How Trump Channels the 1970s

The one consistent message coming out of the White House was born in the 1970s: Don’t trust any institution.

Donald Trump was building his career in real estate in the 1970s. He's pictured here in New York in 1976. (Bettmann / Getty)

President Trump has brought the spirit of the 1970s into the Oval Office. If there is one consistent message that has come out of this White House, it is a message born out of the turbulent decade: Don’t trust any institution.

Every president carries with them the zeitgeist of a period that shaped their values and vision. In recent decades, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush embodied the patriotism and national bravado of the early Cold War in the 1950s—an unyielding belief in American Exceptionalism. To the consternation of Representative Newt Gingrich, President Bill Clinton emerged as the voice of the 1960s counter-culture even though his domestic policies were often at odds with the legacy of FDR and LBJ. President George W. Bush championed the conservative ethos of Reagan’s America in the 1980s, with its zealous belief in free markets, deregulation, and tax cuts. President Barack Obama promoted the hard-headed, data-loving, problem-solving pragmatic attitude of the 1990s when the end of the Cold War suggested that almost any challenge could be met.

For President Trump, it’s all about the 1970s. That bleak decade saw the nation turn against most of the institutions that had been central since World War II. The quagmire in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal that forced Richard Nixon’s resignation turned many Americans, on the left and the right, against the federal government. The post-Nixonian presidency came to be viewed as an office whose holders should not be trusted. When President Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon in September 1974 for any crimes that he might have committed, all hope of healing the nation went right out the window. Jimmy Carter’s campaign in 1976 revolved around the basic promise that voters could trust him. Though Congress looked good at the height of the Watergate investigation in 1973, polls showed public confidence in the legislative branch falling thereafter. The number of Americans who trusted the federal government to do the right thing most of the time declined from almost 80 percent in 1964 to 25 percent when Reagan took office in 1981.

Intelligence and law-enforcement institutions, which had been on the front line in the fight against communism, came under fire. The late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, once one of the most feared men in Washington, became a national symbol of how the bureau abused its authority—spying on citizens and intimidating opponents—as a result of exposés and declassified material that revealed the ruthless manner in which Hoover wielded power. On March 8, 1971, anti-war activists broke into an FBI office in a Philadelphia suburb to steal documents proving the kind of subversive activity the agency had conducted. They found documents even more shocking than they had expected, revealing the notorious COINTELPRO program (a massive counter-intelligence program conducted against domestic groups like civil-rights and anti-war activists). “When you talked to people outside the movement about what the FBI was doing, nobody wanted to believe it,” one of them recalled when justifying the break in. In introducing the story for NBC’s Nightly News, the reporter John Chancellor told viewers that “Secret FBI memos made public today show the late J. Edgar Hoover ordered a nationwide campaign to disrupt the activities of the New Left. He ordered his agents not only to expose New Left groups, but to take action against them to neutralize them.”

“The whole tenor of the conversation about the FBI changed,” the historian David Garrow explained of the 1970s. “There was less deference and more suspicion, particularly from Democrats.” The congressional investigations headed by Senator Frank Church of Idaho and Representative Otis Pike of New York in 1975 and 1976 produced shocking revelations about the tactics that CIA officials employed, including covert assassination efforts using poison darts and exploding cigars, as well as illegal surveillance on American citizens. The CIA, Church said, had become a “rogue elephant.” The senator warned of the “total tyranny of the CIA” that would leave Americans with “no place to hide.”

Government institutions were not the only things under the microscope in the 1970s. Business also came under fire. The economic boom of the post-World War II period came to an end. The combination of unemployment and inflation, known at the time as “stagflation,” meant that growing numbers of Americans lost faith that the free market would produce rising family income and better conditions for their children. Workers living in the Rust Belt watched in fear as factories shut down and the surrounding communities imploded. Some workers, desperate as Japanese and West German companies started to dominate the manufacturing sector, placed bumper stickers on their cars that said: “BUY AMERICAN: THE JOB YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN.” Struggling to keep up with mortgage payments and unable to save for retirement, the American dream seemed fleeting. The energy crisis, with long gas lines in 1973 and 1979, created the impression among many Americans that their fragile economy could be held hostage by a handful of small oil-producing nations.

Businesses, the historian Bethany Moreton found, were so concerned with the loss of faith in corporate institutions that they undertook a massive promotional campaign in schools and universities to promote the values of free enterprise. Part of Ronald Reagan’s appeal in the 1980 election was that he was the candidate who could restore confidence in the economy and in the free market. Reagan temporarily achieved his goals, though the underlying anxieties about the ability of the economy to deliver on the American dream lived on, as the 2016 election revealed.

