- We are fast becoming a country with trust issues. Tweet This
- The working class and the college-educated increasingly don’t know each other, separated (as in my town’s case) by hills and valleys, gated subdivisions and old downtowns. Tweet This
- The political polarization in 2020 is a symptom of other divisions—especially the racial, class, and marriage divides that have stoked a massive crisis of trust and led us to the brink of a national divorce in the American family. Tweet This
“You ready for the civil war?” my neighbor asked me recently with all seriousness.
His question surprised me. My neighbor, a retired man in his sixties, brought up the subject out of the blue, after stopping my 2-year-old son and me on our walk to the corner store. He had just finished telling me to be sure to stop at the church up the hill to get my family a free “Trump box” of fresh farm items: milk, cheese, onions, apples, and other goods. He said the church had hundreds of boxes, and that he’d personally be distributing about 20 to elderly neighbors and his tenants, some of whom had kids that were going hungry. The “Trump boxes,” which contained a letter signed by President Trump, were the result of a coronavirus bailout to farmers, my neighbor told me. He apparently approved.
“You have a freezer?” he asked. “Put some gallons of milk in your freezer.” That’s when he brought up the civil war question.
My neighbor’s property is bedecked in Trump regalia, a common occurrence in our small white, working-class town in southwest Ohio: a “Trump Rambo” banner of the president brandishing a machine gun, a Trump 2020 sign hanging from the decorative windmill in the yard, a Trump flag flying on the front porch, and a Trump 2020 sign planted in the front yard.
When I asked what he meant by a civil war breaking out, he pointed to the recent kidnapping plot by as many as 14 men against Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a plot he condemned. He then quizzed me on whether I had a 2-month stockpile of food and warned that I had better be prepared—the way we weren’t prepared for the coronavirus, he pointed out.
My neighbor isn’t alone in worrying about impending violence after the election. A new poll commissioned by Braver Angels, a citizen’s organization to depolarize America that I cofounded, shows that 56% of Americans worry the election will result in more violence. Celebrities and citizens alike openly wonder how they can remain in America if their presidential candidate loses in 2020.
But the political polarization we experience in 2020 is a symptom of other divisions—especially the racial, the class, and marriage divides. These are divisions that have stoked a massive crisis of trust and led us to the brink of a national divorce in the American family.
Later that day, I took my four-year-old son in a stroller to talk with other neighbors about how they were feeling about the 2020 election. My first stop was at the front porch of another neighbor with a Trump sign in his yard.
“Trump was the first presidential candidate I ever voted for,” he said about his 2016 vote. A retired construction worker and ironworker, he said he trusted Trump.
When I asked why, he responded,
Just for what he stands for and what he believes and does. Just what he’s accomplished on his own. Even before he became president, he accomplished a lot of goals himself. I mean, he’s a self-made millionaire. He’s worked for everything he’s got. I’m sure there’s shady deals—real estate is shady anyway…. Ain’t nothing that’s perfect. But you always got to build something.
Did his construction background help him trust Trump?
“Could have,” he said. “Working man’s always struggling...”
He liked how Trump talked about taking on China and getting jobs back to America. He also liked that Trump wasn’t a career politician, whereas he thought Joe Biden has been in Washington for too long.
Did he generally trust people, I wondered?
“No, I don’t trust everybody,” he said. “But you pick up vibes.”
You always got to watch your back. Say, for instance, your wife: you think you know her but in reality, you don’t. You can know someone all your life, and you still don’t know them. They can still have a few secrets you know nothing about. It happens all the time.
Where did he learn this, I asked?
“It could be the way I grew up,” he offered. “My mom was a single mother. I don’t call him my father; I call him my sperm donator. He had four boys. All his. Him and my mom, they got a divorce. Probably, I’d say that’s got a lot to do with it.”
My next stop was with a neighbor a few doors down. He had no political signage in his yard, which made me think he might be a Biden supporter. Almost everyone else, it seemed, had a Trump sign or flag on their property. As it turned out, he had already voted.
“I voted for Trump even though I don’t like him,” he said with a sigh. It was the first time he had voted for a Republican presidential candidate since casting a ballot for Bob Dole in 1996. In 2016, he voted for Clinton. Why Trump in 2020, I asked?
He told me he worried about Biden’s mental fitness for the job, and figured that it was a matter of time before Biden could no longer assume the duties of office, and that Kamala Harris would become president, a prospect he feared because he worried she is too “radical.”
But this new Trump voter became most animated when talking about Black Lives Matter and the unrest on America’s streets this past summer. He was visibly upset.
The political polarization in 2020 is a symptom of other divisions—especially the racial, class, and marriage divides. These are divisions that have stoked a massive crisis of trust and led us to the brink of a national divorce in the American family.
The conversation reminded me of my friend Lance, a working-class married father of five whose views on Trump moved from “He’s a racist” in late 2015 to “I love Trump” in November 2016. Part of the reason he came around to supporting Trump, Lance told me a few days after the 2016 election, was how almost everything he supported, Trump did as well, and that he truly believed Trump wanted what was best “for the American family.”
One of Lance’s biggest wishes, he told me then, was that Trump could do something to end the divisions within the American family, including divisions over race. “We’re all brothers and sisters, because we’re all Americans,” he said. “And we need to stick together.”
