Ben Sherwood, the former president of the Disney ABC Television group and ABC News, is the author of the best seller, “The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own; view more opinion at CNN.
(CNN)As the number of Covid-19 cases goes up, another trend line is going down — dramatically. The number of Americans who approve of President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic is plummeting.
In late March, according to an ABC News poll, 51% of Americans approved. Today, only 38% do.
The number of Americans who trust what President Trump tells them about Covid-19 is even lower: only 34% put a great deal or good amount of trust in what he says on the subject. Sixty-four percent trust him only a little or not at all.
Wherever you stand politically, this should be a matter of great concern. Trust is crucial to our survival. In its own way, it’s as important as wearing masks.
Over more than a decade, I have had the chance to interview some of the world’s most remarkable survivors: a cyclist who fought off a mountain lion, workers who escaped the burning towers of 9/11, patients with metastatic cancer who have lived years longer than the doctors predicted. Their stories show the power of adaptability, purpose, ingenuity and grit.
They also show the power of faith: a belief, a trust, in something greater than themselves.
To survive this pandemic, trust in divinity won’t suffice in itself; we must trust in humanity. We need trust in institutions and the people who lead them, trust in experts to inform us, trust in one another.
This, as we’ve all experienced, is true at the most basic level. Do you trust your grocery store to take proper precautions? Your dentist? Your friends?
Even if our answer is “yes,” we know that won’t be enough. If citizens are going to follow public health guidelines, they’ll need to trust that government decisions are unbiased and fact-based. If we’re going to send our kids back to school, there’s a chain of people we’ll have to trust. And imagine the chain of labs and regulatory agencies and manufacturers and distributors and scientists involved in a vaccine. That will require a quantum leap of trust.
Yet today, the only leap we’re taking is backwards.
Much of the distrust in President Trump has been self-inflicted — a product of his many months of delay, denial and dissembling
. Even if those patterns were to change tomorrow — and there is no indication that they will — it is probably impossible for Trump to rebuild the public’s trust in him.
But the problem runs deeper than that. Trust — in government, academia, science, media, tech, organized religion, even our fellow citizens — has been declining
for years, propelled downhill by a systematic campaign to break it down and technology that rewards immediacy over accuracy and negativity over nuance.
For some, the unwillingness to trust — even when presented with unequivocal facts — has become as unshakable as any religious faith. For others, trust has been eroded by mistruths, misdeeds and mistakes in high places. It should not surprise us that trust is lowest in communities that have been systematically abused by those who hold power.
Yet all 7.8 billion people on this planet have been thrown into the same lifeboat. The only way to get ashore is to trust one another. So how can we rebuild trust at a time when it’s so frayed and fractured?
First, paradoxically, we must choose where not to place our trust. Leaders who have proven themselves consistently dishonest have earned our distrust. At a certain point, it becomes dangerous to give someone the benefit of the doubt.
But second, we should be on the lookout for leaders and institutions who are meeting the challenge of the moment with candor. For good reason, a substantial majority of Americans still trust
Dr. Anthony Fauci and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Third, we need institutions to hold themselves accountable — to the facts, and to the public. Politicians need to tell us the truth and not peddle false hopes. Business leaders, too, need to show through their actions that they’re putting the welfare of their workers and customers at least on par with their bottom line.
Media, where I have worked most of my career, bears a great burden, too: to regain trust, it must underreact to provocation or distraction and overreport on what matters most. And through reform, legal accountability and humility, law enforcement must begin the long and difficult process of proving that it can be trusted to protect, and not oppress or abuse, the communities it has sworn to serve.
Fourth, and finally, we should recognize that trust is not a binary choice: trust blindly or don’t trust at all. There is a middle ground. In an influential article
, the social psychologist Roderick M. Kramer argued for what he called “tempered” trust. This brings to mind that proverb Ronald Reagan liked to quote: “Trust but verify.” That’s tempered trust. If necessary, it can be withdrawn.
In practice, tempered trust requires active participation. It means if you don’t feel comfortable about a backyard barbecue, ask your hosts how they’re going to keep everyone safe. If you’re nervous about returning to work, check with your employer about her specific plans for safeguarding the office. Tempered trust means taking calculated risks.
The cavalry isn’t coming to rescue us in the battle against Covid-19. We are the cavalry. And through our individual actions — to trust and be trustworthy — we strengthen the chain that binds us together. Doing so might be our greatest challenge — but in this fight for survival, it might also be our only hope.