The Dangerous Discounting of Donald Trump

by Ali Minai

DJT_Headshot_V2By this point in US Election 2016, everyone acknowledges that the Presidential candidacy of Donald Trump is one of the most transformative phenomena to arise in American society in a long time – possibly since the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, of which it is, in some ways, a perverted mirror image. However, it's ludicrous and perverse aspects should not blind anyone – including its adherents – to its corrosive but real power. Those who had until recently discounted Trump are gradually beginning to realize this, and mockery is being replaced with a mixture of fear and perplexity.

Foremost among the perplexed are the American elites and the chattering classes, who have tended to treat the candidacy of Donald Trump for President as a running farce. His frequently offensive and ignorant statements – usually via twitter – have become a staple of late-night comedy, and the cause for general derision in the news media. A surge in the polls after the Republican convention triggered a temporary bout of concern that he might actually win, but that concern receded as a very successful Democratic convention and Trump's disparaging of the Khan family boosted Hillary Clinton to a double digit national lead. A narrative settled in that Trump was finished, even as Clinton's lead has gradually declined, and now stands in the 2-4 percent range. While this has triggered a new round of anguish among Democrats, it has not yet completely changed the overall notion that, surely, the American people will not vote for someone as patently unqualified and irresponsible as Trump. The American people themselves have bolstered this assumption, with poll after poll showing that large majorities of voters consider Clinton more qualified and temperamentally suited to be President. A recent survey showed that nearly half of voters – including 22% of Trump supporters! – believe that he will use a nuclear weapon. Yet, what is often left unexplained is why the same polls typically show the head-to-head race between Trump and Clinton as very close. The implicit belief seems to be that voters will eventually come to their senses. In fact, this discrepancy should indicate exactly the opposite: That a certain chunk of voters have looked at both candidates, realized that Trump is unqualified to be President, but are nevertheless willing to vote for him. These voters have apparently considered and rejected rational arguments against Trump, suggesting that no further rational argument is likely to sway them. The same is true for the issues of bigotry and racism that are clearly relevant with regard to Trump. Most Clinton-supporters and the elite media have assumed that, once Trump's long history of bigotry against minorities and women became well-known, it would be impossible for him to win. The initial response to the Khan controversy reinforced this view. However, recent polling data suggests that this notion is not altogether justified either. As with competence, there is a segment of voters who know about Trump's bigotry, do not agree with it, but are still willing to overlook it. This segment is not necessarily identical with the one willing to overlook his incompetence, but there is probably considerable overlap. In any case, it appears that counting on the good sense of American voters to protect the world from Trump may be too optimistic.

There is probably a core 30-35% of voters who support Trump because they agree with his authoritarian and illiberal ideas, but there seems to be a further X percent that is willing to support him even though they do not agree with his ideology or attitude. What is not clear is how large X is, whether it is growing, and especially whether it will become large enough to produce a Trump victory. Time will tell, but it is instructive to analyze the nature and origin of this phenomenon in greater depth.

A clarification is in order here. Though closely related, the issue raised above is not identical to the questions of why the Trump phenomenon emerged in the first place, or why Trump might win the election. My thoughts on the former were laid out in an earlier piece, and have not changed. The latter issue is usually seen in the context of rising economic inequality, reaction to globalization, the impact of immigration, endless war overseas, and several other very real issues that are stressing the American electorate. In May, Howard Fineman wrote a rather prescient article on why Trump might win. Others such as Sean Trende have argued that there is a hidden white vote that Trump might be able to activate. The focus of the current article is not on all this; it is on why Donald Trump continues to attract voters in spite of being seen as an unqualified bigot and running his campaign totally contrary to conventional wisdom.

