The Events that Made Americans Distrust Their Government: An Overview

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By Quentin Choy

For my entire life, it seems that government has always been distrusted by non-political people or those who don’t follow politics all that much.

Those who do actively follow politics and history share that same distrust, usually to a larger extent.

According to a 2015 poll by Pew Research Center, only 19% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (16%).

I recommend clicking on the link to the poll here to see the actual graph showing decline in overall distrust.

This post will aim to follow the chronological events in modern American history that chipped away at the levels of trust between the American government and its people.

  • 1964: Johnson’s continuation and escalation of the Vietnam War

    “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”

    This popular chant was shouted to Johnson from protesters outside the White House who had grown weary of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

    While Johnson’s domestic agenda of increasing civil rights and fighting poverty were popular, the Vietnam War proved to be his undoing.

    Increased numbers of U.S. casualties prompted calls to bring the troops home.

    Despite fighting for the poor and disenfranchised, President Lyndon Johnson’s legacy is forever clouded by his escalation of the Vietnam War.

    In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers. These documents revealed the atrocities being committed by American troops in Vietnam and were one of the factors in the war’s growing unpopularity among the American public.

    The Vietnam War’s escalation, atrocities, and cover-up serve as one of the most impactful causes of distrust in government by Americans.

    “America didn’t just lose the war, and the lives of 58,000 young men and women; Vietnam changed us as a country. In many ways, for the worse: It made us cynical and distrustful of our institutions, especially of government. For many people, it eroded the notion, once nearly universal, that part of being an American was serving your country.”

    Karl Marlantes in “Vietnam: The War That Killed Trust” from the New York Times
  • 1972: The Watergate Scandal

    Following President Richard Nixon’s involvement in plans to break into Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Office Building, he was widely labeled as a “crook.”

    Several people involved faced arrest, and President Nixon faced impeachment from Congress.

    Rather than face impeachment, Nixon resigned from the presidency in 1974, elevating vice President Gerald Ford to the Presidency.

    Watergate shook the American trust, seeing how political plots can rise all the way up to the White House.

    As President, Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon for his role in Watergate, causing the public to distrust politicians more, seeing them as only interested in their political parties and in power.

  • 1979: Iran Hostage Crisis

    Following the kidnapping of 52 Americans by Iranian students at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, President Jimmy Carter failed to negotiate their safe return.

    Iranians hated Jimmy Carter due to his support for the Shah, who many Iranian revolutionaries viewed as a puppet of the West.

    Americans grew distrustful of Carter and his ability to rescue Americans abroad.

  • 1985: The Iran-Contra affair

    The Reagan administration had been selling weapons to Iran, whom the U.S. placed on an arms embargo.

    The sales to Iran, a U.S. enemy was intended to fund the right-wing Contras in Nicaragua, meant to battle communism in the lens of the larger Cold War.

    Arms sales by the U.S. to the Contras had already been banned by Congress.

    Public trust was shaken knowing that the Reagan administration was selling weapons to a foreign enemy.

    Following the Oliver North hearings, Reagan’s presidency couldn’t escape the stain of Iran-Contra.

    The lies from administration officials led to a mistrust, and popular podcaster Joe Rogan cited the Iran-Contra affair as one of the “formative political experiences of his life.”

    “The first time I really got interested in politics was when Ronald Reagan couldn’t remember if he sold weapons to Iran. I was like, 21 years old, and I remember thinking like…what is happening?”

    Joe Rogan, host of the Joe Rogan Experience with Breaking Points with Krystal and Saagar

    George H.W. Bush pardoned Reagan of wrongdoing in Iran-Contra, stirring up more distrust of government.

  • 1993: The Waco Siege

    In 1993, FBI agents lay siege to a compound inhabited by the Branch Davidians, a religious cult in Waco, Texas.

    Led by David Koresh, the Branch Davidians were an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventists. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) believed that Koresh and the Branch Davidians possessed illegal weapons within their compound.

    Following the FBI siege as well as an unexplained fire, 76 people including women and children were killed at Waco.

    Some Americans viewed Waco as a violent overreach of the federal government, sparking the antigovernment militia movements.

    “I do not think the United States government is responsible for the fact that a bunch of religious fanatics decided to kill themselves.”

    President Bill Clinton

    The Waco siege inspired Timothy McVeigh to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing around 150 people.

    Other Americans viewed Waco as a tragedy, resulting in increased government distrust, but not as extreme as the antigovernment militias.

