Buttigieg Tackles America’s Trust Crisis

Pete Buttigieg and Mike Pence have a conversation while gesturing with their hands and holding coffee mugs.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is reportedly "playing" Vice President Mike Pence in debate prep with Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris ahead of Wednesday's debate.

AP Photo

Since ending his historic presidential bid in South Bend on March 1, Pete Buttigieg has been nearly omnipresent. There he is, serving as former Vice President Joe Biden’s red state emissary on Fox News. There he is on a Zoom fundraiser, raking in more than $10 million for Biden’s campaign. There he is, interviewing his Saturday Night Live stand-in Colin Jost, on his newly launched podcast, The Deciding Decade.

Now, with less than a month to go before the presidential election, Buttigieg is out with his second book in as many years: Trust: America’s Best Chance. In this short, gut-punch of a volume—part campaign memoir and part big idea book—Buttigieg traces how a crisis of trust shapes our reaction to the issues of our time, from responding to the novel coronavirus to climate change. Buttigieg writes of our distrust of each other, institutions, and the world’s increasing distrust of America.

“Trust and distrust are of course two sides of the same coin, but we’re in a moment where every crisis in front of us from racial and economic justice, to the pandemic, to climate, to democratic legitimacy, all depend largely on our ability to form a greater level of political and social trust than we have,” Buttigieg told me.

In a phone interview from an undisclosed location Friday— I probably shouldn’t get into that,” he said when I asked where he was—Buttigieg waxed philosophical about our age of disinformation, whether America needs a truth and reconciliation commission, and why his fellow Hoosier, Vice President Mike Pence, whom he is reportedly playing in debate prep with Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris ahead of Wednesday’s debate, is underrated as a debater. (Buttigieg was later spotted near Salt Lake City Saturday, not far from the University of Utah, the debate site).

How are you?

Good. Indiana keeps making its way to the center of the political universe.

I’m getting a lot about South Bend-based hotel points this year. It’s wild. I was up last week to follow the Amy Coney Barrett news. The last time I had been there was March 1st, to the Century Center when you dropped out of the race.

But let’s talk about your book. You write that “tools for such a rebuilding of trust lie more often than not in the hands of the people,” but some people in America face a reality gap right now. For example, only 49 percent of people say they definitely or probably would get vaccinated if there’s a coronavirus vaccine available and 56 percent of Republicans believe that Q Anon is mostly or partly true. So how do you deal with segments of the population where mistrust is so deeply seated at this moment?

There’s a kind of self-reinforcing or snowballing quality. Mistrust leads to more mistrust, but confidence leads to more confidence. And what we’re seeing, whether it’s the rise of the conspiracy theories or the course of the pandemic in the U.S., is the worse it gets the worse it can get. Part of what I tried to look for in the book though, were examples of positive-reinforcing cycles, too. Whether it’s the effect of fair taxation and good policy on levels of trust in the Nordic countries or the way that the U.S. gained international trust at warp speed by helping respond to the crises surrounding World War II. And I think we’re at a similar moment where we’ve got to figure out ways to build trust faster than usual, because the most robust way to earn trust is predictable credible behavior over very long periods of time, but we just don’t have very long periods of time to deal with some of these problems.

When did you have time to write this book?

This was one of the challenges. Shortest Way Home took shape over the course of years. And this was a book where I started to have the thought around April or May, but also immediately realized that the book’s greatest value would be if it could contribute to the conversation before we had the November elections. So that meant writing it over a period of weeks during the summer. And I think I had to turn in the draft by, can’t remember exactly, but I think late July and August.

And I’ve been thinking about the issues, partly just because of what we’ve been through in the campaign and other experiences I write about. And then the invitation to join the Institute of Advanced Studies at Notre Dame motivated me to look more deeply because the Institute for Advanced Studies this year as a whole community of scholars looking at trust from different angles, from computer science to international relations. And I was really eager as I became part of that community of people working on this issue to make the contributions that were obviously going to be a little less theoretical, but as well-researched as it could be in addition to being personal.

Based on your time crisscrossing the country during the campaign, do you think the regional differences between the Midwest and the coasts  perpetuate the crisis of trust that we have? And what are some ways you think that we could overcome them?

Well this gets to one of the things that I take on in the book, especially toward the end. As you’ll recall, I thought of this question of how we can build a sense of national identity that’s specific enough that it means something to belong to this nation, but is inclusive enough that everybody in America can belong. And that’s my first thought, when you raised that question. Certainly traveling the country as a candidate, I saw the different styles and cultures that make up America, but I don’t think they have to be alienated from each other. I mean if America makes sense as a concept, it has to be because it brings us together across those differences and makes room for them.

You write another solution that you kind of explore is the possibility of truth and reconciliation commissions similar to those employed in South Africa to dismantle apartheid, and Rwanda in the wake of genocide. That’s a pretty stark acknowledgement of how divided we are.

It’s a matter of simple fact that America is a country beset by the spread of disease, impacted by growing political violence, and coming to terms even now with a legacy of internal war and conflict. And so, our self-conception in the past may have been that these models were for other parts of the world and often the developing world, but the reality is those very same problems are surrounding us right now. And it may be that we will forever be held back in our development as a country, if we don’t come to grips with these things.

I think there’s been a lot in these recent months to make good on Faulkner’s famous comment that the past is never dead, it isn’t even past. And it was only in the course of researching the book that I learned, that there had been an application of this concept in Canada. As your specific case around indigenous people and this residential schooling system. But it did demonstrate that this concept could be applied in the North American context. And I do think we have to take it seriously here and I’ve been really interested to see figures like [Congresswoman] Barbara Lee, who’ve been calling for this for some time.

You’re currently helping out Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris with debate prep by playing Mike Pence, according to a report from Bloomberg. What is it like to sort of occupy the mind of a man who has been such an antagonizing figure for you over the last couple of years?

So I can’t confirm or comment on anything in terms of campaign processes, but what I will say is, as a Democrat who has observed Mike Pence obviously, and engaged with him, during my time as mayor, I think it’s really important for us to have a sense of this person who’s currently the vice president and who’s obviously a central figure in the Trump administration and aims to be a central figure in the future of the Republican party. And I have fundamental differences of worldview from him and also think there may be some fundamental contradictions between his worldview and this White House that he’s decided to become part of. And, whenever called on, I do my best to try to translate or explain that to the Democrats who were trying to respond to him.

Do you think that his skill as a debater has been underrated in recent weeks?

Yes. He was very effective in 2016. And also in his debates, if you look in 2012, when he was running for governor, it would be a real mistake to underestimate. Largely because he doesn’t seem to have any qualms about defending what many of us would consider indefensible, even if it flies in the face of his own professed values.

With President Trump’s nomination of your fellow South Bender Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, are you still convinced that packing the Supreme Court, an idea you advanced since the early days of your campaign, is a good idea?

My broader interests have been more in the potential of bipartisan reforms to just reduce the political temperature of the Supreme Court and to get us out of these periodic ideological death matches that seem to happen every time there’s a vacancy. But right now I’m thinking of this situation in a much more immediate context, which is we’re potentially a few weeks away from a scenario where millions of Americans lose health coverage. And a lot of other things that we consider to be fundamental settled case law in this country around everything from choice to LGBTQ rights starts to shift. And it’s one of the reasons why, even though we don’t have the Senate majority, I think it’s really important for Democrats to vigorously continue to insist that the American people are to be heard when it comes to this nomination.

Have you been on any private planes from South Bend recently that I should be made aware of?


Well I’ll leave the flight tracking to you, you seem to be on top of it.