A Bright Red Flag for Democracy

Survivors of the Parkland massacre are getting a crash course in civics, and learning that corporations are more responsive to customer concerns than lawmakers are to their constituents.

David Hogg, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speaks at a rally. (Jonathan Drake / Reuters)

A week after the fatal shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, some of the high school’s surviving students traveled to Tallahassee, Florida, and Washington, D.C., to protest lawmakers who failed to pass gun-control legislation. These teenagers have become passionate advocates for change.

Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, had a memorable explanation for why she and others had to speak out: “Every single person up here today, all these people should be home grieving,” she said. “But instead we are up here standing together because if all our government and president can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it’s time for victims to be the change that we need to see.”

Another group is speaking out, too: people who believe the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas was staged, and that students like Gonzalez are actors, not victims. Far-right provocateurs have focused on David Hogg, a 17-year-old student who had the self-possession to interview his classmates while the shootings were taking place. Hogg’s composure in interviews, his criticism of President Donald Trump, and the fact that his father is a retired FBI agent have fueled a conspiracy theory that claims Hogg has been paid—by Hillary Clinton, George Soros, or favorite figures among conspiracy theorists—to promote an anti-gun agenda. Supported by media figures like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, the conspiracy theories have received a big boost from YouTube, with its algorithms that push videos targeting Hogg to the top of trending video lists.

It gets stranger. These two groups—the brave students demanding to prevent another tragedy, and those denying their very existence from behind computer screens—have something profound in common.

They’re both responding to the dominant condition of our nation today: mistrust.

In the mid-1960s, 77 percent of Americans reported trust in the U.S. government to do the right thing all or most of the time, according to surveys from Gallup and the National Elections Survey. Asked the same question in a Gallup poll late last year, only 18 percent reported trusting the government. This isn’t a Trump-specific phenomenon. Trust has been falling in the United States for decades, and it hit comparably low points during the Clinton and Obama presidencies.

It’s also not a government-specific phenomenon. Trust in virtually all American institutions is down sharply since the 1960s and 1970s, including people’s faith in banks, churches, healthcare, and big business. Our loss of trust in government, in media, and in each other helps explain this peculiar moment, a time when some of us can’t believe the government’s inability to take action and others can’t believe what they’re seeing.

The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas are discovering that they can’t trust their elected officials to take action on gun control. And why should they? The Columbine massacre occurred in 1999, before any of these children were born. Legislators have had 18 years to ensure that American schools are safe places for students to learn. Instead, students are so familiar with drills to protect themselves from mass shootings that one enterprising high schooler, Justin Rivard, has designed a metal brace that can secure a classroom door from an active shooter who blasts off a lock. Tragically, Rivard’s clever hack has a much better chance of being adopted than legislation to institute universal background checks, which 97 percent of Americans support.

Despite having good reason not to trust the political process, the students are doing what we’ve been taught to do as citizens: tell our legislators what we think, and if they don’t listen, demand to be heard. So far, that’s not gone especially well. One group of students traveled to Tallahassee to meet with legislators and instead watched 71 Republican legislators block debate on bills to limit high-capacity magazines. A town meeting with legislators, televised by CNN, went little better, as politicians squirmed uncomfortably and failed to answer the blunt questions put forward by students.

Watching the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students engage with their elected leaders is a crash course in understanding how people develop mistrust in representative democracies. The fear is that the experience will quickly teach the students that change is impossible. The hope, instead, is that they will learn that change can occur, but perhaps not through the methods they’ve been taught to use. While the Florida legislature prioritizes debating the health risks of pornography over considering gun control, online campaigns have convinced airlines, rental-car companies, and banks to cut their ties with the NRA. The uncomfortable lesson may be that corporations are more responsive to customer concerns than lawmakers are to their constituents. This may be good news in the short term for activists, but it should be a bright red flag for anyone concerned for democracy in the long term.

While the students march and petition, the alt-right researches—looking for evidence that the “deep state” has set up “false flag” operations to deceive Americans into demanding gun control. Informed by hoax sites like Infowars and Gateway Pundit, these communities have little trust in government, which they see as blocking and constraining an elected president. They have no trust in mainstream media, which they see as an extension of the Democratic Party. While those promoting the absurdity that David Hogg is a “crisis actor” are on the extremes, very few Americans have deep trust in media. According to a Gallup poll, 27 percent report having high trust in newspapers, 24 percent have high trust in television news, and 16 percent have high trust in news they find on the internet. Some of this mistrust has been manufactured by a president who delights in calling coverage he doesn’t like “fake news” and treating the media as the opposition party. Some comes more organically, as mainstream media outlets get less shy about calling out Trump’s misstatements, and in the process, sound more partisan and less neutral than they have in previous administrations. And certainly some doubts are fomented by the chaotic nature of the open web, where anyone can self-publish just about anything, for better and for worse.

