Shribman: Tension and tumult, thanks to Trump

David Shribman

The Congress is divided as seldom before. Donald J. Trump is remaking the profile of the presidency. The press is under attack. The notion of free speech on campus is under siege. By month’s end serious questions will be raised about the independence, and perhaps even the survival, of the Federal Reserve Bank.

This is a period of unusual tension and tumult, of which Trump is both cause and consequence. But so are the chasms between the political parties and the even greater gap between the public and the political establishment.

Indeed, not since the 1960s—perhaps since the 1930s—have so many of the governing assumptions and established institutions of the United States been under such stress and strain.

According to a poll by KRC Research taken only two months ago, a record high seven of 10 Americans believe the country has a major civility problem.

Just as there was no clear resolution to the American malaise in 1932, nor to the American upheaval of 1967, there is no clear path out of the turmoil and turbulence of this decade. But nearly every foundation stone of American life is on the defensive today:

■Politicians. Two out of three Americans, according to an Allegheny College poll last fall, characterized the 2016 presidential campaign as very or extremely uncivil. Only 3 percent of Americans — potentially no Americans at all, if the margin of error is employed — have a great deal of confidence in Congress, according to the Gallup Organization. The spectacle on Capitol Hill right now, with one party determined to overturn Obamacare in an instant and the other party determined to oppose whatever its rivals support, is not likely to add to public confidence in the public’s representatives.

■Religion. About two Americans in five have confidence in organized religion today, a steep drop from 1973, when about two out of three Americans felt that way. Three decades ago, only one in 10 adult Americans said they had no religious affiliation, according to the Pew Research Center; today about a quarter of Americans feel that way. And about one out of three Millennials say they are “nones”—that is, without any religious affiliation altogether.

■The press. Trump has mounted an all-out assault on the mainstream media, an attack even stronger than the one mounted by President Richard M. Nixon and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. Each president since Nixon has had worse press relations than his predecessor, and the press has become a soft target. Public confidence in newspapers, for example, has declined by half since 1973, and confidence in television news has declined by more than half in a quarter century, with the public split on whether the press has been too easy or too hard on Trump.

■Business. Here’s a radical departure: a Republican president has criticized business executives for callousness toward workers and for exporting American jobs. At the same time, public criticism of the wealth gap has been stoked by politicians of all colorations, from Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during the 2016 campaign to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont during the Democratic primaries and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts during the early months of 2017.

■The party establishments. Trump assailed traditional Republicans during his primary campaign, painting these figures—in short, the establishment figures of the establishment party—as ineffective and self-serving.

Bottom line: We are in a historic period not only of transformation but also of national introspection. We think that this is an era of invective and insult, and there is some truth to this. But underneath the anger are questions about the nature and use of power.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.