Yes, the covid epidemic is undermining trust in government . . . just not for the reason you may think

Disasters and threats tend to be politically unifying.  Public approval of George W. Bush jumped after the 9/11 attacks, and trust in government increased.  Donald Trump’s approval rating was highly stable due to increasing polarization, but even he enjoyed a small increase in approval at the start of the covid epidemic, and trust in government edged up slightly.  With covid, however, the rally-around-the-flag effect was short-lived.  For many Republicans covid policy under Biden has fueled distrust of politicians, public health officials, the efficacy of policies like masking, and even the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. 

An important question is why this has occurred.  One possible answer is that trust has been frayed because officials have dissembled.  This explanation is captured in the following exchange between Tyler Cowen and Zeynep Tufekci (quoted passage is from audience q and a at the end, my bold):

COWEN: From the iPad: are there situations where public health and transparency are in tension? And in those cases, should the public health authorities either lie to people or simply deliberately not tell them the full truth?

TUFEKCI: I just cannot imagine where we should not tell people the truth. Sometimes it gets complicated. For example, I do agree, for the most part, that the vaccinated are back at baseline risk, but that’s not the same as saying we should not have any indoor mask mandates for now. There’s been a crisis over that because people are taking it to mean the vaccinated are not safe, but that’s not true.

What you’re saying is that you can’t expect a business to differentially police. “Are you vaccinated? Are you not vaccinated?” We’re still vaccinating people, and we have the compromised people, and we have children under 12 who are not even eligible.

While we work through this for a couple more months, perhaps, it makes sense — especially if it’s in less ventilated space — just to keep it up. At that point, I wouldn’t say you should wear a mask if you’re vaccinated because you’re at risk. I would just say, “I think you’re fine, but the business can’t check your vaccination card. We don’t have something like that. This is how it’s got to be.”

Even this is not very complicated. Even if you did lie and get away with it, it would eventually come out. It’s 2021. There’s internet. There’s social media. The stuff would come out, and all you end up doing is creating less trust.

Political distrust is a huge problem; it may end up destroying American democracy.  But it is not primarily caused by politicians or government officials dissembling or even by outright lying.  Rather, people are distrustful because people they trust tell them to be distrustful.  If people only heard positive stories about the FDA, they would trust the FDA.  If people only heard positive stories about vaccines, they would trust vaccines.  Conversely, if people constantly hear messages questioning the truthfulness of FDA and raising doubts about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, they will be skeptical of FDA and vaccines even if vaccine scientists and public officials are completely honest about the effectiveness and side effects of vaccines. 

Yes, providing people with slanted information can undermine trust, but that it far from our biggest problem right now.  Fox News, libertarian propaganda organizations, and many Republican politicians are actively using the pandemic to undermine trust in government.  In a better world it might make sense to worry that being less than completely candid will undermine trust.  In our world, worrying about this seems like replacing the batteries in your smoke alarm while your teenager plays with gasoline and matches in the basement.