  • 1998: Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal

    Clinton’s most infamous moment as president was his involvement in the Lewinsky scandal.

    In 1998, news of Bill Clinton’s affair with intern Monica Lewinsky went public, and Clinton denied any involvement.

    President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

    “I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people.”

    President Bill Clinton

    Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1998 but was acquitted by the Senate.

    His blatant lying to the American people resulted in further distrust of the government by many Americans.

  • 2000: Bush v. Gore

    After the 2000 general election between Al Gore and George Bush narrowed down to Florida, recounts and legal battles followed.

    Gore won a case in the Florida Supreme Court for a recount, but Bush won the case in the Supreme Court, solidifying his narrow victory.

    In a 7-2 vote, Bush v. Gore was decided, and George W. Bush would ascend to the presidency.

    The narrow election and decision from the Court troubled many Americans who believed that the case was dictated by the personal politics of the justices rather than the evidence in Florida.

    While Gore had 500,000 more popular votes than Bush, he failed to win the presidency, and Bush v. Gore increased both partisanship and government distrust.

  • 2003: Invasion of Iraq

    Prior to the September 11 attacks, several people in George W. Bush’s administration wanted to continue war in Iraq, following the Gulf War in 1991.

    While they removed Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, they wanted to democratize Iraq and have a presence in the Middle East. The U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.

    To shore up support for the war, the administration linked Iraq to the 9/11 attacks and claimed that Iraq held weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

    With then-secretary of state Colin Powell’s false claims that Iraq possessed WMDs and with millions of Americans not seeing how invading Iraq connected to the September 11th attacks, the 2003 invasion was unpopular and predicated on false pretenses.

    Secretary of State Colin Powell holds up a vial of alleged anthrax, suggesting Iraqi WMDs programs to the United Nations Security Council in 2003. 

    “I said: ‘Mr. President, it isn’t just a simple matter of going to Baghdad. I know how to do that. What happens after? You need to understand, if you take out a government, take out a regime, guess who becomes the government and regime and is responsible for the country? You are. So if you break it, you own it.’”

    Colin Powell, Secretary of State

    The lead-up to the 2003 invasion sparked some of the largest antiwar protests around the world.

    The lies leading up to and justifying the Iraq War proved to be one of the main causes for widespread distrust of the U.S. government. When inspectors failed to find WMDs, millions of Americans realized the Bush administration lied to them about the war.

    Colin Powell resigned following Bush’s re-election in 2004, and Donald Rumsfeld resigned in 2006 following the revelation of American troops abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

    The Iraq War served as both a key factor of government distrust, with many believing the war was fought as a personal war by George W. Bush to avenge his father or even as a geopolitical war over Iraqi oil.

    For years and generations, wars have been fought over oil. In a short matter of time, they will be fought over water.”

    Vice President Kamala Harris
  • 2008: U.S. government bails out Wall Street banks that crashed the economy

    Following the collapse of America’s largest banks and insurance companies following massive deregulation of the economy, financial leaders asked Washington for money, explaining that should these banks fail, the entire global financial system could collapse.

    These banks, once deemed “too big to fail,” received billions of dollars from the government, sparking populist movements on the left and the right in the forms of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements.

    “Bankruptcy is part of the free market, but, like all other aspects of the market, its rules are determined through politics, and over the last four decades Wall Street has become far more politically powerful than Main Street. That’s why the biggest banks got bailed out and didn’t have to use bankruptcy, while homeowners did not get bailed out and were not allowed to use bankruptcy.”

    Robert Reich, former Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton in “The System: Who Rigged it, How We Fix It”

    Much of the information regarding the 2008 Wall Street Crash can be found here in this video by FRONTLINE PBS as it would take far too long to explain here. The video gives a nice, brief overview of the events.

    What prompted higher levels of mistrust from Americans than the bailout itself was the lack of help for ordinary Americans.

    I can’t explain much of the nitty-gritty about the recession, but this piece by Matt Taibi in Rolling Stone dives head-first into the nitty-gritty mess of details.

  • 2012: Benghazi Attacks and Congressional Investigation

    Following the Libyan Civil war which sought to topple President Muammar Gaddafi, a power vacuum swept through Libya, revealing sectors of society vying for power.

    A mob of Libyans attacked an American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, killing four Americans including U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens.

    Questions rose as to why the compound lacked security personnel, and the blame fell on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

    This piece from NPR goes through the chronology of the attacks.