One useful way to look at the Trump candidacy is through the lens of anti-fragility, a concept introduced by Nassim Taleb to characterize systems that can exploit disorder to their benefit. It has long been understood that noise and disorder are of great value to complex systems. A well-known example is the driving of biological evolution by random mutation and recombination of genes. Anti-fragility formalizes this idea, and shows how it applies in a broad range of complex systems. It can be argued that all successful complex systems must be anti-fragile in order to thrive rather than being undone by their own complexity. Any successful social movement must therefore meet this criterion, and arguably, the Trump movement does that in spades. So what is it that makes the Trump movement anti-fragile? And will that lead to a Trump victory? This article attempts to address mainly the first question.

The reasons for Trump's relative success can be divided into two categories: Chronic and acute. The former are secular, structural factors that have developed over time, and provide important context; the latter are specific to Trump, his opponent, and his campaign.

The major secular reasons for Trump's success are: 1) The anxieties created by the state of the world, including globalization, war, mass migration, and the mostly unacknowledged effects of climate change and demographics; 2) The post-reality ethos of the current Republican Party; and 3) A closely and deeply divided electorate.

A World of Turmoil

As acknowledged widely, perhaps the single biggest factor fueling the rise of Trump is a rising worldwide anxiety triggered by the pace of change in the world. A lot of this change is economic. With information rapidly replacing land, capital, and even labor, as the basis of power, whole populations find themselves distressed and marginalized. In the developed economies of the West – and especially in the United States – this has manifested itself as a shock to the working classes: Non-college educated workers with blue-collar jobs in the manufacturing, transportation, and service industries. As these jobs become more technical and information-intensive – and are increasingly subject to automation – this very large chunk of the populations has seen its options dwindle. This has been exacerbated by the aggressive destruction of unions by the ascendant Right, though it is doubtful if unions could have withstood such global forces in any case. One very visible consequence of this change has been exploding economic inequality, where a small, more affluent and educated segment of the population has monopolized economic benefits almost wholly for itself, leaving the vast majority worse off today than they were decades ago. Among other things, this has led to large-scale social breakdown, and ratcheted up the level of anxiety. This is also intertwined with rapid demographic changes – the aging of the population, an increase in the proportion of non-white, often non-Christian populations, the accompanying shifts in social norms, and the erosion of “traditional values”. At the same time, the world is troubled by terrorism, wars in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa, drug-related violence in Central America, demographic crises in Asia and Africa, and increasingly extreme climate conditions all over the world. One concrete effect of these calamities has been the triggering of mass migrations, bringing large numbers of foreign migrants into already stressed societies. Add to this the fact that the radical Jihadist movement has ridden the Internet into Western homes, creating understandable panic about domestic radicalization.

Different voting groups have reacted differently to these changes, but a significant segment of white voters in many Western democracies have been unnerved by the change, leading to the emergence of strong nativist movements in Europe, Australia, and now in the United States, where refrains such as “I want my country back”, “America First”, “Don't tread on me”, and “Make America great again” have become the staples of the Tea Party and the Trump campaign. A hankering for a vanished social order where a white majority dominated economically and culturally is clearly implicit in these attitudes, though it would be a mistake to ascribe all of this mindset to race (see, e.g., Brexit, where Asian-origin voters were a significant factor in passage).

Given this situation, it was only a matter of time before someone like Trump would have emerged in American politics. The Tea Party provided an early glimpse of this, and it is unlikely that it will end with Trump if he loses. The context for more professional, more dangerous nativist demagogues to arise is probably with us for the foreseeable future.


