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.