Berserk: The National Consequences of Mistrust
The events of the past two years have accelerated the decline of American civilization’s distinguishing quality: trust. Expressed most strikingly in violent outbursts amplified by social media, this descent has eroded both the personal security and communal structures that sustain America. The trend affects not only conventional public spaces, but the very foundations of commerce. The shocking images (one displayed above) of looted cargo railcars transiting Los Angeles challenge the nation’s very sense of identity. Governor Gavin Newsom (D-CA) described the scene as “look[ing] like a Third World country.”1 Leaders in business and politics should expect America’s accelerating trust crisis to reshape the nation.
Other nations have benefited from high levels of trust. Few, if any, others have achieved America’s combination of virtue, heterogeneity, and scale. As described by historian Paul Johnson, the United States that emerged during the latter half of the 19th century was “huge and teeming, endlessly varied, multicolored and multiracial, immensely materialistic and overwhelmingly idealistic, ceaselessly innovative, thrusting, grabbing, buttonholing, noisy, questioning, anxious to do the right thing, to do good, to get rich, to make everybody happy.”2 This rare collection of traits, which defined much of the nation’s self-conception during the century that followed, seemingly has been upended with potentially dire consequences.
COVID-19 has served as a catalyst, not the cause. In December 2019 – before the coronavirus pandemic had hit America in full force – sales of Ring home security products increased year-over-year by 180 percent.3 In 2018, 58 percent reported believing that “most people would try to take advantage of you if they got the chance,” up from 31 percent in 2007. Sixty-two percent reported holding the view that others “just look out for themselves,” up from 35 percent 11 years prior.4 This fear now encompasses more than physical threats: fewer than one in five Americans today answers cellphone calls from unknown numbers.5
Increasingly, not only individuals, but also firms act with suspicion. According to one recent survey, 17 percent of chargeback requests by consumers represented “friendly fraud,” the term used for illegitimate refunds for products and services consumers actually used.6 The National Retail Federation reports that 82 percent of loss prevention professionals have grown more concerned about mall or store violence, 64 percent about organized retail crime, and 53 percent about internal theft.7 The police department of Dayton, Ohio now advocates “crime prevention through environmental design,” advising that local dollar stores, which each year make nearly 1,000 calls to law enforcement for aid, remove window ads so responding units have a clearer view of situations unfolding inside brick-and-mortar locations.8
“The dynamism that characterizes American capitalism is impossible in low-trust environments.”
The Federal Aviation Administration recorded an unprecedented 587 percent spike in unruly passenger investigations from 2020 to 2021.9 The pandemic era also brought a crackdown on airline passengers claiming, often dishonestly, to need “emotional support animals.” To address a veritable Noah’s Ark of animals on commercial flights, the Department of Transportation promulgated a new federal rule ending the requirement that airlines accommodate such requests.10 This change in policy followed a situation involving a traveler who attempted to bring a peacock on a United Airlines flight out of Newark,11 and an 84 percent spike over several years in “animal incidents” reported by Delta, involving passengers such as “comfort turkeys, gliding possums known as sugar gliders, snakes, spiders, and more.”12
The unfolding trust crisis, if protracted, will transform American life. For insights from the experiences of other nations, observers might consider the analysis of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which considers trust to be “the most pressing and yet least discussed problem confronting Latin America and the Caribbean.”13 The IDB warns, “Entrepreneurs struggle to start new enterprises when suppliers, customers, and government do not trust them to pay for inputs.” Transacting without trust means firms must either “vertically integrate, cutting themselves off from the most efficient suppliers, or … enter costly relational contracts.” In other words, the dynamism that characterizes American capitalism is impossible in low-trust environments. The possible ramifications for the United States of a continued decline in trust include the following scenarios:
Although the decay of urban landscapes might be ameliorated by policy shifts, the perceived intrusion of chaos into commercial spaces accessible to the public, such as movie theaters and shopping malls,14 imperils broad swaths of the consumer economy. The efforts of Atlanta’s wealthy Buckhead neighborhood to establish a distinct municipality with control of its own police force might serve as a harbinger of metropolitan America’s future.15 In the 21st century, those with means seem increasingly intent on doing what they can to reduce the possibility of an unpleasant encounter with a member of the broader public. From architecture – the end of the era of glass – to transportation – autonomous vehicles cannot easily avert criminals intent on misdirecting and stripping vehicles – the need to fortify our persons and property would impose sweeping consequences.
