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Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg, the former Democratic presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, Indiana, spoke about the importance of trust to University of Delaware students on Oct. 8, 2020.

Pete Buttigieg talks about trust

Photo courtesy of the Biden Institute

Former presidential candidate speaks to UD students in Biden Institute event

Each time you accelerate through a green light, you put your life in the hands of the driver at the red light. Will he obey the law? Or will he plow through the intersection and sideswipe your vehicle? If you cannot trust the competence of this total stranger, you cannot function on the road.

Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to think of any daily interaction — big or mundane — that does not depend, at least to some extent, on faith in fellow humans.

“These trust relationships underwrite everything we do,” said Pete Buttigieg, former candidate for president, during a recent conversation at the University of Delaware. “It is not possible to drive a car or buy a sandwich, let alone run a military operation or fall in love, without the role of trust.”

So imagine how important trust becomes in the functioning of American government. If citizens cannot muster faith in their institutions — and data shows this trust has steadily been eroding for years — where does this leave the country? And how do we move forward?

These are the questions Buttigieg seeks to answer in his new book, Trust: America’s Best Chance. On Thursday, Oct. 8, in one of the first stops of a virtual book tour, the politico-turned-author addressed members of the UD community via Zoom, allowing for social distancing in the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Throughout the event, organized by the Biden Institute, he expressed hope for restoring faith in American democracy and ultimately bridging the political divide.

A former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and the first openly gay person to win a presidential caucus, Buttigieg is “one of the most interesting figures on the nation’s political stage these days,” said UD President Dennis Assanis, adding that “wherever you might fall on the political spectrum, I think it’s safe to say one of our nation’s biggest problems is lack of trust.”

It is fitting Buttigieg would choose to have this conversation at UD — his longtime friend and mentor, Cathy McLaughlin, serves as executive director of the University’s Biden Institute. She said she was first introduced to Buttigieg, then a high school student, by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who told her she should keep an eye on the young pupil because “he is going places.” Later, in her role as executive director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, McLaughlin grew to know Buttigieg as one of Harvard’s student leaders and a member of her student advisory council.

“I have to tell you how proud I am of you,” said McLaughlin, moderator of the event, to her mentee. “And I have to tell you, Senator Kennedy was right — he would have been so proud to see you here.”

“It is so fun to be reunited,” Buttigieg responded. “And I guess you should get a lot of credit and/or blame for all the things that I learned not that long ago.”

Zoom photo with 17 people, including Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg (top row, second from left), the former Democratic presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, Indiana, spoke to UD students via Zoom because health precautions related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic prevented an in-person event.

So what does Buttigieg know about trust? A former U.S. Navy reservist, he said he gleaned a lot about the topic while deployed to Afghanistan in 2014. While driving through a central intersection in Kabul, nicknamed “suicide circle” because of all the bombings that take place there, he noticed a local man approaching his vehicle. Buttigieg considered that this person might be attempting to affix an explosive device to the wheel well of his car, a common tactic in the area, but he ultimately decided to go with his gut and not level a weapon. As it turns out, in a tight traffic jam, a piece of the Afghan man’s Toyota Corolla had merely gotten stuck on Buttigieg’s vehicle, and he had only wanted to dislodge it.

“He was placing his life in my hands by approaching without being able to communicate why, and I was making the decision about whether I could trust him with my life,” Buttigieg said.

More recently, the former mayor was thrust into greater identification with the importance of trust while marching over Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in March. The event was meant to commemorate Bloody Sunday, the day in 1965 when civil rights activists faced a violent police force while marching for voting rights in this same location.

“These marchers had enough trust in each other and had enough trust in their cause and had enough trust in the possibility of our institutions to change when they were confronted with the demand, that they were able to step forward and risk their lives in order to do it,” Buttigieg said. “By putting their bodies on the line, these marchers had the courage to change the trust equation in ways that directly led to some achievements in the civil rights era.”

So trust can save lives and change the world. But it’s not easy to achieve, Buttigieg acknowledged, especially when it comes to trusting the government. And he would never ask anyone to “naively suppose the system is perfect,” he said, citing gerrymandering, corporate money in politics and issues of systemic racism that have legitimately undermined faith in American institutions. “But our system is also the only thing that can fix itself. In other words, the elegance of the Constitution is that it creates ways to self heal if — and only if — people get involved.”

To facilitate this self-healing — to transform the government into something more effective, responsible and trustworthy — Buttigieg stressed the importance of backing up activism on social media and in the streets with voting at the polls, “the moment of maximum power.”

He also highlighted the importance of supporting good reporting, necessary for combating dangerous misinformation that proliferates on social media.

“As mayor of South Bend, I had dustups with the local paper, because I would get mad at them if I didn’t think their coverage was fair,” Buttigieg said. “But I also know they cared about making sure it was fair. And we would be so much worse off as a community if we didn’t have journalists.”

Buttigieg urged students not to underestimate the value of local involvement.

“Even the toughest issue you hear about nationally gets cashed out on a local level,” he said. “That is certainly true with racial justice and police violence, but also issues of economic justice, housing, even climate. You know, in order to testify in front of Congress, you have to be invited. In order to speak out in a local decision-making process, you just show up. I’ve seen votes go differently because of the testimony of high school students not even old enough to vote who compelled elected officials to think about things a little differently. One of the most powerful things in the world is a young person looking someone in a position of responsibility in the eyes and saying: ‘What are you doing to keep me safe?’ ”

At the end of his talk, Buttigieg took questions from students in the audience that ranged in topic from the place of transgender folks in the military (people should be “allowed to bring their whole selves to serve,” he answered) to his future plans (that’s undecided, though more public service is likely).

Esha Shah, a sophomore world scholar and public policy and communication double major, asked the former mayor for his advice on finding common ground during a time of such terrible political polarization.

The key is getting outside of one’s information silo, Buttigieg said, by joining groups where different communities and perspectives overlap: a soccer team that welcomes Democrats and Republicans. A church that is multigenerational. Any club or organization that allows for trust-building encounters beyond one’s own concentric circle.

In the meantime, he told the students: Take heart. You’re already off to a great start.

“Probably the greatest thing humanity has ever invented for the purpose of doing this, other than the city, is the university,” Buttigieg said. “You’re in the middle of it. This is your best chance to engage with people who come at the world differently than you.”

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