    The attacks were investigated by a House Select Committee on Benghazi, led by Republicans. Issues regarding security at the compound as well as Clinton’s private email server came up during the hearings.

    Issues of Benghazi and her private email server played a role in Clinton’s failed presidential campaign in 2016.

    While the committee found no new evidence of wrongdoing by Clinton, Benghazi damaged the public’s trust in Clinton, the administration, U.S. intervention, and in the government as a whole.

  • 2013: Edward Snowden reveals unconstitutional NSA surveilling on Americans

    In 2013, Edward Snowden, former technical assistant for the CIA and employee for the National Security Agency (NSA) revealed to Americans that they were being spied on.

    The documents he released showed that the NSA and intelligence community could engage in mass surveillance operations on American citizens, without a warrant through their computers and phones.

    “I don’t see myself as a hero, because what I’m doing is self-interested: I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.”

    Edward Snowden, whistleblower

    With the U.S. government seeking to extradite Snowden for theft of government property, and two further charges under the Espionage Act, he sought asylum in Russia.

    “If I end up in chains in Guantanamo, I can live with that.”

    Edward Snowden, whistleblower

    Snowden’s whistleblowing revealed to Americans that their constitutional rights to privacy were being violated by the government and the intelligence community, leading to growing distrust.

  • 2017: Russiagate

    Following Hillary Clinton’s upset loss to Donald Trump in 2016, talk began to spread about Russian interference in the election.

    Clinton pushed the narrative that Russia had interfered in U.S. elections because they wanted Donald Trump to win.

    Trump was Putin’s puppet, a “Manchurian candidate” propped up by Russia and Putin himself.

    The story became more and more complex with words like “obstruction of justice,” “dossier,” “special counsel,” became commonplace in Democratic circles.

    Rachel Maddow covered the story endlessly on MSNBC, and Democrats like Eric Swalwell, Adam Schiff, and Jerry Nadler became targets of Republicans who classified the investigations into Trump as political witch-hunts.

    A special investigation was launched by Congress, with Special Counsel Robert Mueller as its head.

    After months of investigations that essentially led nowhere, a wilted version of Mueller, once called “America’s straightest arrow” testified, hard of hearing and forgetful of crucial details.

    Russiagate severely damaged U.S.-Russia relations and damaged American democracy and faith in elections.

  • 2020: The COVID-19 Pandemic

    Following the spread of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, COVID-19 was always mired in conspiracies and controversy.

    Everything surrounding the pandemic was highly-political and highly-suspect to Americans. Government-mandated lockdowns, quarantines, and mask-wearing weren’t trusted.

    Even the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic is still untrusted, as to whether the virus was natural or man-made in a Chinese lab.

    And to make things worse, the pandemic occurred during an election year in a highly-polarized America.

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases initially lied to Americans about the effectiveness of masks in protecting them from COVID-19.

    He urged Americans to stop buying masks, hoping to keep enough N95 masks in stock for frontline healthcare workers directly engaged with the pandemic.

    “The public-health community — and many people were saying this — were concerned that it was at a time when personal protective equipment, including the N95 masks and the surgical masks, were in very short supply.”

    Dr. Anthony Fauci

    Following these statements urging Americans to stop buying masks, many Americans were confused as to why they suddenly were required to wear masks.

    COVID-19 played a massive role in the 2020 presidential election. Mail-in ballots were used to prevent transmission of COVID-19, and President Donald Trump framed the coronavirus as the “China virus,” a foreign attack by the Chinese.

    Vaccines for the COVID-19 pandemic share just as much distrust as the virus itself.

    The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on American society, health, and politics demonstrated a massive distrust of government, especially with large crises.

  • 2021: The Big Lie and the January 6th Capitol Insurrection

    Following Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump continued to declare that the election was fraudulent and stolen in a campaign known as “Stop the Steal.”

    He lied about the election being “stolen” from him through “ballot harvesting” and other methods of election rigging. Many Americans, particularly Trump’s supporters believed that the election had indeed stolen from him.

    On January 6, 2021 Trump held a “Save America” rally in Washington D.C. in which he continued his claims of a stolen election.

    “And by the way, does anybody believe that Joe had 80 million votes? Does anybody believe that? He had 80 million computer votes. It’s a disgrace. There’s never been anything like that. You could take third-world countries. Just take a look. Take third-world countries. Their elections are more honest than what we’ve been going through in this country. It’s a disgrace. It’s a disgrace.”

