It is tempting, but very wrong, to ascribe this week’s events to a surprising US election result. What happened this week was far greater — a game-changer which means that democracy and the world will never be the same.
In the past 48 hours various opinions and comments have blamed the US result on racism, sexism, elitism, misinformation, miseducation, Clinton, Sanders, Johnson, the press, social media, cable TV, pollsters, ‘coastal’ Americans, ‘continental’ Americans… just about everything you can think of.
But every single one of these explanations is wrong. The US election result has actually been about something a lot more dangerous — it’s about the disruption of democracy itself. Here’s why I believe this to be the case, and why it’s an important distinction to understand.
Start with the way most people feel about the result… sidelined. Discarded. Impotent. Furious. Unable to comprehend what happened… how it happened… or why something so unfair was allowed to happen!
THAT is what disruption always feels like. It’s how cabbies feel about Uber. How publishers feel about Facebook. Telcos about Whatsapp. TV networks about Netflix. And it’s how most Americans (first mainstream Republicans and now the Democrats) feel about their democratic process. Disrupted.
Lets retrace how we got here. Not because that will get us back (there is no going back), but because it might help understand what really transpired.
Before Wednesday we lived in a world where democracy operated by a strict set of rules. Three in particular:
- Politicians needed buy-in from the establishment to get elected
- Once elected, they needed consensus for their ideas to be implemented
- And they were held to account by the prospect of re-election or higher office
And then Trump arrived.
His experience with Miss Universe had already shown that contestants could win by saying whatever judges wanted to hear — even if it was baloney (i.e., “I’d like to achieve world peace”). So Trump’s first disruptive insight was that the same approach could be applied to voters.
Second, he realised that issue-driven constituents vote far more reliably than disaffected intellectuals. Gun nuts vote for gun rights ahead of everything else. AND they always vote. The same goes for pro-lifers. And anti-vaxxers. And anti-trade groups. And racists. And bigots. So the wonderful thing for Trump was that each of these groups cared about just one thing and could be relied on to vote for that one thing. If he gave them that, he could say and do anything else he wanted. Like standing on 5th avenue and shooting people. Or groping women. Or bombing children. Or ducking taxes. Or persecuting minorities.
In other words, Trump figured out that he could get elected without needing the establishment (rule #1). Even better, once he had broken the first rule, rules 2 and 3 were easy. Trump’s lack of political experience meant that he had no interest in building consensus; he’d never had to push a bill through Congress. And since he was going straight for the top job he also didn’t care about re-election or higher office.
In other words, Trump was free to say ANYTHING he wanted. And by saying the right things to the right people, he would win. No matter whether his words were false, offensive, bigoted, or just plain insane — like Mugatu in Zoolander he just needed to trigger his targets.
You might ask why this matters. It matters a great deal — because unlike competition, disruption is a one-way street.
When people get disrupted their first reaction is to think “this is just a one-off and things will go back to normal soon”. People might start reading newspapers again. Or re-subscribe to cable TV. Or revert to using cabs. Or pay to send text messages. But that is not what happens. It’s important to understand that this was a structural not a cyclical shift in US politics.
The second reason why this is important is because of the reaction we’re now seeing — this attempt to find someone or something to blame for the result. The rationale is that if one can find the root cause and fix it, things will back to the way they were. In a competitive scenario this makes sense. When you lose a race you can work out whether it was bad strategy, bad preparation, or bad execution that made you lose. And you can fix that. But when you’re on a horse and the other guy is in a car, there is no fix for that. Democrats don’t need a faster horse.
The truth about this election was that it wasn’t about Bernie, or Hillary, or the economy, or race, or gender, or the FBI, or ANY of those things. Each of those was merely a manifestation of what was really happening — a systematic dismantling of the rules by which democracy operated in America. By breaking these rules Trump was obtaining an unfair advantage for himself. He wasn’t a competitor — he was a disruptor.
And there’s one more point — arguably the most important one. Disruption spreads like wildfire. What happened in America will not be an isolated incident. Every upcoming election around the world is now likely to be held hostage in the same way. From Australia to Argentina, the demagogues have been watching. And now they know how to disrupt their democracies. The genie is out of the bottle.