By David M. Shribman
Executive Editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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 President 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. Rarely has the prevailing ethos in the faculty lounge been so isolated from the parents who pay for college education, and never has the value of a college education been so questioned by so many with such fervor.
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.
The 1930s, the Stanford historian David M. Kennedy wrote, "tested the very fabric of American culture." The 1960s, the Brown University historian James T. Patterson said, "unsettled much that Americans had taken for granted before then."
Both statements apply without amendment to the second decade of the 21st century, when, according to a poll taken by KRC Research only two months ago, a record-high seven out of 10 Americans believe the country has a major civility problem.
The crisis of the 1930s was prompted by the Great Depression, when economic despair caused faith in capitalism to wane and appeal for communism to rise, at least in some blue-collar and intellectual circles. The crisis of the 1960s was as much one of credibility as content, as American leaders and their institutions struggled with civil rights, and young people rebelled against consumerism, sexism and the Vietnam War. Franklin Delano Roosevelt saved capitalism. Lyndon B. Johnson was ambushed at Credibility Gap.
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 at all.
-- THE PRESS. President 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.
But Nixon and Agnew weren't the only national figures in the past several decades to single out the press for special opprobrium. 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.
Public support of banks, at 60 percent in the Gallup study in 1969, has declined by more than half to 27 percent. Fewer than one-fifth of Americans have confidence in big business, though small business wins the support of two out of three Americans.
-- 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. He dismissed Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York as a "clown"; but the most damaging critique of the Senate minority leader may come from fellow Democrats, who deride him for voting for at least a handful of Trump Cabinet nominees and criticize him for not waging merciless war against the Trump agenda.
Then, just last week, Gallup reported that public worries about race relations are at an all-time high, with two out of five Americans worrying "a great deal" about race relations. And what is the institution that Americans respect the most? The military, winning the confidence of about three-quarters of the public -- up substantially since 1973, when the nation was divided by the Vietnam War.
Bottom line: We are in a historic period not only of transformation but also of national introspection. We think this is an era of invective and insult, and there is some truth to that. But underneath the anger -- beyond the shouts -- are serious questions about the way our society and culture are structured, and about the nature and use of power.
That is one of the principal lessons of the 2016 election, lost amid the controversy over President Trump's style and manners. Like the 1930s and 1960s, this is a period of resentment and rebellion. But the questions raised in both those earlier periods helped the United States win, in turn, World War II and the Cold War. We ignore these questions, and put off addressing them, at our peril.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)
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