Membership as the Modern Moat
The decay of the public sphere described above drives Americans to private sanctuaries when outside the home.16 United Airlines has announced plans to purchase new Boeing airliners boasting 75 percent more premium seats, giving those with means the opportunity to distance themselves from the mayhem in economy cabins reported by the media and displayed on social media.17 As commuters fled mass transit during the pandemic,18 Uber expanded Uber Rewards, with bonuses for top members’ frequent travel on “favorite routes,” priority pickup at airports, and dedicated phone support for Diamond members.19 Hermès closed retail locations to walk-in customers during the COVID lockdowns, converting stores into by-appointment showrooms.20 Stratification very well could be the future of consumption, with brands promising premium, personally tailored, private experiences in lieu of consumption as a public activity.
Surveil First, Trust Later
In an environment of lower trust, commerce requires greater insight into the reliability of consumers, workers, and vendors. KPMG reports that 70 percent of companies increased their collection of personal consumer data, even as 62 percent regarded their firms’ data protection measures as insufficient.21 The pandemic prompted new surveillance demands – and not just targeting customers. Some firms now surveil workers through keyloggers and webcam eye tracking to monitor attentiveness to the task at hand.22 Clear Secure, launched in 2010 to streamline the airport security experience, offered an ambitious IPO in 2020 promising to bring the experience of expedited airport screening to new frontiers, including hotels, live sports, and entertainment. A new commercial function referred to as “Location Access” provides biometric verification of return-to-work COVID policy compliance.23
If a collapse in trust leads to greater surveillance and labeling of consumers, a backlash would seem inevitable. In January 2021, encrypted messaging services Signal and Telegram each overtook Facebook’s core messaging platforms, Instagram and Messenger, in monthly downloads.24 A year into the pandemic, financial markets became a new outlet for mainstream protest against the dominant financial order, with revolts of “meme stock” mass purchases by mobs of retail investors and a surge in cryptocurrency prices.25 Perhaps most of all, the secret ballot offers Americans a mechanism through which to express contempt against elites. Non-college-educated voters composed 51 percent of last year’s Virginia gubernatorial election and swung decisively to Republican Glenn Youngkin, yielding a 19-point margin for that demographic,26 in a campaign defined in part by debates over mutual distrust between school boards and parents.27 If the nation’s politics move decisively to a battle between elitists who enjoy the privileges of trust and populists relegated to the low-trust precincts of the legacy consumer economy, a revolution in policy will follow.
The trend toward popular distrust, if persistent, will intensify the politics of class. Citizens will chafe as institutions no longer extend the benefit of the doubt to an expanding portion of the population. Elites spared such indignities will become ever-more inured to building mass resentment, making 2016-style electoral surprises from Left, Right, or even centrist populists more likely.
1 Rachel Uranga, “‘Like a Third World Country’: Gov. Newsom Decries Rail Thefts amid Push to Beef Up Enforcement,” Los Angeles Times, January 20, 2022, https://www.latimes.com/california/tye7dg4ow1c-123.
2 Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York: Harper Perennial 1999), 512.
3 Rani Molla, “Amazon Ring Sales Nearly Tripled in December Despite Hacks,” Vox, January 21, 2020, https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/1/21/21070402/amazon-ring-sales-jumpshot-data.
4 Lee Rainie et al., “Trust and Distrust in America,” Pew Research Center, July 22, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/07/22/the-state-of-personal-trust/; and Paul Taylor et al., “Americans and Social Trust: Who, Where and Why,” Pew Research Center, February 22, 2007, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2007/02/22/americans-and-social-trust-who-where-and-why/.
5 Colleen McClain, “Most Americans Don’t Answer Cellphone Calls from Unknown Numbers,” Pew Research Center, December 14, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact- tank/2020/12/14/most-americans-dont-answer-cellphone-calls-from-unknown-numbers/.
6 “Q4 2021 Digital Trust & Safety Index: Navigating the New Normal of Digital Fraud and Disputes,” Sift, December 15, 2021, https://resources.sift.com/ebook/q4-2021-digital-trust-safety-index-digital-fraud-and-disputes/.
7 “2021 Retail Security Survey: The State of National Retail Security and Organized Retail Crime,” National Retail Association and Appriss Retail, August 17, 2021, https://cdn.nrf.com/sites/default/files/2021-08/2021%20National%20Retail%20Security%20Survey%20updated.pdf.
