“One of the most powerful things in the world is a young person looking into the eyes of someone in a position of power and responsibility and saying ‘What are you doing to keep me safe?’” Pete Buttigieg, former presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said.
This past Thursday, Buttigieg virtually sat down with Cathy McLaughlin, executive director of the Biden Institute. His stop at the Biden Institute was one of the first of his nationwide book tour for his latest book, “Trust.”
Five minutes into their introductions, McLaughlin revealed to the audience that she had actually known “Peter,” as she affectionately called him, for 20 years and that they first met at Harvard. McLaughlin was Buttigieg’s professor at the Institute of Politics back when he was in college.
They bonded over their shared relationship with the late Senator Ted Kennedy, as McLaughlin said that Kennedy would have been “so proud to see what Pete had accomplished.” Buttigieg was the president of the Institute of Politics’ Student Advisory Council, which he shared with the Biden Institute’s own Student Advisory Council’s members on screen.
Buttigieg shared his personal journey from college student to running for president. He said he was instantly “magnetically drawn to the Institute of Politics, built around the legacy of President John F. Kennedy,” since he already had an interest in politics when arriving at Harvard.
Buttigieg said he grew up in a family that was “politically aware, but not politically connected.” After stepping behind the curtain of politics at Harvard, he realized that people leading the world were “just people, there was no mystique, and they were not on another plane of existence.”
He carried this sense of awareness home with him, which changed his sense of empowerment. When he returned to his hometown of South Bend in the 1990s, where he grew up around the auto industry, he faced the consequences of its collapse.
Growing up in that environment, he got the message that “success had to do with getting out and getting away” from South Bend. He went to Harvard with this assumption, only to realize that “there was so much purpose back at home where he came from.”
“This is our city, we love it,” Buttigieg said. “It was this realization that led to me becoming mayor of South Bend.”
McLaughlin asked Buttigieg about the topic of his book “Trust,” and how to best tackle the current climate of mass distrust in American institutions that it describes.
“There’s a lot of nostalgia of how there used to be a more trusting time; it was dramatically higher a century ago,” Buttigieg said.
He discussed how the low levels of trust today are what inspired him to write his book. He stressed the necessity of trust in cooperation, and how trust must be built up with other nations to fight the climate crisis and amongst the American people in regards to governmental institutions.
“When we talk about a more trusting time, do we want to just look at the past or look towards the future?” Buttigieg said.
Buttigieg shared a story about his deployment in Afghanistan, where he spent a lot of his time transporting other military personnel safely through the crowded city of Kabul. His story started with a traffic jam in one of Kabul’s traffic circles considered “so notorious” for suicide bombings that his fellow U.S. soldiers referred to it as “suicide circle.”
While working within this circle, Buttigieg saw a man approaching with something in his hand. Buttigieg said he was well-trained regarding threats of magnetic explosives being attached to wheels of military vehicles. In that moment, he had to decide whether to pull his weapon on this man approaching or to wait and hear the man out. Buttigieg’s own life, as well as those of the other military personnel in his vehicle, depended on his judgement at that moment.
He made the split-second decision to trust the man, believing his body language implied good intentions. As it turned out, the man’s car had gotten stuck on the back of the military vehicle, and he simply wanted to free his car.
This encounter was an example of a mutual decision of unspoken faith where both of these men made the decision to place trust in each other, even though their lives could have been at risk. Buttigieg used this example to highlight that “trust relationships underwrite everything we do, from driving a car to running a military operation, to falling in love.”
The conversation about trust then shifted to Buttigieg’s participation earlier this year in the recreation of the historic “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, along with several civil rights icons who had been beaten and bloodied on the same bridge decades earlier. Buttigieg was asked what needs to be done in order to gain trust from marginalized and oppressed citizens. He said that those marchers had enough trust and confidence in our institutions for the possibility of change.
“Black Americans have every reason to distrust American institutions, not just governmental, but medical institutions,” Buttigieg said. “Every institution in American life has had implicit and explicit discrimination, and we have to remember that trust is not distributed equally.”
“In 2002, only 3% of young people said they’d never trust the government, now it is 17%,” McLaughlin stated. “What can we do for young people to rebuild their trust?”
“The most important thing is to recognize that the government is only as good or as bad as we let it become,” Buttigieg responded.
He stressed that this was why voting was so important and said that if people don’t believe in the government, it’s likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“All of the activism on social media and in the streets has to lead to the moment when you have the most power; when you are filling out your ballot and voting,” Buttigieg said. “Trust should not be an ideological or partisan issue.”
McLaughlin then asked Buttigieg what else young people could do — in addition to voting — to get involved in politics.
Buttigieg’s advice was two-pronged. First, he emphasized the importance of grassroots efforts in local politics and efforts.
“I found a whole new level of meaning and building trust when I got involved in local politics, especially how to build the relationships in order to get stuff done,” Buttigieg said.
He described how the “most global issues we can think of come down to what happens locally, from racial justice to climate.” As mayor, he witnessed how in order to speak out in the local process; one just has to “show up and speak up,” as opposed to speaking to Congress, where one has to be invited. Buttigieg said he has seen high school testimonials sway state officials’ votes.
“The longer you’re planning to be here [on this planet], the more you have at stake,” Buttigieg said.
The conversation then moved on to a Q&A session with students who attended the event. Graduate student Allyson Lawson, a fellow military veteran, asked Buttigieg whether he feels worried about LGBTQ people serving in the military, especially with the latest “transgender ban.”
Buttigieg, the first openly gay man to ever win a presidential caucus, answered this very personal question. He said the military is the one place where you are evaluated on your service to country without seeing your privilege and identity.
“It is important for the security and integrity of an entire country that people bring their entire selves into the military and service of our government,” Buttigieg said.
John Cohill, vice president of the university’s Student Government Association, wrapped up the conversation with a fitting final question: “What’s next? After the book tour and election, what are your future aspirations?”
Buttigieg responded that his ultimate goal is to help the U.S. create a culture of belonging and restore its leadership position in the world. He wants to lead on “concrete issues like climate as well as moral issues like democracy.”
He went on to say that he doesn’t really have a solid plan after the election. He believes that plans are good to have, but it is “more fruitful to think about what you most care about and look for the best opportunity in front of you to pursue them.”
Buttigieg said that he’s focused on one thing right now.
“We’ve got 3.5 weeks to ensure there is in fact a Biden-Harris administration,” Buttigieg said. “I’m doing everything I can to support the Biden-Harris ticket.”