FLINT, Mich.—As I was knocking around Flint, a city neglected and ultimately poisoned by every level of government, my thoughts kept drifting to two phrases: “refreshing approach” and “in nothing we trust.”
The first phrase is my description, in a column last month, of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s leadership style. What was I thinking? More on that later.
The second is the headline on an April 2012 cover story I wrote for National Journal magazine about a decades-long trend that threatens the nation’s soul: the failure of nearly every American institution to adapt to rapid social change and maintain the public’s trust. The story was told through the eyes of Johnny Whitmire, an unemployed construction worker who I met in a Muncie, Indiana, courthouse. He was fighting a $300 fine for failing to cut the lawn of a home he had forfeited to the bank.
Whitmire is an angry man. He is among a group of voters most skeptical of President Obama: noncollege-educated white males. He feels betrayed—not just by Obama, who won his vote in 2008, but by the institutions that were supposed to protect him: his state, which laid off his wife; his government in Washington, which couldn’t rescue homeowners who had played by the rules; his bank, which failed to walk him through the correct paperwork or warn him about a potential mortgage hike; his city, which penalized him for somebody else’s error; and even his employer, a construction company he likes even though he got laid off.
Taking a break from mowing his bank’s weeds, Johnny told me, “You can’t trust anybody or anything anymore.”