The Republican Alternate Reality Project

Another important long-term factor underlying the rise of Trump is the evolution of the Republican Party in the last several decades. Following the defeat of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential election, some in the Republican Party embarked on an ambitious plan to create an alternative reality to sustain their conservative ideology in a world driven increasingly by the ideas of science. This project took off following the enactment of civil rights and welfare laws by Democrats and liberal Republicans in the mid-1960s, and truly became supercharged in the Reagan years with the advent of talk radio and the rise of the religious right. The culmination of this alternative reality was the election of George W. Bush in 2000, and the subsequent invasion of Iraq – arguably one of the most world-altering events of the last fifty years. The foundational principles of the Republican Alternate Reality Project, or RARP, are the detachment of belief from evidence, and the manufacturing of conspiracy theories to sustain an evidence-free view of reality. In this funhouse mirror universe, reducing taxes increases revenue and cuts deficits (supply-side – or voodoo – economics), taking away their welfare benefits makes poor people happier, giving more money to the rich alleviates poverty (trickle-down economics), election fraud is rampant in America, and climate change is an elaborate liberal hoax. Notable recent additions to this canon include the idea that President Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim Saul Alinsky acolyte, and the primary function of Planned Parenthood is to harvest fetuses for evil scientists.

In the particular context of the present election, the effect of the RARP is to create an open space for Donald Trump to propagate lie after lie without any pushback from his committed followers. The fact-checking site Politifact did an analysis in late June showing that, of the Trump statements they had fact-checked during the campaign to that point, 60% were “false” or “pants-on-fire” (i.e., extremely false), while another 18% were “mostly false”. Only an incredible 2.5% of Trump statements examined were “true” and only another 5% were “mostly true”! In contrast, Hillary Clinton had 13% “false” or “pants-on-fire” and 13% “true” or “mostly true”. A more recent analysis by Politifact shows that this pattern has continued to this day. A watershed moment was reached on September 16, when Donald Trump declared that he no longer believed in the “birther” conspiracy about President Obama being born in Kenya – a conspiracy he had promoted assiduously for five years – and immediately replaced it with a new false conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton originating the birther conspiracy! No ordinary politician could have pulled off such a feat of irrational jiu-jitsu, but most of Trump's followers were unperturbed. It turns out that they saw his new position as simply part of a larger conspiracy in which he remained a birther but was denying it for political reasons. This response illustrates how Trump can “do no wrong” as far as his followers are concerned: If he says what they want, they like him; if he repudiates it, they don't believe him and give him the benefit of the doubt.

The detachment from reality, devaluation of science and reason, mistrust of facts, and glorification of simple-mindedness implicit in RARP has created exactly the conspiratorial, paranoid context that a demagogue can exploit – and Trump is clearly taking advantage.

A 50-50 Country

By a quirk of fate or, more likely, as a consequence of the two-party political system, the United States finds itself divided politically into two almost equal halves. In part for reasons stemming from the two factors described above, these halves have become increasingly hostile to each other, coming to think of their opponents not merely as rivals but as enemies. This means that both major parties start with a voter base of almost 40% that would vote the party line regardless of the candidate. For a candidate like Hillary Clinton, who is in the mainstream of her party, this is useful but not crucial: She would have attracted such a following just based on her policies. For Trump, however, it is a huge bonus. His policies may appeal to only 30-35% of the electorate, but another 5-10% commit to him for the sake of party alone. Prominent among these are such Republican stalwarts as Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senators John McCain and Marco Rubio, and media personalities such as Hugh Hewitt. Only a few conscientious Republicans, such as former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, and Ohio Governor John Kasich, have been able to withstand the pull of party loyalty – and it is not certain whether their consciences will remain resolute until election day or follow the ignominious example of Senator Ted Cruz. These reluctant high-profile Trump loyalists give him not only their votes, but also their credibility. They normalize him for a segment of Republican and independent voters who may not accept Trump's ideas, but give him the benefit of doubt because of a Paul Ryan or a John McCain. These voters may, in turn, pull in others, as Trump is seen as more widely acceptable. The fact that this has not happened more broadly is probably because Trump is a remarkably undisciplined candidate, who repeatedly throws away his advantage because of a lack of self-control. However, a future demagogue may well be able to exploit this effect more successfully

Clearly, the three reasons discussed above do not cover the entire secular context in which the Trump phenomenon has arisen, but they are major factors that explain the context in which his movement is possible. It is, however, more interesting to look at factors that are specific to this particular election at this time.

