The Biggest American Deficit: Trust

Trust stands alone in the glass menagerie of fragile personal and national virtues. Without trust, individual, commercial, and civic relationships are impossible.  Children must trust parents, couples must trust each other, and families must be able to trust the state. Indeed, all the estates of society are bound by trust in one form or other; family, government, commerce, and religion.  A deficit of trust is like an open wound, not necessarily fatal immediately, but surely a potential agent for permanent disability or death. 

Cynics might dismiss any notion of national values, but American legal tender carries a clear message about virtues like trust and faith, the later a necessary predicate. “In God we trust” says nothing about any specific religion but it says everything about faith, the requirement to believe in fellows and community. Faith is the necessary acknowledgement that democratic success is collaboration.

The routine acts of everyday life are acts of faith. We trust the sun to rise, the trains to run, traffic to stop, businesses to open, children to be safe at school, and homes to be secure while we are absent. The fact that our trust in many things is violated on occasion doesn’t necessarily diminish the need for faith. Trust is the lubricant of everyday reason and routine. Without it, we would be immobile, paralyzed by fear and uncertainty.

Faith of any sort is also an act of humility, an acknowledgement that flawed men, especially Americans, are not omniscient, nor are they the acme of creation – or evolution for that matter.

By law, “In God we trust” has only been the American national motto since 1956. By tradition, the phrase has appeared on most, but not all, US currency since the Civil war. The phrase dates from 1861 and was probably inspired by a line in the national anthem. An unofficial sister motto “we are one”, later Latinized to e pluribus unum, has adorned American currency since 1776.

The original American penny, thought to have been designed by Ben Franklin, contained three inscriptions: “fugio” (literally, “I fly”), “we are one” (in English), and “mind your business.” The “I fly” admonition, in combination with images of the sun and a sundial, suggest that time is fleeting. “We are one,” in combination with a 13 link chain, describes the unity of the colonies. “Mind your business” speaks for itself.

Fugio Cent

The injunction to manage time and focus attention on personal enterprise is consistent with Franklin’s pragmatic world view and larger Enlightenment values. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, a decade before the Fugio Cent appeared.

The Fugio penny is a faint echo of early national values, a time capsule of colonial virtue. The emphasis on self-evident, individual and collective verities, common sense if you will, was supported by the need to recognize that time is a limited commodity and universal personal effort is necessary for national success. 

Adam Smith believed that industry, enterprise, and individual achievements enhanced the common weal. Similar practical notions of national ambition probably survived until the middle of the last century when an American president could still trust a sailor’s adage and claim that  a “rising tide lifts all boats.”

Fugio did not stand the test of time however, probably a victim of ambiguity. The word in Latin means both “I fly” and “I flee.” The first suggests soaring and the latter implies retreat. It took another hundred years for “in God we trust” to make the cut and now, a hundred years hence, God and trust appear to on the bloc too.


Of course, God has been in the crosshairs since “science,” astrology, and necromancy parted ways. Apparently, the problem with God, like Fortuna, is the company she keeps. Infidels associate God with intangibles like virtue, values, morality, and judgment.  

Moral judgment seems to be anathema especially in the halls of the academy, those temples of reason. Ironically, most of the great universities of the world began as religious seminaries. Hard to believe, today, that religion, ethics, and logic were once mandatory academic requirements for the educated.

In spite of critics, God is doing better than the skeptics. If adherents matter, chaps like Jesus Christ are still super stars. Alas, Chris Hitchens is gone and Stephen Hawking isn’t doing that well either.  Men who judge not, yet presume to judge the Gods, seem to dangle eternally over the flames of moral relevance.

Nonetheless, God is still with us.  Unfortunately, personal and civic trust is not -- road kill at the intersection of moral vacuity and autism. National trust is now in cultural default. Ethical tone and behavioral norms are always set at the top and it is there where the evidence and associated deficits are most obvious.

Two examples, one personal and the other corporate, are illustrative: the Clinton dynasty and the National Security Agency (NSA).

