Ladies and Gentlemen — the POTUS (Photo: Jae C. Hong, AP)

The Trump Ascension Explained by Disruption Theory

I know, I know.

Another Trump piece.

Another arm-chair know-it-all’s take on Disruption Theory.

And the last thing you want to read is a Trump piece about Disruption Theory.

But hear me out. If for nothing else but pseudo-intellectual fun.

Anyway, here goes.

*deep breath*

So, I was on the bus, on my daily 1.5 hr commute from work to home, when I started scrolling through the troves of messages my family had been frantically sharing with each other about last night’s momentous rollercoaster of an election that capped off what felt like the most exhausting 18 month run-up to an election ever (and I’ve only lived through and remember 5 of them).

When it struck me.

Trump’s remarkable and unthinkable ascension to POTUS is classic Disruption Theory at play. And not the Techcrunch-variety of disruption, but the Clayton Christensen academic Disruption. Disruption with a capital ‘D’.

Long commutes on this are conducive to occasional brain farts

A Primer on Disruption Theory

To explain, I first need to do a quick level-set to make sure we’re on the same page about Disruption Theory as I understood it while seated on that bus ride home (and please humour me. This is meant to be more pseudo-academic fun than anything else, but hey, lets see where this goes):

  1. Disruption Theory, as described in Christensen’s ground-breaking book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, is a theory that attempts to explain how powerful incumbent players in an industry can be overtaken and competitively be beaten at their own game by seemingly inexperienced and relatively non-sophisticated new entrants.
  2. Disruption Theory also posits that incumbents don’t get disrupted because they are incompetent, but because they are shackled by the system that has brought them there. And since they are too busy serving the needs of people who keep them afloat, they leave a significant portion of the market underserved.
  3. The theory goes on to state (in an oversimplified nutshell) that these new entrants beat the more powerful incumbents by, at first, targeting a different — usually the aforementioned underserved — market using different value chains, and after getting really good at that, they slowly move upmarket until eventually they’ve taken over the entire market, including the incumbents’. Game, set, disrupt.

The Trump Disruption (Trumption?)

A quick sketch on my bus ride of the disruptive ascension of Trump. And yes, I realize the weirdness of this being drawn literally on the back of an envelope — it was the only thing I had to write on
  1. Disruption Theory says that the ruling incumbents are usually big and powerful and don’t really regard new entrants with much concern. Sure, the Trump empire is a multi-billion dollar machine but it was not considered very intimidating in the political arena. Many of the political incumbents didn’t even recognize Trump as a legitimate politician — in fact, his allure may have been that not even he positioned himself as one. The Democrats weren’t the only ones who didn’t take him seriously; neither did the Republicans! This gave Trump the flexibility to do what he wanted for a good period of time, i.e. spin his rhetoric with characteristic wanton recklessness.
  2. The incumbent political establishment — in both the Democrats and Republicans — had arguably outgrown their reach and mandate to the point where it was over-serving people who were already relatively happy and economically comfortable. This, however, left a lot of the underserved population (i.e. the ones in the so-called rust-belt) unhappy with the current state of affairs in their local communities. What the experts seemed to have missed was the size of this underserved population and the extent of their perceived plight. In other words, there were a lot of people who felt they needed their basic needs and dignity met, and they demanded change.
  3. Enter Trump, the unassuming and off-kilter new entrant. But Trump’s core message of bringing jobs back and restoring an older, “greater”, more industrial, version of America back resonated with that underserved population (which also, apparently, in large numbers were the same people who had voted for Obama 4 years ago, i.e. the common theme being that people are hungry for change).
  4. In addition, Disruption Theory also says that newer entrants are likely to be less shiny and more costly, on a per unit basis, than their competitors at first which means they get ignored by incumbents as being “small fish”. Until one day, seemingly out of nowhere, they’ve grown so much that they’ve taken over the incumbents. Trump is costly (mostly socially) and crass but his core message resonated with the underserved so well that it buoyed him to his seemingly remarkable achievement on the night of November the 8th. A victory that is actually not all that remarkable, when looked at in hindsight.
  5. Ultimately, Trump’s election to Presidency is as much about him doing the (shockingly) right things at the right time (whether deliberate or not) as it is about his opponents doing the wrong things to combat him. In fact, in retrospect, what had made his opponents so politically strong had also, paradoxically, made them so weak.

In other words, Donald Trump disrupted the political system.

And no one saw him coming all the way to the end.

Blockbuster, meet Netflix

And in keeping with the Netflix theme, orange is definitely the new black.