The Trump Ratchet

Perhaps the most important specific reason why Trumpism is potentially anti-fragile is that it is a cult that has reached critical mass, creating a ratchet effect. Just as a ratchet driven by random back-and-forth forces nevertheless only moves in one direction because it filters out the forces not aligned with its preferred motion, so those who – for whatever reason of the moment – feel like moving to Trump are able to do so, but find it difficult to move back. This could be triggered in individuals by a terrorist incident, a fresh revelation about Clinton, even an internet meme. Such changes in opinion happen all the time, but in this case, they are likelier to be “sticky”. Cults are notoriously easier to join than to leave. Someone joining a cult is not just making a potentially reversible rational choice; they are pledging allegiance, which can then only be broken with some loss of self-respect. There is a transformation of identity involved in joining a movement such as Trump's. For a normal, cautiously moderate, politically-correct person to join such a movement requires giving up their old persona, revising their values, flinging away the garment of propriety, so to speak, and joining a bacchanal of true-believers. There is seldom a path of return from such abandonment and such commitment. Another factor in this is the sense of belonging, the energy of being part of something larger than oneself, which is a heady draught. Who would want to go back to “boring” – perhaps even “crooked” – Hillary Clinton once one has become part of the muscular beast that is the Trump movement?

For Hillary Clinton and the Democrats to overcome this slow but inexorably unidirectional effect, they must find a way to break the ratchet – possibly with a transformational moment in a debate, or an external event. Advertising on TV is unlikely to do it. But if the ratchet is broken, it may well become completely loose, with a surge away from Trump.


Mainstreaming of White Identity Politics

Another important effect fueling Trump's political movement is a dramatic change in the social acceptability of a specifically white identity. Identity politics is nothing new in the American system – especially for minority groups that appeal to group solidarity to overcome their marginalization in society at large. Over the last several decades, identity politics have mattered much more in the Democratic Party, where solid voting blocs such as African-American and LGBTQ voters have been critical to the success of the party. Meanwhile, almost by default, the Republican Party's voting base has become increasingly white, but that has not been seen as an explicit identification – in part because the notion of “white identity” has been tied closely with toxic ideologies such as white supremacy. Election 2016 has changed that. One of Trump's greatest strategic successes has been to turn his campaign into a vehicle for expressing attitudes, anxieties and grievances that have been building up in certain segments of the white electorate for reasons discussed earlier in this piece, but which could not be expressed in polite company until now. For the first time in recent American politics, an explicitly identifiable and somewhat socially acceptable white group identity has been created at the national level, with Donald Trump as its face. One should expect that some significant number of voters will be drawn in by their solidarity with this group in spite of their rational inclinations. These voters are not racists or bigots, and may not even agree with Trump's policies, but now see voting for him as a matter of their cultural identity – not unlike some African-Americans voting Democratic. And, as they see their friends and family climb onto the Trump bandwagon, it will be difficult for many of them (though not all) to acknowledge that their loved ones have bought into a racist or bigoted mindset. Society and media face the same problem: As Trump attracts more voters, it becomes harder to call their attitudes bigoted without implying that a large fraction of the American electorate is – in Hillary Clinton's accurate, if ill-advised, phrase – “a basket of deplorables”. Indeed, such a characterization further hardens the attitudes of those who have already transitioned to Trump, and may tip some more over to that side.

