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By April 16, 2024Culture

Trust is on the ballot this November. And too many well-intentioned voters seeking objective advice have become disillusioned about the efficacy of research scientists, academics, historians, policymakers and other conventionally trustworthy intellectual experts. The root of the distrust, no surprise, is Donald Trump. Whether you worship or detest the MAGA leader, he has mastered a key lesson in the authoritarian playbook: to attempt to (speciously) discredit anything and anyone with whom he disagrees.

While Trump has by far the loudest megaphone spewing disinformation, he’s given voice and cover to an army of equally undemocratic voices. The objectivity and credibility of legitimate, authoritative expertise has been marginalized by “a surge in narcissistic and misguided egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues,” The Atlantic’s Tom Nichols, observed in his book, The Death of Expertise. Paradoxically, the result of the “increasingly democratic dissemination of information,” as Nichols writes, is a wide swath of the population now believe outlandish conspiracy theories, outright lies and dangerous propaganda.



Independent validation is what professional public relations practitioners have relied upon for more than a century to influence the attitudes and actions of target audiences. Historically, success with such appeals has come as reliable as Steph Curry hitting a clutch three. Securing and showcasing the support of impartial, recognized expertise bestows bullet-proof credibility and validity on the public-interest goals of an initiative or individual. The mutually beneficial strategy worked brilliantly, until …

Social media has unleashed a tsunami of self-righteous influencers who trade in anti-social grievance and shared hatred and fear, combined with a willingness to trample on the truth to increase engagement. Pity the ill-informed fans of these mass manipulators for being exploited and indoctrinated, for blithely believing there is truth and safety in numbers (of likes)? Shamefully, crowdsourced opinions have become an accepted form of independent validation. Like-minded crowds are the new us and all others, including genuine experts, are them. “When ordinary citizens believe that no one knows more than anyone else, democratic institutions themselves are in danger,” Nichols warns.



Beyond his well-earned untrustworthiness, Trump’s demagoguery has also managed to unjustly compromise his believers’ trust in democracy and voting, science, healthcare, the military, the judiciary and rule of law, government, academic institutions, news media, and other fundamentally democratic institutions and disciplines. And worse, he’s brain-washed his most loyal minions into distrusting their own eyes, ears, memory and common sense. He’s even managed to sow division and paranoia within sports and entertainment. Really, the narcissist-in-chief denounces anyone (from John McCain to Jimmy Kimmel and Taylor Swift?) who threatens his sense of entitlement.

Everyone and everything is now viewed through a partisan lens, Nichols notes. Blame society’s disunity on an environment “poisoned by ignorance and rigid tribalism.” Sooner than later, hopefully by this November, for the sake of truth and civility, Trumpism will be cancelled for good, his coconspirators delegitimized, and his MAGA cult deprogrammed. And trust will be restored to responsible authorities and experts, and in one another.

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