Donald Trump’s rise to power is not the story of the success of one man over and above all others, but rather the story of the rise of a system beneath a system, lurking in the depths of the United States. In order to find meaning in Trump’s election, we must explore those murky depths from which he was, very literally, spawned. (ed. I wrote this about a year ago, but never published it. I’m leaving it here now as-is for the sake of completeness.)
This morning, I was thinking about an article published in The Washington Post. In the article written by Brian Schaffner and Samantha Luks, a study is described in which 1,388 American adults were asked two questions. First, to identify which picture of the Washington Mall filled with people goes with which inauguration. Second, to ask which of the same pictures had more people in it. Each question was asked of half the participants. For full details, check out the article here. The result of the survey was that 41% of the people who voted for Trump associated the wrong picture with his inauguration, and 15% of the people who voted for trump said that the picture with fewer people in it had more people. While the results are not psychologically surprising, as Schaffner and Luks point out, they do indicate that perhaps there is more going on here than party loyalty and Trump fandom, as much as Trump would have us believe otherwise.
In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes how every idea that has caught the public’s eye or entered the Zeitgeist of thought was at some point thought of as absurd, as impossible, or as pointless. The tipping point, Gladwell says, is that point in the development of a product where it starts to gain ground. Where the number of people who think of it as a good idea begin to increase and gain ground against the naysayers. Common examples, of course, are the automobile, telephone, electricity, personal computer, portable music players, etc. Every idea has a tipping point. It just takes the right environment to reach there. Gladwell is speaking primarily here of entrepreneurial ideas, of business and/or product improvement. But, another writer, Thomas S. Kuhn, has written about a similar phenomenon in the annals of science.
Kuhn’s book The Scientific Revolution discusses how revolutionary scientific ideas gain ground. He hypothesizes that a radical idea will first surface, say for example Copernicus’ idea that the earth revolves around the sun. The idea and the purveyor of it are initial discredited, ridiculed, and isolated from society. At some point, however, the idea gains ground through other similarly-minded individuals and a Galileo and a Tycho Brae bring it forward for further study and inclusion in the conversation. At some point, a certain percentage of the general population begins to accept the new idea. Once that happens, it becomes reality. This is very similar to Gladwell’s idea, and it has held up to some scrutiny.
Both Gladwell’s and Kuhn’s theories are based in systems thinking and attempt to quantify — inasmuch as possible — the nature of emergent activities, information, and beliefs. And to that extent, they are very powerful methods by which we can attempt to understand how the world around us works, and what might be causing the kinds of things we observe every day that don’t seem to make sense. In systems thinking, the observation of the immediate must be combined with analysis of the events preceding it.
Don’t worry, all of this will lead to Trump’s emergence, though I’m betting that a few of you are there already. I have one more reference point to bring in, though, a little-known book called Systemantics: They Systems Bible by John Gall. In this book, Gall lists and explains a number of mantras about systems that he and other systems thinkers and observers of complexity have discovered over the years to be consistently true. Most relevant to the discussion here is the mantra “TO THOSE WITHIN A SYSTEM, THE OUTSIDE REALITY TENDS TO PALE AND DISAPPEAR” (Gall, 2012). The results of The Washington Posts’s article from this morning is perfectly explained by this mantra.
The system becomes the manner in which things are accomplished, communicated, and understood. Once the system becomes large enough — and they always do if left unattended — it traps people within it so that the only understanding people have of the world is through the system itself. Think of the parable of Plato’s cave, but in this case the cave is traveling around the world, gobbling people up and expanding as it does so. It’s a metaphorical way of understanding both Gladwell and Kuhn, really. How is it that a tipping point is accomplished? How is it that a 10% – 12% acceptance of something will become close to 100% acceptance. Gall’s mantra lends some understanding to this.
In Kuhn’s terms, Trump is the heliocentric model of the universe that strikes most people as so far-fetched that it’s impossible. He is Gladwell’s iPod. Enough people believe in Trump that he has caught on, and is either in the apex of or passing his tipping point. Couple these with Gall’s mantra that reality outside the Trump system is disappearing, and we end up with a president whose staff releases alternative facts, whose supporters insist that the emptier photo has more people, and on and on and on. The system is winning, as it always does when left to its own devices.
So for those of us who want to fight against this, how do we do it? Trump has proven to be surprisingly resilient and resistant to revelations on his character, his business dealings, and his conflicts of interest. Accusations of nepotism, favoritism, and pandering go unnoticed. All previously-effective methods of political undermining have failed. The system that manifested him doesn’t care about racism, bigotry, or oppression as long as it gets what it wants, which seems to be a combination of ultra-nationalist capitalism and far-right racial, gender, and moral oppression.