United States entered a long and dispiriting foreign war on the strength of bad intelligence, a collapse of the American financial system halved the average net worth of middle-class households, the increasing flow of illegal immigrants was serially ignored, Big Tech grew rich by trading in customers' personal data, and social mobility began to stall. As Baker puts it: "To suggest that [Trump] is the architect of collapsing faith in America would be to assign him the kind of power and influence only he thinks he really wields."

After Trump was elected, he pounded away on the entrenched political establishment as the source of these mishaps. And then the establishment did its best to prove him right with a new batch of bungling and flat-out deception: the false charge of Trump-Russia collusion in the 2016 presidential election, the now hyper-partisan media's daily catastrophizing about conservatives, and the mistakes and misdirection of public health officials responding to the COVID pandemic. "Leading figures in public health across the country," writes Baker, "essentially inverted the scientific method," starting with answers and culling data to match. Americans noticed.

Baker adds to this run of failure the emergence of two complementary trends that were foisted on the public at the height of our national doubt: First, the rise of an "overclass that has more in common with its counterparts in London, Paris, or Singapore than it does with its compatriots in Louisville, Peoria, or Scranton." This is the Davos crowd, the influencers, institutionalists, and billionaires who disdain national identity and embrace climate change as religion. Baker's portrayal of the Davos set is peerless and one of the book's crowning delights. Consider his summary of Davos Speak: "Wander into a Davos session and you will catch stakeholders dialoguing and mainstreaming multifaceted metrics in a cross-platform environment before actioning toward implementation mode. It's English, Jim, but not as we know it."

These mainstreaming multifaceted muckety-mucks often find common cause with another emergent class that also speaks its own language: the radical ideologues of the campus left. What the globally minded Davos folks share with the identitarians and intersectionalists is a messianic disregard for the average American's well-being and, in some cases, a hostility toward his real concerns. Most important, the two elite forces pushed our culture and institutions in bizarre and damaging directions that do real harm to ordinary people. In something like ESG (Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance) investing, we see clearly how the two groups merge to shortchange everyday Americans in the name of globally minded heroism. ESG-guided funds invest your hard-earned money only in companies that meet certain environmental and social criteria, but they generally underperform funds that are still stuck on the crazy idea that making money for shareholders is paramount. "Not only are [Americans] forced to watch as their corporate overlords use their powerful positions to pursue ideological goals many do not approve of," Baker writes, "but they are actually paying for the privilege of it."

Baker astutely dismantles a slew of ailing institutions, devoting a chapter each to politics, corporate America, news media, science, education, and technology. Each is a gem packed with insight and wit. Noting, for example, in his chapter on education that a recent survey showed 80 percent of Harvard faculty identified as "liberal" or "very liberal," 1 percent identified as "conservative," and zero said they were "very conservative," Baker observes inarguably, "These are North Korean levels of political conformity."

But the book's great strength is in resisting causal reductionism and daring to approach the trust fiasco in its combined magnitude. No single factor can begin to explain it. In his chapter on social trust, Baker considers the three main causes of mistrust cited in scholarly literature: corruption, economic inequality, and racial diversity. They all appear to play some role in our present crisis, but none dispositively. After all, as Baker points out, Transparency International still ranks the United States as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. And from 2011 to 2021, "on an income basis, the United States actually became a slightly more equal society, and yet, levels of social trust have continued to decline." Similarly, polls have shown a gargantuan shift away from bigotry in this country over the last half century, yet "Americans of all races seem to have become markedly more pessimistic about racial harmony in the very recent past."

Baker knows the problem is more massive than any individual grievance. Indeed, he writes movingly about the challenge of massiveness itself. "The vast scale of the institutions may be justified in terms of economies of scale, or by the larger purpose they are serving, but dealing with these Brobdingnagian entities induces a sense of smallness in us," he says. It's an underappreciated point, and it applies to our interaction with businesses, universities, and government. They've become, in some sense, too big to trust.

Baker is modest and uncharacteristically vague about offering solutions. But this is apt, as nothing elicits mistrust as surely as confidently proposed fixes. And grasping the size of our dilemma, he surely understands that the best we can hope at the moment is a good wish list. He'd like media companies and universities to be more ideologically diverse in their hiring. He suggests more transparency from technology platforms, more accountability from big business, and so on.

If there's good news here, it's that opinion writers can stop worrying about their possible books on the great American crack-up. Gerard Baker has beaten them to it with a definitive account of our complicated and uncertain times.

American Breakdown: Why We No Longer Trust Our Leaders and Institutions and How We Can Rebuild Confidence
by Gerard Baker
Twelve, 288 pp., $30

Abe Greenwald is the executive editor of Commentary.