Bill and Hill aficionados would surely argue that any Clinton peccadilloes are old news, well-vetted. And the same apologists would also excuse much Clinton behavior as “private” matters.  Such arguments confuse misdemeanor infidelity with felony betrayal. 

Bill betrayed a national trust when he used his office to exploit an intern. He compounded the abuse by passing Monica around at the Pentagon like a playing card. Clinton then perjured himself in sworn testimony, a clear betrayal of professional if not presidential ethics. Clinton may not have been convicted by the Senate, but he earned his impeachment by the House.

In similar fashion, Hillary betrayed her subordinates in the Foreign Service at Benghazi by not dispatching help that might have mattered. She then had her subordinates (then-ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice) spin the story to cover the Islamic culprits. Here Hillary seemed to have been more concerned with Muslim reputation than American lives.

Mrs. Clinton is fairly confident that no one will remember Benghazi after four years. She’s probably correct. Political mendacity only matters for the moment.   Alas, America is on the cusp of Clinton III. Hillary is the presumptive favorite if she chooses to run in 2016. Thus, the Clinton track record, like any history, still matters -- and will matter.

Some might also argue that if wife Hillary doesn’t fret about marital trust, why should we? Hillary might not care because political relationships reward loyalty, not ethics or character. Here, contemporary lawyerly values play a role; winning trumps justice, personal virtue, and candor. Clearly, Bill Clinton perjured and his wife dissembles because they believe they can get away with it.

The Clintons thrive because personal trust is no longer a gold standard of politics, no longer the coin of leadership, no longer currency in a nation of sheep.

Given their resumes, it seems incredible that the Clintons might be so well positioned to retake the White House. Mrs. Clinton doesn’t have to run on integrity or as Bill’s wife in any case. She will run now as the “first woman.” Running as a “first” worked for Barack Obama and there is little reason to believe that the same plank won’t support Hillary.

At the corporate level, NSA provides testimony to the national trust vacuum. We say corporate because NSA cloned a universal surveillance precedent that had been developed by industry. First there was Nielsen, a home survey system that promised select families that they could influence programing and products. You might think there would be few takers for home invasion, daily behavior monitoring, in a democracy. Nielsen put the lie to that misconception.

Then came the social networks with free forums or platforms for capturing a reservoir of personal and behavioral data. We say “free” because privacy in America apparently has cost, but little value.  The internet is now a more efficient wall for the graffiti that used to appear in public toilets. And personal data mining has become an industry, a new source for the wealth of nations.


The Department of Defense did not invent Big Brother or the universal peep show. It merely co-opted a very successful commercial surveillance model. Global snooping might have different ends, but industry and government make common cause with means. Each has a vested interest in protecting sources and methods. “Metadata” is at once money, manipulation -- and control.

Ironically, the government’s baseline rationale for warrantless surveillance is: “trust me.” Indeed, DOD and NSA can be trusted to the same extent to the Internal Revenue Service and the Veteran’s Administration can be trusted.

The most painful irony of the surveillance state is that it evolved efficiently and unchallenged in the world’s most visible democracy. Orwell thought that Big Brother would be fathered by totalitarianism. George was wrong. The American herd volunteered for Nielsen, the Internet, social forums, and their predictable derivatives at the Department of Defense and Fort Meade.  

Sheep in a republic appear to be as gullible as goats in a gulag. Apathy and wishful thinking may be the most powerful dynamics in modern democracy. Truth is become, as Orwell suggested, whatever people are willing to believe.

So maybe it’s time to revise the national motto again. Bring back fugio in its less savory incarnation:  “I flee.” The problem isn’t that America can’t trust politicians like the Clintons or agencies like the IRS, DOD, or NSA. The trust problem is with the body politic: voters, taxpayers, and citizens. Americans have debased the coin of character and integrity; fled from values like trust, virtues that made a great nation great to begin with.

“Trust dies and mistrust blossoms.” - Sophocles

G Murphy Donovan writes about the politics of national security. He is the former chief of the USAF Research Division at NSA, senior USAF Research Fellow at RAND Corporation, and Director of Reseach and Russian Studies at USAF Intelligence when DNI James Clapper was Director of  Air Force Intelligence.