The news media likewise came under attack as an institution. Although the 1970s was the decade that witnessed a surge of young people flocking into journalism with the hope of replicating the kind of reporting from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that brought down Nixon, the newcomers entered the business based on a sense that most reporters had failed to provide the hard-hitting coverage needed to keep politicians accountable. After all, newspapers and television, the critics said, had been too soft in their coverage, which was the reason America ended up in Vietnam, and with a president as corrupt as Nixon. After the mid-1970s bump, confidence in the media fell across the nation. Conservatives distrusted the media for their own reasons—believing that reporters and producers were biased toward the liberal point of view and produced news that was slanted against the right. The “nattering nabobs of negativism,” as Vice President Spiro Agnew called the media in 1970, would never provide accurate stories if they contradicted the liberal worldview.

Critics on the left and the right believed that television was slowly destroying the news by focusing attention on superficial and dramatic issues that didn’t provide information so much as entertain. In Sidney Lumet’s classic film Network, released in 1976, the veteran newsman Howard Beale learns that he is being pushed aside by the network where he has worked for years. Beale responds first by saying he will kill himself on one broadcast, and on the next he unleashes a fierce tirade—“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”—which viewers loved. The network bosses, led by programming executive Diana Christiansen, played by Faye Dunaway, want more. The Howard Beale Show, hosted by the “mad prophet of the airwaves,” becomes a smash hit. Dunaway’s character proves that she is willing to do almost anything for ratings.

Some of the most enduring films of the decade captured the mood that gripped the country. In his classic book, Raging Bulls, Easy Riders, Peter Biskind traces the history of the movie makers who rejected celebratory storylines in favor of the ugly truth. In The Godfather and The Godfather II, the villains were the heroes while the police and politicians could not be trusted. Productions such as The Exorcist exposed the demons that existed within America’s most intimate institutions—the home and the family. The New York City depicted in Taxi Driver was a landscape where every institution seemed broken.

Trust had eroded almost everywhere. Organized religion, the courts, labor unions, and public schools all saw their standing fall.

Distrust is the theme that animates Donald Trump, a man who spent his thirties in 1970s New York. Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio wrote that, “Although many felt unmoored by the events of the seventies, young Donald Trump would consider Watergate and the lies told to justify the Vietnam War evidence of the world as it was—dangerous, corrupt, and full of intrigue.”

As a presidential candidate, Trump railed against “the swamp” of Washington and the broken Republican establishment. He warned of “rigged” elections that undermined democracy and a “fake” news industry that would never cover the real story. He has continued to urge his followers to be suspicious of what they read in the newspapers or see on the television screen. Just a few days ago, in response to the revelation that Sinclair Broadcast Group required its local-news anchors to read from a shared script, he tweeted: “The Fake News Networks, those that knowingly have a sick and biased AGENDA, are worried about the competition and quality of Sinclair Broadcast. The ‘Fakers’ at CNN, NBC, ABC, & CBS have done so much dishonest reporting that they should only be allowed to get awards for fiction!”

The same distrust is at the core of his blasts against intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, where Trump keeps tapping into the ghosts of the Church and Pike Committees, but for his own political ends. He has argued repeatedly that these agencies have spread false information to serve the political biases of their agents and leaders. He has gone so far as to imply the FBI has attempted to essentially overthrow his administration. “The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime,” he tweeted. “It was based on fraudulent activities and a Fake Dossier paid for by Crooked Hillary and the DNC, an improperly used in FISA COURT for surveillance of my campaign. WITCH HUNT!”

Ironically, the businessman-turned-president has railed against the free market as an institution that can’t be totally trusted—even as he deregulates Obama-era rules at a ravenous rate. His embrace of tariffs, and dismissal of free-trade agreements, hinges on the idea that markets can’t be trusted to do their own magic. This has been an essential part of his appeal.

After so many years, when the 1970s was the uninteresting decade that was sandwiched in between the Age of Aquarius and the Age of Reagan, America now has a president who understands why they mattered. Americans learned to distrust everything, and in Trump’s mind, that is a good thing. Trump has taken the message of distrusting institutions to heart, stripped away all the messages that coupled skepticism with the need for institutional reform, and promoted a brand of political nihilism that polarizes the nation.

The biggest question right now is whether at some point, his own most passionate supporters can see through the fog and finally reach the conclusion that it is Trump who should not be trusted. Until then, America will keep living in the seventies.