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To Heal, We Must First Acknowledge Plummeting Public Trust Is Reasonable


“My sister was 35 and served 14 years — to me that’s the majority of your conscious adult life. If you feel like you gave the majority of your life to your country and you’re not being listened to, that is a hard pill to swallow. That’s why she was upset,” said Roger Witthoeft, the brother of Ashli Babbitt, in an interview with The New York Times.

Babbitt served four tours of duty in her 14 years of military service. Having survived deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Babbitt died in the U.S. Capitol. She’d stormed the building with a riotous mob, seeking to fight back against an election the rioters firmly believe was stolen from Donald Trump. She was shot by a Capitol Police officer. Her final, bloody moments were broadcast and immortalized on social media.

Not one participant should be excused for his or her part in the riot. Babbitt, however, must be understood.

The struggling small business owner left a social media footprint that speaks volumes. Her recent retweets were filled with supportive messages for Lin Wood, the pro-Trump lawyer who’s spent recent weeks advancing fringe conspiracy theories about the election results. She expressed belief in the QAnon conspiracy theory.

She was reasonably outraged by her governor, Gavin Newsom, and rightfully disturbed by the saga of Jeffrey Epstein. Like many great patriots, she hurled expletives at “commies” and put her faith in God. I have no idea whether Babbitt was a decent person. I know there’s no moral defense of her decision to storm the capitol. I also know her death is a tragedy.

Further, Babbitt’s Twitter makes clear what her brother told the Times. She was upset. She also clearly believed conspiratorial stories about how the election was stolen. Of all the tweets she left behind for us to read, one is the most important.

It’s a New Year’s Eve retweet of another user’s post that reads, “People I trust in DC … 1) President Trump – the end.”

Trump lies, and many of the 30,000 people who liked this tweet accept that. But they trust him on the big stuff. Why? Because the corporate media has lied to them about the big stuff time and time and time again. So have their elected officials. So have scientific institutions and leaders in academia.

Like the Occupy Wall Street campers, they weathered financial storms while watching bank bailouts. They’ve watched their mayors and governors violate their own regulations for the sake of leisure or personal convenience or politics, crippling business and workers while they eat crabs. They then watched the media’s nakedly unbalanced coverage of it all, wild bias from bonus-pocketing journalists purporting to be arbiters of fact and undisputed occupants of the moral high ground.

Their lives, like all of our lives, have been upended in just over a decade by products tech oligarchs promised would make us happier. Those same billionaires now join the chorus of elites who treat them as “irredeemables” and “deplorables” because they disagree with full-throated progressivism.

Much of this applies to the people who spent their summer in the streets protesting and rioting in the name of Black Lives Matter as well. That’s precisely what the Acela Corridor needs to reckon with.

The election of a reality television host should have been the wake-up call they needed to start that unpleasant undertaking, but the people who control the country decided instead that Trump’s supporters were not largely disenfranchised or forgotten or decent people with whom they disagreed, but mostly just bigots.

That has made people very angry. Recall Witthoeft’s reflection on his sister’s motivations. “If you feel like you gave the majority of your life to your country and you’re not being listened to, that is a hard pill to swallow.”

I do not blame people for distrusting everyone but Trump. It’s far from my position, but I do not blame a single person for feeling that way. Everyone has lied to us. Trump lied about his stolen “landslide,” if even the people who understandably place their trust in him believe otherwise.

All of this is happening in the broader context of decaying civic institutions, of declining community and religiosity, of heightened isolation and drastic lifestyle changes induced by technological advancements. Not your typical cable news fare.

Babbitt was no basement-dwelling creep with little insight into the real world. She served four tours of duty over nearly a decade and a half in the military. There were many people like her in D.C. yesterday, some whom joined in the rioting, others of whom packed up and went home or watched from the sidelines. But a whole lot of decent, normal people believe the election was stolen, whether they rioted or not.

Some polls have sought to answer the question of how widespread belief in QAnon is. Anecdotally, it seems just about everyone I know has been surprised to find that some normal relative or friend of theirs is a believer in the conspiracy. I don’t know exactly how many people genuinely believe in it. But after Epstein and Russiagate and everything else, I understand why the temptation exists.

Until they riot, these are not people who deserve contempt. They don’t need to be patronized by lofty essays from those of us in coastal enclaves. When people get contempt and condescension, they’re more inclined to put all their trust in leaders like Trump. When people have nobody to trust but a politician, that’s not good news. Politicians, as a rule, are liars. That’s how normal people get angry enough to riot.

As the curtain closes on Trump’s presidency, the political class faces the reality that a wide swath of decent, everyday Americans now trust fringe voices. The crucial first step towards a solution is acknowledging people have indeed been lied to, and their lack of trust is a reasonable response to bipartisan institutional failure.