Earlier this week, Gallup released its annual findings on Americans' confidence in the nation's 14 major institutions, which include the presidency, Congress, and the Fourth Estate. Although the findings are generally headed in an agreeable direction, they're also mixed — and rather depressing.
For instance, take Congress. Please. In its present iteration, surely here is a confidence-sucking institution for all times. Both chambers are controlled by the same party and possess no partisan conflict with the executive branch. Congress may do as it likes; it has the run of the field. And yet so far, after five months, it has accomplished the sum total of absolute zero major legislation. For a while it looked as though fresh sanctions might be imposed on the president's malevolent keeper — Vladimir Putin — but naturally that has fallen through. Congress has of course botched health care reform as well — a nearly decade-old promise of immeasurable, self-professed virtue, essentially dead.
The encouraging news? Only two institutions rated below 20-percent confidence: internet news (16 percent), and this 115th United States Congress, at 12 percent. Why that's wonderful, you say — perfectly fitting. The discouraging news? Congress's 12-percent confidence rating is actually up 3 points since June of last year.
Moving on to the presidency, one is, at first, somewhat heartened. Americans' confidence in this institution has, in a year, dropped 4 points — from 36 to 32 percent. This rating serves a dual purpose: It not only reveals the general confidence level in the endlessly bumbling Donald J. Trump, it also evinces with fair accuracy the percentage of dreadfully insane Americans.
But, comparative numbers get even worse. Confidence in U.S. newspapers — whose resurrected golden age of journalism Mr. Trump has generously facilitated through his manifest unfitness for office — now lies at 27 percent. Again, the encouraging news? That 27 percent is up 7 points since June 2016. The downside? Twenty-seven percent is 5 points lower than the 32 percent who have confidence in the endlessly bumbling Donald J. Trump.
It must be admitted that aggressive partisanship skews the overall number for confidence in newspapers. While 41 percent of Democrats have confidence in them, only 12 percent of Republicans feel the same. Nonetheless, on the whole there are fewer Americans who have faith in the one institution that consistently exposes Trump's assorted debaucheries than who have faith in the debaucher himself. And that, most anyone should find sharply dismaying.
I recently read Melville's The Confidence-Man, an immensely difficult antebellum work (1857) that deals with a charlatan who boards a Mississippi steamer on April Fool's Day. Its ensuing themes are too complex to encapsulate here, so I'll let Melville's epistolary summation suffice: "The [national] joke is passed round pretty liberally & impartially, so that not very many are entitled to fancy that they in particular are getting the worst of it." Melville's was a signpost of Trump's infinitely fleeceable base.