Donald Trump is Hari Seldon
I’ve seen a bunch of tweets about Trump being Asimov’s Mule. If you haven’t read Asimov’s Foundation Series, the Mule had the ability to “adjust” emotions in people, making them his puppets. You can see the appeal in the analogy: the President-elect is pathos, personified.
Except, such an analogy misses the mark.
Donald Trump is not the Mule.
Donald Trump is Hari Seldon.
The Mule operated on individuals, moving them like pieces in a game of chess. By contrast, Hari Seldon engineered a new socio-political order by understanding groups and their dynamic trajectories.
That’s what Trump is doing. He’s manipulating groups. He’s exploiting the natural, instinctive, and irrevocable human need to identify with our group and defend against the “other”.
The gambit is simple, and he uses it ceaselessly:
- Express an opinion that engenders either fanatical support from those who identify with him or rabid opposition from those who do not.
- Wait for media — social or traditional — to amplify the vitriol and divisiveness. One group yells; the other group yells back. Everyone slings insults. It’s a feedback loop. At the end of each episode, people forget the intellectual basis for their arguments — only group identity remains as a salient factor.
It’s a surprisingly sufficient and renewable means to power.
Granting this argument begs the obvious question — how do we counter such a play?
I don’t know.
It’s the question that now dominates my research, but I admit this is all speculative. However, I keep coming back to the Hari Seldon analogy because it’s fertile (to me).
If Trump won the election by employing this emotional group logic, what are the groups? Political science theorizes that elections result in temporary coalitions which decay quickly (i.e. the short-lived “honey moon”). Usually, this makes sense. But, when the Republican candidate and now President-elect derives his power from group identity, the coalitions are more robust if only because they are chronically salient.
Except, it’s worse than that.
I don’t think the electoral split in 2016 reflected ephemeral coalitions. Instead, it represented a rupture along the real cultural fault line lying between two antagonistic cultures that are currently well-matched in terms of mass. The culture of Trump supporters is a culture in decline. They sense the dwindling social value associated with their beliefs. To Make America Great Again, is to reaffirm the moral and cultural supremacy of their beliefs — and, by implication, the moral and cultural supremacy of those who hold said beliefs. Conversely, the younger culture of those opposed to Trump is in ascent. However, it does not yet enjoy the level of dominance necessary for continued reproduction and stability. And, Trump winning the battle that was the 2016 election highlights their continued vulnerability.
If this is true — if the current polarization is not mere ephemeral artifact of the election, and Trump is masterfully playing off genuine cultural opposition — then inter-group appeals to logos and ethos don’t matter. Such appeals immediately betray the cultural basis of the interlocutor. By that, I don’t mean “only people against Trump care about logic or justice.” Instead, I mean: what you choose to focus on inherently signals your ethical and intellectual judgments. And, those ethical and intellectual judgements are well-circumscribed by the antagonistic cultures. They make excellent group discriminators.
If logos and ethos don’t matter, how do you beat Trump?
Stop playing his game.
Revoke the agenda control we’ve granted him while satisfying our moral and intellectual indignation.
Squelch his signal.
When Trump says or does something that has no immediate policy implications — ignore him. Don’t take the bait.
In the mean time, get ahead of him. As a president, there are issues he has to deal with. Most are predictable. Preempt him. Saturate the virtual airwaves with coverage of the issues. Remove him from the equation. Show the cross-cultural — and, by implication, cross-group — support for positions opposed to those Trump will probably pitch. Foster ambiguity in group-identity. Create an information environment wherein his supporters cannot clearly see the line group-calculus compels them to adopt.
And, at all times, continue to fight as policy draws real battle lines.
This is just a bit of my nearly-finished (June 2017, maybe?) Ph.D. Dissertation — A Computational Model of Belief System Discovery and Expression in American Democracy — applied to the 2016 election. The dissertation is more information-theoretic.