Mr. Trump and the Global Circus


Supplement to the book

Confronting Complexity

X-Events, Resilience, and Human Progress


John L. Casti

Roger D. Jones

Michael J. Pennock



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Just what is the crazy-like-a-fox President-elect of the U.S. up to?  His antics would make P.T. Barnum blush with admiration. Mr. Trump has created a spectacle of showmanship on a scale unequaled at any place and at any time in the past. His millions of voters are more Pavlovian than a 50-dog act. And his detractors are as puzzled as they are livid. Let’s step back and take a look at the history leading up to this circus. Perhaps this can provide us with some hint on what to do next, before the lions are released  into the cage with us.

The last time the world was as globalized as it is now was in 1910. At that time, a manager could sit in his office in London and, with cables and telegraph, could manage a business anywhere on the planet. He had an information turn-around time of a few minutes. Goods and services were no longer generated locally; they were often created in some distant land. Complexity of life became more than many people could handle. Soon after 1910, the world experienced 30 years of violent retrenchment that led to the destruction global companies and the rise of nationalism.

The U.S. benefited from the situation by being one of the few industrial nations that was not bombed into rubble. After the second World War, US industry experienced decades of increased productivity. In the latter part of the 20th century, globalization had returned to the planet. Increased productivity and the return of globalization put pressure on American workers. Jobs were sent overseas or were taken over by automation. Women were freed from household drudgery and entered the workforce increasing workplace competition. Income inequality became as great as it was in the early 20th century when Theodore Roosevelt busted trusts.

Increased productivity and globalization produced fat companies that had more workers than work. This situation built up to the Great Recession of 2008. In that recession companies became lean. Workforces were pruned. Lower-skilled workers paid the price. The US economy recovered, but the recovery was jobless. Companies shed significant labor costs, and they were in no hurry to ramp those costs up again. Senior managers and shareholders took credit for the “improvement,” and gave themselves massive financial rewards. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer. And the people on the losing end once again faced a world of unbearable complexity.

The complexity was not only financial, it was also cultural. The Greatest Generation, the World War II generation, represented the glory days of America. We are 70 years past that horrible period, and yet, in the Deep South where I live, the nostalgia is palpable. It was a time when men were essential to the survival of tribes. They did not have to compete with women in the workplace; courage, a male trait, was more important that intelligence; life was reduced simply to good and evil, us and them, Christians and heathens, white skin versus brown skin; and, like the senior managers in this century, white males took credit for the great war victory. White males of 2016 feel culturally entitled because of something their grandparents did. Diversity and globalization, however, are complex and culturally threatening, like in the period before 1914.

Nothing that I said so far is new or surprising. The new twist to the story occurs after the 2016 Presidential election. Donald Trump ran on a populist platform. He promised to “drain the swamp” of career politicians and lobbyists; he promised to defend Medicare and Social Security, two extremely popular government programs; he promised to build a wall on our southern border so that brown-skinned people could not come into America and rape our women and take our jobs; he promised to punish companies that send jobs overseas; he promised to throw his political opponent in jail; and he promised to kill Obamacare.

Of course, Mr. Trump has already reversed himself on almost all of his campaign promises. He claims that his “voters should not have taken him so literally.” His mostly uneducated voters are angry, but they are not sure what the target of their anger is. They just know that life is uncomfortable, not why it is uncomfortable. Many Trump voters know that they are jobless, but they are unaware that those jobs are never coming back. They know that the demographics of the country are rapidly changing, but they still long for their glory days.

What has become quite clear in the days after the election is that Mr. Trump has pulled a fast one on his voters. He has no intention of reducing income inequality. In fact, his cabinet appointments are poised to do quite the opposite: open up federal lands to oil drilling, increase globalization with his buddy Vladimir Putin, send jobs overseas, defund science that threatens large business interests, and make Pfizer senior managers even richer.

How does Mr. Trump pull off this magic trick? That is not difficult. If his left hand is increasing income inequality, then just look at his right hand, not his left. His right hand is fanning the flames of cultural wars: against elites, immigrants, urbanites, Muslims, evidence, intellectuals, atheists, scientists, scholars, reality, and truth. Trump voters are just angry. They do not care if the target of their anger is the cause of their discomfort. They cannot tell what the source of their discomfort is. They will never notice what the left hand is doing, nor will they believe it if told.

So what does this mean for the republic? The whole trick depends on very many people being angry. The problem, however, is that the current Trump actions–I will not acknowledge them as policies– increase the discomfort of Americans, not decrease it. This sets the stage for an extreme event, an X-Event, even stronger than the one we have just experienced. The pressure must be released some way, and, when it happens, it will be like a 50 kiloton rubber band snapping. I would like to think that the actions of Mr. Trump and his voters do not lead to a cataclysm the size of the one that occurred in the 20th century, but I am not hopeful. That would be a spectacle that the world would not like to see again.

Roger Jones; Pensacola, Florida; December 20, 2016.

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