8 Alec MacGillis, “How Dollar Stores Became Magnets for Crime and Killing,” ProPublica, June 29, 2020, https://www.propublica.org/article/how-dollar-stores-became-magnets-for-crime-and-killing.
9 Federal Aviation Administration, “Unruly Passengers,” February 2, 2022, https://www.faa.gov/data_research/passengers_cargo/unruly_passengers/.
10 Lori Aratani, “Airlines Warn Travelers: Emotional Support Animals Will No Longer Be Permitted,” The Washington Post, January 5, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/emotional-support-animals/2021/01/05/ab38887e-4f6f-11eb-b96e-0e54447b23a1_story.html.
11 Daniella Silva, “Emotional Support Peacock Denied Flight by United Airlines,” NBC News, January 30, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/airplane-mode/emotional-support-peacock-denied-flight-united-airlines-n842971.
12 Daniel Arkin, “Delta Sets New Guidelines on Service Animals Allowed on Board,” NBC News, January 19, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/airplane-mode/delta-imposes-new-guidelines-service-animals-allowed-board-n839186.
13 Philip Keefer and Carlos Scartascini (Eds.), “Trust: The Key to Social Cohesion and Growth in Latin America and the Caribbean,” Inter-American Development Bank, January 2022, https://publications.iadb.org/en/trust-key-social-cohesion-and-growth-latin-america-and-caribbean-executive-summary.
14 Chris Arkenberg et al., “Digital Media Trends: The Future of Movies,” Deloitte, December 10, 2020, https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/industry/technology/future-of-the-movie-industry.html; and Rani Molla, “The Death and Rebirth of America’s Department Stores, in Charts,” Vox, December 2, 2020, https://www.vox.com/recode/21561046/death-rebirth-department-stores-retail-charts.
15 Emma Hurt, “The Buckhead Cityhood Movement Gets a PAC,” Axios, January 25, 2022, https://www.axios.com/local/atlanta/2022/01/25/atlanta-buckhead-cityhood-movement-pac.
16 Paul Sullivan, “Private Schools Hold New Attraction for Rich Parents,” The New York Times, October 9, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/09/your-money/private-schools-wealthy-parents.html.
17 David Slotnick, “United Unveils Massive Aircraft Order, Announces New Narrow-Body Cabin Interiors and Retrofit Program,” The Points Guy, June 29, 2021, https://thepointsguy.com/news/united-airlines-plane-order-seatback-ife/.
18 Tanya Snyder, “The Pandemic Could Devastate Mass Transit in the U.S. – And Not for the Reason You Think,” Politico, January 24, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/01/24/coronavirus-effect-mass-transit-461658.
19 Benji Stawski, “Everything You Need to Know About the Uber Rewards Program,” The Points Guy, January 15, 2022, https://thepointsguy.com/guide/everything-to-know-uber-rewards/.
20 “Hermès Saw Surging Porcelain Sales, Increased Consumer Interest in Sustainability Amid COVID,” The Fashion Law, May 26, 2021, https://www.thefashionlaw.com/hermes-saw-surging-porcelain-sales-increased-consumer-interest-in-sustainability-amid-covid/.
21 Orson Lucas et al., “Corporate Data Responsibility: Bridging the Consumer Trust Gap,” KPMG, August 2021, https://advisory.kpmg.us/articles/2021/bridging-the-trust-chasm.html.
22 Darrell M. West, “How Employers Use Technology to Surveil Employees,” Brookings Institution, January 5, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/techtank/2021/01/05/how-employers-use-technology-to-surveil-employees/.
23 Clear Secure, Form S-1, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, June 7, 2021, https://sec.report/Document/0001703056-21-000020/.
24 Jeff John Roberts, “Signal and Telegram Downloads Surge, Passing Facebook Chat Tools,” Fortune, February 2, 2021, https://fortune.com/2021/02/02/signal-telegram-downloads-surge-facebook-messenger-whatsapp-chat-apps-privacy/.
25 John Csiszar, “Crypto, Meme Stocks and Other Top Investing Trends in 2021,” Yahoo! News, December 18, 2021, https://www.yahoo.com/now/crypto-meme-stocks-other-top-140041995.html.
26 “Virginia Exit Polls,” CNN, November 3, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/election/2021/november/exit-polls/virginia/governor.
27 George F. Will, “It May Be News to Terry McAuliffe, but Virginia Parents Have Rights,” The Washington Post, October 15, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/10/15/it-may-be-news-terry-mcauliffe-virginia-parents-have-rights/.