I wondered what he was making of the 2020 presidential election and phoned him this week.
“I’m gonna vote for Trump,” he told me. “I like the way things have been since he’s been in office. Minus the crazy things going on…like the riots.”
He added that Trump does “say the wrong things at the wrong time,” but said he mostly appreciates that Trump isn’t afraid to speak his mind.
“I’d rather have someone say something straight off their minds than some other politicians that have speeches prepped before they even speak,” he said. “I think they’re more capable of hiding things that way.”
Lance thinks that “political elites” and the government are hiding a lot of things, like collaboration in child sex trafficking rings.
“I would consider myself somewhat of a conspiracy theorist,” Lance volunteered, though he had never heard of QAnon, the conspiracy theory that believes that a group of global elites is running a child sex trafficking ring and working to undermine President Trump.
But it’s not just about his distrust of government. Lance, who at a young age endured teasing because of his working-class roots, will be the first to tell you that he has a hard time trusting people in general. In fact, there was a time when he didn’t even want to leave his house so that he could avoid people altogether. “I didn’t trust them, but always expected the worst from people and figured that the fewer people I have to deal with, the better,” he once wrote about his struggle with anxiety. He didn’t want to have dark thoughts and tried to make them stop, but it was like the meme he saw on Facebook: “It’s like having two people in your head. One is logical and the other is paranoid psycho.”
Lance’s issues with trust remind me of a story that Trump’s son, Don Jr., once shared. He said every morning before kindergarten, his father would send him off with a stern admonition: “Don’t. Trust. Anyone. Ever.” And then about two seconds later, his father would ask his son if he trusted him, and Don Jr. would say yes, because you are my dad. His father would then berate him with “What did I just say?” and get all exasperated.
“I don’t trust people, no,” is how Donald Trump himself put it in a 1990 interview with Connie Chung. “I’m a non-trusting person.”1
Similarly, in a 1990 interview with Playboy (who else?), where he refused to answer if his marriage was monogamous or not, Trump said, “I’m a very untrusting guy.” He explained that he watched his older brother, Fred Jr., who died of heart failure brought on from alcoholism, trust too many people. “I saw people really taking advantage of Fred and the lesson I learned was always to keep up my guard 100%, whereas he didn’t,” he noted.2 Interestingly, at the time of that interview, Trump was cheating on his first wife, Ivana, with Marla Maples, who would become his second wife.3
In other words, Trump has something important in common with many people in the working-class base who first took him seriously and catapulted him to national contention: he has trust issues.
To heal, we have to attend to the deep divisions that eviscerated trust and bonds—family bonds, neighborly bonds, economic bonds—and that drove us to seek refuge and too-much-meaning in our political identities.
But while I am focusing on my white, working-class Trump-supporting neighbors in this piece—the people I’m most familiar with—I don’t mean to suggest that America’s crisis of trust is exclusive to Trump’s white, working-class supporters. I see the distrust, too, in college-educated progressives (and conservatives) who sometimes insinuate that working-class America is teeming with angry white supremacists, when almost all the working-class people I know aspire to live by an admirable code of tolerance for all.
We are fast becoming a country with trust issues. We are a nation coming apart—by politics, yes, but even more fundamentally by class and region and race. We are technically neighbors in some cases but worlds apart, actually fellow citizens in most cases but an e pluibus unum unrealized, convinced that the other wants to destroy the America we know.
The conflict escalates to mutual contempt, and we flirt with a national divorce. It doesn’t help that about half of kids grow up without both parents in the home, a formative experience that leads many to conclude that no one is trustworthy. It also doesn’t help that many working-class people have experienced profound economic insecurity in the past several decades, further eroding trust and stability. And it certainly doesn’t help that the working class and the college-educated increasingly don’t know each other, separated (as in my town’s case) by hills and valleys, gated subdivisions and old downtowns.
Around 2016, America became fixated upon the polarization between reds and blues. But before blues swore off reds as deplorables and reds condemned blues as godless, the upper middle class joked about trailer trash and stigmatized the working class; America struggled to overcome the original sin of racism; bosses treated their workers like disposable widgets; and men and women swore off marriage as “just a piece of paper.” Marriages ended in divorce, unions dissolved with the relocated factory, and neighborliness withered with class-and-race-segregated regions. Alienation became the norm in parts of America.
Politics took the brunt and bore the divisions, to be sure, but as is so often the case, politics is downstream from culture on this score. Political polarization is not solely responsible for the possible crisis we face.
To heal, we have to attend to the deep divisions that eviscerated trust and bonds—family bonds, neighborly bonds, economic bonds—and that drove us to seek refuge and too-much-meaning in our political identities. To heal, we will need to rebuild the families and communities that nurture trust, to re-learn the habits of neighborliness and solidarity—from the workplace to the neighborhood to the family.
To avoid civil war, we need to rebuild bonds of trust.
David Lapp is a co-founder of Braver Angels and a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. Along with his wife, Amber, David serves as co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project.
1. Quoted in Michael Kruse, “The Loneliest President,” Politico, September 6, 2017.
2. Glenn Paskin, “The 1990 Playboy Interview with Donald Trump,” Playboy, March 1, 1990.
3. Maureen Orth, “The Heart of the Deal: The Love Story of Marla Maples and Donald Trump,” Vanity Fair, November 1990.