    President Donald Trump

    On that same day, Congress was certifying the Electoral College vote count and Joe Biden’s victory. Some Republicans in Congress like Senators Ted Cruz, Kelly Loeffler, and Josh Hawley were prepared to object to the vote counts in swing states.

    Trump pressured Mike Pence to halt the certification, as he is the President of the Senate.

    “All Vice President Pence has to do is send it back to the states to recertify and we become president and you are the happiest people. And I actually, I just spoke to Mike. I said: “Mike, that doesn’t take courage. What takes courage is to do nothing. That takes courage.” And then we’re stuck with a president who lost the election by a lot and we have to live with that for four more years. We’re just not going to let that happen.”

    President Donald Trump

    When Pence refused to halt the certification, protesters chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” The insurrection at the Capitol began, and protesters broke into the Capitol through windows and attacked Capitol police officers.

    Lawmakers hid as reinforcements secured the Capitol building. Hours later, Congress certified the election results, but American democracy was badly bruised.

    Government distrust was on full display from several angles in the Capitol attack. Some Americans didn’t trust that the election was legitimate, and there are still people who think Joe Biden was illegitimately elected.

    Levels of distrust grew as Ashli Babbitt was shot dead upon entering the Capitol. Distrust also grew following increased National Guard presence in D.C., a special commission to investigate the insurrection, and arrests of participants.

Sources

  1. The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It by Robert Reich
  2. Vietnam: The War That Killed Trust, The New York Times
  3. Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government, Pew Research Center
  4. The Waco tragedy, explained, Vox
  5. The 2008 Wall Street Bailout, FRONTLINE/PBS
  6. Turns Out That Trillion-Dollar Bailout Was, in Fact, Real, Rolling Stone
  7. GEORGE W. BUSH: FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Miller Center
  8. Bush v. Gore, Miller Center
  9. BARACK OBAMA: FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Miller Center
  10. edwardsnowden.com
  11. How Did Russiagate Begin?, The Nation
  12. Fauci said US government held off promoting face masks because it knew shortages were so bad that even doctors couldn’t get enough, Business Insider
  13. Transcript of Trump’s Speech at Rally Before US Capitol Riot, US News
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10 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Quentin, my comment was intended to highlight just how easy and effortless it is to feed into a narrative that may be exactly opposite to what is intended. You may have intended to try to demonstrate where the problem of distrust resides, and so in a tacit way suggest where a solution may reside. But you’ve done exactly the opposite.

    In this case, the intention was to highlight reasons for people to distrust ‘government’ because of abuses of power or questionable behavior and decisions of those holding public office. But it is not true. That’s why I commented.

    It’s not ‘government’ that is untrustworthy; it is those IN government who sometimes abuse power or make bad decisions. By framing the reasons for this distrust and listing people IN government who you think caused this distrust confuses the object with the subject. You make a gross error assuming the people in office and the government are the same thing. They’re not. Biden is not the US government any more than Trump was the US government.

    So what you have done is offer people an excuse to target the wrong thing. But peoplel misuse this notion
    all the time to justify anti-government actions. It’s not government that’s the problem creating distrust as you unwittingly or unknowingly or perhaps intentionally have presented here; it’s people in government who abuse this public trust.

    Why does this matter?

    Well, if you want to find a solution to a problem, it matters a very great deal that you correctly identify the problem. If you don’t, your solution is guaranteed to be wrong.

    In this case, confusing the object with he subject (confusing ‘distrust of government’ because of actions by some people justifying distrust of THEM) matters because any potential solution to the abuses that cause mistrust does not reside in removing support from the government nor in tearing down our governmental institutions as if they are rotten. It resides in toughing up the rules that make abuses of power LESS LIKELY. In effect, you’ve advanced the thesis, this ideological narrative, that government is the problem. It’s not. In fact, it is the solution to abuses but you’d never know it from your post. In fact, your post justifies holding the government to blame for the excesses of abuse and bad policy by some people. You’ve got it exactly backwards.

  2. Quentin, excellent piece. Thanks for sharing some key parts in this process. The previous president continued on a theme of his critics “just did not like him” or “are part of a deep state” out to get him. As Michael Lewis said in his book “The Fifth Risk” the deep state are the folks who know what they are talking about and come to work every day and do their jobs to benefit us. Lewis wrote this book after reading all of the briefing materials that outgoing Obama people wrote for incoming Trump people. He also interviewed the outgoing folks.