Some may claim that this argument applies only to a fraction of the white electorate, and the effect is too small to matter. Indeed, there is some possibility that Trump may get less of the white vote overall than Mitt Romney did. However, even marginal effects are important in a close election. And there are (at least) four concrete reasons for taking this one seriously. First, the effect is concentrated in a specific voting segment rather than spread all over, so it does not average out. Second, as Nate Cohn has shown through analysis of census and voter data, the number of white voters in the U.S. is consistently under-estimated. Third, white working class voters – who represent the largest group switching to Trump – are concentrated disproportionately in important battleground states such as Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, and Iowa. And finally, in spite of widespread discounting of the hypothesis, there is likely to be a “shy Trump” vote – voters who support Trump but are too embarrassed to admit it to others, including to pollsters. This phenomenon was seen in the UK during the recent Brexit referendum, and in some states during the Republican primary. Indeed, there may also be a “heedless Trump” vote, representing voters who cast a protest vote for him in the belief that he was unlikely to win. This was clearly a factor in the surprising outcome of the Brexit vote.

Anyone But Hillary

An important factor stabilizing the Trump vote is that the alternative – Hillary Clinton – has been rendered utterly unacceptable to a large fraction of voters. This is partly because of increasingly virulent partisanship in a divided electorate, but this election is a special case in this regard because of who the Democratic candidate is.

As mentioned earlier, objective fact-checkers have shown that Hillary Clinton is exceptionally truthful in her political statements while Trump is spectacularly untruthful. Yet polls often suggest that Trump is seen as more honest and transparent than Clinton, and just as untrustworthy! This clearly makes it much easier for Trump to peddle negative ideas about Clinton without much skepticism from the voters. But why does this situation exist in the first place? The answer lies partly in latent sexism, but mainly in history and historical amnesia.

An important activity of the right-wing in the US for the last quarter century has been the systematic and inexorable devaluation of all things Clinton. Beginning with the bogus Whitewater “scandal” and running through all the years of Bill Clinton's presidency, what Hillary Clinton famously called a Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (VRWC) ginned up one fake scandal after another – until Bill Clinton obliged with a real one! The purpose was clearly to make him a failed President, but his political talent and good fortune combined to thwart that. His wife, unfortunately, enjoys neither the political talent nor the good fortune. And she is a woman trying to make her way in a Man's world. As a result, she faces intense scrutiny for things that most politicians do and are never challenged on. Her handling of the attack in Benghazi in 2012 has become yet another fake scandal dogging her, as has her use of a private email server and her involvement in her husband's charitable foundation. Her Republican opponents have created an entire cottage industry of harassing her while paying no heed to equally – or more – egregious things in their own ranks. Unfortunately – though understandably – Hillary Clinton has responded to this decades-long persecution by becoming ever more insular, which then creates space for yet more suspicion. In particular, the Republican witch-hunt on Benghazi and the partly self-inflicted wound of the email server have been key factors in driving Clinton's negatives.

But systematic persecution by the Right and the email scandal are insufficient to explain Hillary Clinton's image problem. A significant share of the blame lies with the Left. For twenty consecutive years, Hillary Clinton has been the most admired woman in America, based on Gallup's polling. When she left her position as Secretary of State in January 2013, her personal approval rating stood at a spectacular 58%. Even as late as November 2014, she was at 50%. Based on the excellent interactive chart at Huffington Post's Pollster, the graphs for approval and disapproval crossed in April 2015, and since then have diverged rapidly to where now her approval stands at 42%, with 56% disapproving. What happened? Well, she started her primary campaign against progressive icon Bernie Sanders. The grueling year-long campaign that followed played a decisive role in tarnishing Hillary Clinton's image among liberals, and especially young voters. Senator Sanders famously – and graciously – refused to make her email server an issue in the campaign, but then focused single-mindedly on pushing the idea that Clinton was a stooge of the wealthy and the privileged. Though he never used Trump's currently favored term – “Crooked Hillary” – he often used words such as “crooked” and “dishonest” in association with her, thus laying the groundwork for Trump's calumny. His supporters were considerably less restrained. Today, as Sanders tries to help elect Clinton, many among his followers have not forgotten their champion's original characterization of her. Indeed, a significant fraction of Sanders voters are not supporting Clinton, but are either planning to vote third party or even supporting Trump as the “lesser evil”! The problem is especially acute among young “millennial” voters. While they are by far the most pro-Clinton age group, they are not supporting her at levels they did with Obama, with more than a third planning to vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein.

