The January 6th insurrection, instigated by then-President Donald Trump, may not seem all that similar to then-actor Ronald Reagan’s claim in 1961 that government-funded health care for the elderly was tantamount to “imposing statism or socialism on a people.” But political scientists Amy Fried and Douglas B. Harris believe these episodes both employ the longstanding Republican strategy of “interplay between a distrustful public and the conservative elite who stand to benefit from that distrust.” As Reagan said in his 1981 inaugural speech, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
In At War with Government: How Conservatives Weaponized Distrust from Goldwater to Trump (Columbia University Press, 2021), Fried and Harris provide a powerful exegesis of American politics and explain how conservative elites have cultivated a toxic distrust of government. This is not a traditional conservative argument about levels of spending and taxation or American commitments abroad. It means playing on the fears of citizens that their government is corrupt, undemocratic, elitist and their enemy. This, they contend, is “the fundamental strategy of conservative Republican politics.” It relies “on public dissatisfaction to build their movement, to win elections, to engage in separation-of-powers conflicts, and to thwart liberal policy advances.” Sometimes leaders struggle to control those they roused. Sometimes they egg them on. And whether implicit or overt, racism and xenophobia are essential components to these efforts.
Conservative elites can adjust their anti-government targets depending on the circumstances. Fried and Harris chronicle how Republicans’ arguments changed about how government should operate, depending on who was in control. Newt Gingrich’s rise to power was fueled by the charge that Congress had become too powerful. After Republicans won a House majority in 1994, Gingrich flipped to arguing that Congress should be the dominant power. The same way a broken clock is right twice a day, Gingrich might have stumbled into the truth since executive branch power has grown disturbingly large since World War II.
This can lead to infuriating hypocrisy. Despite Republicans’ portrayal of their complaints about “big government” as rooted in a consistent ideology, Fried and Harris show they’re situational. In the same press conference where President Reagan said “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,’” the conservative icon also announced “record amounts of assistance” to farmers. Later in the same news conference, the Gipper rebuffed Chicago Mayor Harold Washington’s contention that cuts in the federal budget were hurting his city’s residents.
In this telling, Donald Trump is no exception to decades of Republican party demagoguery. Granted, Trump’s anger, xenophobia, racism, and railings against the “deep state” were more uncivil and overt; he was unusual in espousing overtly undemocratic norms. But Trump fit comfortably into a Republican tradition of arousing Americans’ suspicions of government. Trump sought to intimidate, “attack and scapegoat” immigrants, attempting to ban “aliens” from benefiting from social programs. That contrasts sharply with Reagan’s grant of amnesty to around 3 million undocumented immigrants, many of them poor. But Trump’s anti-immigrant policies extended Republicans’ long-standing project of radically reducing government—for certain groups and not others.
In 1981, Reagan accused Black women of defrauding the government as he cut cash benefits. Republicans cut taxes for the wealthy in 2017, praising beneficiaries’ worthiness. Did GOP successes and their harnessing of public anger spook Democrats, leaving them to retreat from New Deal and Great Society programs? Even with 60 Democratic Senators and a substantial Democratic majority in the House, Barack Obama was barely able to pass the Affordable Care Act. Joe Biden is struggling to pass his expansive human infrastructure plan as well as his more modest bipartisan blueprint for fixing roads and bridges.
Reagan’s claims about socialism, the successful efforts to stop Clinton health reform, the failed efforts to stop the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and the subsequent execution-like process employed to sink it all employed government distrust. All were activated using the GOP’s weapon of first resort—distrust in government.
Fried and Harris’ wise analytical frame sometimes gives short shrift to the intersections of race and gender. Surely distrust in government, combined with messages linked to race and gender, have been part of the arguments against improved housing policy for the poor, food support, equal pay, basic income support and the like. Distrust of government is essential to understanding Republican power but so is race and gender.
Threading the intersections between race and gender more intentionally into their analysis, in the same way they interwove health policy through administrations, would have enriched this valuable study. And while Fried and Harris acknowledge that distrust is sometimes deserved, this too could have been further discussed.
The risk to the common good is why this all matters—why, Fried and Harris assert, “political trust and distrust matter.” First chronicled around 1175-1225, the word trust comes from the Old Norse word traust, related to the German word trost or comfort. Distrust appeared in the 1500s. Using the Latin-based prefix dis- meaning “apart, asunder, utterly,” suggests that trust has not only been reversed but torn apart.
Fried and Harris contend that the weaponization of distrust undermines Americans’ ability to achieve collective goals. Michael Sandel, who teaches political philosophy at Harvard echoes that sentiment: “Any hope of renewing our moral and civic life depends on understanding how, over … decades, our social bonds and respect for one another came unraveled.” The charge, he says, is “to find our way to a politics of the common good.”
Unlike most books of this sort, Fried and Harris trace a path forward, presenting suggestions for countering Republicans’ promotion of political distrust. There are ways to “make peace with government” they argue, even after questioning whether the partisan polarization is reversible and racial animus can soften.
After showing how “distrust is politically useful … full of political potential for those who wield it in an informed and skillful way,” Fried and Harris present ways trust could be used strategically in recruiting candidates and running campaigns. The messaging of trust must mimic that of its unfading counterpart—distrust.
The Biden administration is promoting plans that leave no one untouched. These strategies are bold, daring, and expansive. Now, political leaders and activists must be intentional in the message they deliver to the American public—these are public, governmental efforts. The White House has sought to lower costs for childcare, college and prescription drug costs, rural health services, and broadband coverage, to name but a few. As Biden proclaimed in March 2021, fighting the pandemic is helped by putting our “trust and faith in our government to fulfill its most important function, which is protecting the American people . . . America thrives when we give our hearts, when we turn our hands to common purpose.”
For citizens to grasp how public policy matters they must experience it as a part of their daily lives—the bridges they cross, the schools their children attend, the rural hospital that saved their life. Only then is there hope of them favoring collective enterprise.
“Build Back Better” is not only a plan to revitalize the country but an opportunity to build back trust. Fried and Harris’ book gives us the knowledge and tools we need to shoulder this task—to build back better a commitment to the public good.