With such low trust in media, the far right is engaged in the exhausting work of seeking something nefarious behind the news, some sinister machinations that would cause a 17-year-old boy to agitate for gun control after his friends were killed. Some of their allies are working to make the process more exhausting for everyone else. Spurred on by trolls on 4chan, the leader of a tiny white-supremacist group called Republic of Florida told the Anti-Defamation League that the Parkland shooter had trained with its militia. When it was revealed that the Parkland shooter had no ties to Republic of Florida, willingness among some media outlets to ascribe white-nationalist motives to him gave those so inclined more reason to doubt the media’s fairness.

Mistrust is expensive. When people worry that the media is being manipulated, it takes work to get to a set of facts we trust, and more work to get to a common set of facts we can discuss or debate. When people worry legislators aren’t listening to citizens, but to corporations and lobby groups, they move beyond letters and phone calls to protests and rallies. Two decades ago, the author Frank Fukayama posited that high-trust societies were wealthier than low-trust ones because fiscal transaction costs were lower. As Americans experience an increasingly paralyzed and dysfunctional federal government, it’s clear that mistrust is raising the costs of representative democracy.

Mistrust is corrosive. It tends to lead either to paralysis or to polarization. If the students marching on Tallahassee and Washington discover that their passion and anger doesn’t lead to change, it’s likely that their mistrust of their government will deepen and calcify. Many seasoned gun-control advocates despair that no tragedy will be sufficient to bring lawmakers to their senses. As the British political commentator Dan Hodges observed in a widely shared tweet in 2015, “In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” The students of Parkland have not yet been paralyzed into inaction by their mistrust, and I pray they never are. But mistrust of an unresponsive government can easily lead to the conclusion that no vote, no phone call, no protest can make change, and so there’s no reason to take action.

For others, mistrust leads to the certainty that the other camp is not only mistaken, but in a continual war. Those who see Trump as under attack by the media and the FBI find themselves understanding a senseless slaughter through a partisan lens. Only when you’re convinced that society’s central institutions are biased against you can you dismiss the experiences of children responding to trauma through protest as a politically motivated attack on your leader and cause. When you find yourself denying the very existence of legitimate opposition to your point of view—when people who disagree with you become paid plants hired by George Soros or the Koch brothers—it’s a good indicator that your mistrust has led you through partisanship into alienation.

Mistrust can be weaponized. As the Russian interference with the 2016 elections demonstrated, division and confusion can be as desirable a goal as persuasion. When people begin to distrust what their leaders say, what the media reports, what ultimately constitutes reality, something predictable happens: extremism flourishes. Those less confident in their views withdraw from the public sphere, ceding the space to those certain of their views. This dynamic helps explain the rise of ethno-nationalist leaders in Europe like Putin and Orban and the election of a leader in the U.S. who is pathologically incapable of admitting any doubt, uncertainty, or error.

When the far right raises doubts about David Hogg’s authenticity, it drives a wedge deeper between two groups of Americans: those who see themselves as savvy enough to challenge mainstream media’s view of reality, and those who cannot believe that the credibility of a 17-year-old shooting victim can be fair game for political debate. That’s the goal of weaponized mistrust—to create a world so angry, so confusing, so hard to recognize that we either arm ourselves as combatants against the other side, or withdraw entirely into inaction and passivity.

The good news is that mistrust can be fuel for mobilization. Watching the high-school junior Cameron Kasky demand that Senator Marco Rubio guarantee that he would not take NRA money was a clear demonstration that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting has moved America beyond politics as usual, at least for a moment. Rubio’s refusal to take a stand showed just how hard it will be to shake the institutions that have failed all of us on this issue.

As the Parkland students take up the #NeverAgain banner, they’re in the good company of other movements that know they need to change how Americans think and act when American leaders refuse to act. #MeToo didn’t need to pass new laws against sexual assault—those laws have long been on the books. Instead, it changed the norms around sexual assault from one where women are silent, to one where they are becoming loud and listened to. #BlackLivesMatter focused less on police oversight boards and bodycams than on challenging biases that lead too many Americans to see black people as threats rather than as fellow humans. Both movements offer a blueprint of sorts, though the underlying injustices that motivated them are far from resolved.

The Parkland students will succeed when they realize the Rubios of the world will never help them. They need to build a movement of students and parents who cannot tolerate the idea that education entails moral risk, and who are willing to topple the institutions that continue to accept this tragic reality.

The weaponized mistrust that sends trolls to attack shooting victims may ultimately be responsible for the death of representative democracy. But the mistrust that mobilizes high-school students to lead a movement to protect their own lives might just be what saves it.