All these factors – right-wing propaganda, progressive suspicions, and Hillary Clinton's own (relatively minor) missteps – combine to make Trump's task of casting her as a crook much easier than it ought to be based on facts alone. In the hothouse of all the Clinton conspiracy theories, he is now trying to add new false ones about her health, her part in promoting “birtherism”, and mysterious ties to Islamists. And, given Clinton's situation, he may succeed with many voters.

Media Exploitation

One final important factor for Trump's strength also deserves mention – and has, indeed, been much discussed of late: His implicit normalization by a media unprepared for Trump's unusual candidacy. Outside the swamps of ideological media such as talk radio, journalistic practice has appropriately regarded fairness and objectivity as virtues. One way these virtues are manifested in reporting is to treat rival candidates with an equal presumption of integrity, and trying to get “both sides” of every story. This works, however, only if the presumption is at least approximately true – or even when it is equally untrue on both sides. All politicians dissemble, exaggerate and spin, but there are unstated limits for such things. Beginning with the 2000 George W. Bush campaign, the Republicans made a systematic effort to breach these limits, using the power of the RARP and the VRWC to create a fictitious narrative to the benefit of Bush. A White House aide – likely Karl Rove – famously derided the “reality-based community” and said “We create our own reality”. This effort continued throughout the Bush years, and became supercharged in the Obama years to create the Tea Party: Birtherism is only its most prominent triumph. However, Trump has taken it to a new level, completely upending media convention. The press is used to searching for lies buried in mundanely true assertions, and then highlighting them. All of its investigative techniques are geared to this goal. But in Trump's case, 70% plus of his assertions are demonstrably false, making truth the more elusive entity! For more than a year, the media has been reluctant to call him out on this, since doing so would make it look “biased” in favor of Clinton, who fibs far less. The results has been a narrative of false equivalence, where both candidates are seen as “equally dishonest” and Trump is given a pass on a large fraction of his lies. The story of the Trump Foundation and the Clinton Family Foundation (CFF) is an example. The latter has done excellent humanitarian work all over the world for years. And, like all institutions that rely on glamor and celebrity to raise funds, it has indulged in some harmless wink-and-nod exploitation of personal connections. In contrast, as the Washington Post's David Fahrenthold has shown through outstanding reporting, the Trump Foundation appears mainly to be a vehicle for bilking money from donors to Donald Trump's personal benefit. Yet, for weeks in August and early September, the media was full of negative reports on the CFF, and left the Trump Foundation story to languish. However, a sea-change seems to have occurred since Trump pulled a humiliating bait-and-switch on the press with his publicity stunt “renouncing” birtherism. A page was finally turned, and elite media made the fateful decision to begin calling out Trump's falsehoods for what they were: Lies. The effects of this decision remain to be seen, though polling suggests that, coincidentally, Trump has begun to lose ground since then. But he is currently advised by two master propagandists in Roger Ailes – recently fired from Fox News – and Steve Bannon, the editor of the Alt-Right propaganda organ, Breitbart, who has been termed “the most dangerous political operative in America”. It would be a mistake to think that the use of mass dissembling as a weapon by the Trump campaign has ended.