    For the most part, the Trump people did not read the materials and blew off the meetings to share information. It should be noted since Trump fired his transition team, when he won, it took a long while to get people in place, some positions that never were filled. So, Lewis’ book focused on the risks that the previous White House chose never to learn. A lot of intellectual capital walked out the door or were shown the door. From climate change to nuclear risk, we were very exposed for four years and are likely still catching up.

    Keith

    1. Keith,

      Thanks! I’m glad that you enjoyed the piece, and thanks for sharing that fascinating insight about that transitional period. I had no idea about that!

      Thanks again,
      Quentin

  3. Great list! There is one thing you missed–or maybe it just didn’t fit with the goal of your article–and that is the fact that America has a history of politicians, particularly conservative ones, purposefully promoting the idea that government can’t do anything right, in order to undermine it. Reagan definitely stoked this fear–remember his famous quote, “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Government is certainly not perfect, but there is a movement in this country very willing to pounce on and exploit any imperfection for their own purposes–mostly deregulation and cutting taxes for the wealthy.

    1. eurobrat,

      I almost included that line in the intro for why many conservative fear government and its actions. However, I thought the introduction was already getting too long! Hahaha.

      I’m glad you were able to bring that line in to the post though, because it has a lot to do with shaping the perspective on what role government should play for many Americans.

      Thanks!
      Quentin

  4. Wow! You’ve summed it up nicely here, Quentin. Of course there are other, less noted, reasons for people to mistrust government, and the U.S. isn’t alone in this, but these are many of the major events over the last century that have certainly called government’s integrity into question. And today … the fact that about 1/2 of our elected members of Congress are putting their party ahead of the good of the nation is only adding to the mistrust, at least from my point of view. Good post!

    1. Jill,

      Thanks for the comment! I’m glad you liked It and hope that it clarifies the widespread distrust in government.

      Always nice to hear from you!
      Quentin

  5. Well, you are doing your part – unwittingly I suspect – to add to this sense of distrust of government. If that’s your intention and/or goal, then i supposed this is a good timeline. And you’ve done it without much thought by confusing the government with the people who have staffed it over this timeline and selected only those parts that support the thesis of why there is distrust. This is called confirmation bias and you would or should be significantly dinged in academia for doing this. You also make zero distinction between distrusting due to the abuse of power with distrusting government and, by extension, the institutions that make it up. This only serves to deepen the public misunderstanding and so, by default, increases the distrust. And this only serves those who seek to weaken the West in general and the US in particular… for whatever reasons they think are justified.

    Now here’s the thing you should have picked up from Churchill: liberal democracy is the worst possible form of government… except for all the others. There’s the rub.

    In other words, to understand and have insight into government generally, politics specifically, and offering some insightful benefit to problems like ‘distrust of government’, the academic compares and contrasts rather than pronounces. This is the ONLY way to gain some semblance of fairness and balance and creates the platform or foundation upon which to then build that which can effectively address the problems raised. And there ALWAYS problems, ALWAYS abuse of power.

    So empty criticism like this – and it only selects abuses of power to reflect ‘distrust of government’ only tears down. It undermines government. It undermines its institutions. It say, “See? Here’s abuse and so don’t trust government.” It’s right out of the Republican handbook. Those who do this are not so fondly called ‘Merchants of Doubt’ because THAT is what you’re selling here, reasons to doubt liberal democracy. Anyone can do that. (You should at least be paid for it.) It’s both easy and seductive and feels virtuous because you face mostly a non-critical and gullible population. But selling this doubt also has a malignant social cost you may not realize you are promoting and this is the main reason to be careful not to be fooled into doing the work of those who support the abuse of power!

    But learning how to compare and contrast honestly and on a meaningful and useful level is a learned skill and one that needs development. It’s not easy. It’s not seductive. And it causes hurt feelings because nobody likes to find out they’ve been duped.

    1. tildeb,

      Furthering animosity toward liberal democracies was not my intent for this piece. All I was trying to do was follow the events that led to such high levels of distrust in government.

      So it’s true that I went and picked out events that supported that idea. My goal was not to say Americans shouldn’t trust their government and democracies further.

      My intent was to simply say that distrust exists, and these events are what I believe led to a further distrust by Americans.

      Please know that I wasn’t trying to undermine any institutions or push anti-democratic ideas with this piece.

      Thanks!
      Quentin

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