Looking Ahead

So, one may ask: Given all these factors, is Trump fated to win? Some have said yes based on fundamental indicators. Polling data, in contrast, suggests that Trump's path remains difficult. But this is a sui generis election. Data may be valid – and it usually is – but the uncertainty in interpreting data is extremely high in this election year. We have been conditioned to believe that the denizens of Western democracies are rational agents in their economics and politics, and that their choices can be predicted – at least in the aggregate – by well-founded historical analysis based on the interests and measured preferences of specific demographic groups. As implied above, this is likely to be a fool's errand in Election 2016. In fact, neither homo economicus nor homo politicus are especially rational to begin with, and their choices are ruled far more by gut feeling, intuition, and belief than by cold, hard analysis. Traditional models rely on the averaging out of quirky choices, but complex systems can self-organize into states where – as illustrated by the ratchet metaphor – things do not average out. This article has argued that the Trump movement is such a phenomenon. Barring a major event, its strength is likely to persist and grow with every passing day. It appears that the Clinton campaign realizes this, and has focused their strategy on slowing Trump's growth through aggressively negative advertising rather than investing in improving her currently dismal image. In a complex, nonlinear, and fundamentally unpredictable system, this is a rather risky strategy, but it is understandable why they are doing it.

Poll after poll has shown that voters do not think Trump has the temperament or experience to be Commander-in-Chief, and large segments of the population see him as dangerous. And yet, Clinton cannot close the deal. By now, it is clear that a big factor in this is her perceived lack of trustworthiness, which persists in spite of all objective evidence. Whichever candidate can overcome their critical liability – dishonesty for Clinton or lack of temperament for Trump – is likely to surge ahead. Arguably, Trump has an easier task on this, since temperament can be communicated by style, whereas establishing honesty requires a longer process – especially when evidence has ceased to matter. Notably, Trump has not been able to accomplish his “easier” task, but the upcoming debates provide him a great opportunity. If he can use them to convince another 10 or 15 percent of voters that they can feel comfortable with him as President, he will be difficult to stop. A necessary – though not sufficient condition – for Clinton's success is to keep Trump from accomplishing this. Ultimately, the Clinton campaign's approach is to keep Trump's negatives high while relying on the Obama model – micro-targeting of voters, great attention to early voting, charismatic surrogates, and a formidable ground game – to drive the votes. It remains to be seen whether such a data-driven, rational strategy can overcome the self-organized avalanche that is the Trump candidacy.

Ironically, Clinton's best hope may lie with the same factors that are currently fueling Trump's growth: A complex, nonlinear, fundamentally unpredictable voter dynamics that can lead not just to explosive growth but also to sudden, catastrophic failure. Complex systems thrive on anti-fragility, but no system is anti-fragile to all disruption. Anti-fragile systems succeed by tuning their mechanisms to the most “fertile” disorder available in their environment, essentially “purchasing” the ability to exploit the prevalent disorder at the price of greater fragility to rarer types of disruptions. However, if their environment changes in ways that increase the likelihood of these rare disruptions, the system can be exquisitely vulnerable. There are many exogenous sources of disruption in this campaign, including third party candidates, the daily possibility of terrorist incidents, police shootings, new revelations by hackers, candidate gaffes, and who knows what else that is ripening in the current media-culture hothouse. But if the Clinton campaign were more imaginative, they might look more explicitly to change the political context in ways that turn Trump's assets into liabilities. But imagination may be a bridge too far for a campaign built as a machine. So far, it is only Trump who has managed to do this to some degree by delegitimizing Clinton's experience as Secretary of State and the work of the Clinton Foundation.

This article is being published on the day of the first Presidential debate, and all its analysis may be superseded in a few hours by either candidate's performance. But the real point of this piece goes beyond the election itself. Win or lose, the grotesque candidacy of Donald Trump has changed America, bringing to a boil things that have been bubbling deep within American society, and exposing how detached from reality and incapable of critical thinking a large part of the American electorate has become. Ultimately, Trump too is just a symptom, a creation of blind forces much greater than himself. Even if he falls short in his quest for power, the forces that created him may be with us for a long time. A more competent Trump will then arise and accomplish what he could not. And if he wins this time, the first to suffer will be those who were his most ardent supporters.

Or it could be that this is the last gasp of the old world forces that propel Trump's cause, and that his defeat – or even his victory – may usher in a transformation of American society, finally moving us out of the stale legacy of the Baby Boomers, and into the fresh, magical reality of the Millennials. OMG!

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