Trump, Brexit and the Time Vault (or: A Seldon Crisis of our Own)

We are — the symptoms are unmistakable — in the midst of a Seldon crisis.

As background, for those who haven’t (yet) read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels: Asimov envisioned a galaxy wherein the Empire, which had provided peace and prosperity for twelve thousand years, was in its decline. A mathematician, Hari Seldon, creates the science of psychohistory which can quantitatively predict the socio-political future. Using psychohistory, Seldon projects that the Galactic Empire will collapse and be followed by thirty thousand years of chaos and suffering. He constructs a psychohistorical plan to reduce that dark age to a mere millennium. Seldon’s plan revolves around a collection of encyclopedists, “The Foundation”, established at the far end of the galaxy, who are meant to evolve into the foundation of a Second Empire. A Seldon Crisis is an inflection point in his plan, where a convergence of dramatic internal and external crises jeopardize its progress, and compel resolution that often entails political upheaval.

America and Europe today plainly face a convergence of dramatic internal and external crises. Externally, beyond the obvious threat of ISIS, lies climate change, nuclear proliferation, antibiotic resistant superbugs and the like. Internally, we face increasing political paralysis and widening distrust between the elite and the volk. External instability has spurred mass migration, which, in turn, has destabilized domestic politics. The argument for Brexit is, basically, “restore self-government”, the argument against is, almost explicitly, “you can’t be trusted with self-government”. Trump’s opponents are concerned as much, if not more, by his supporters, as by the candidate himself.

If our tale was being written by Asimov, the resolution would seem simple: Global challenges and the dysfunction of national democracies demands international, technocratic, rule of the sort the EU, US and China are, perhaps, already sliding in to.

And yet. The Trump campaign may be oft described as unprecedented, but it is not really. He actually presents an almost perfectly twenty first century mirror of Andrew Jackson. Jacksonian Democracy may have been, historically speaking, a moral and economic disaster, but almost two centuries later Democrats still celebrate annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinners — the essential aspiration towards popular democracy continues to resonate. Likewise, Ben Franklin’s aphorism about Liberty and Safety, almost perfectly captures the choice in front of British voters.

In the end, Asimov was also conflicted. As the series progresses, he establishes a rivalry between the original Foundation — grown into a daring technological and military power — and the “Second Foundation” — a much smaller band of mentally evolved psychohistorians, capable of telepathically guiding humanity such as to avoid the bloodshed and misery that is coeval with freedom. In the novel “Foundation’s Edge”, published 40 years after the original Foundation stories, he presents his Galaxy with a choice between those two options (and a third, which remains in the realm of speculative fiction); Between a Second Galactic Empire “established by strife, maintained by strife, and eventually destroyed by strife” and a “paternalistic Empire, established by calculation, maintained by calculation, and in perpetual living death by calculation.” In doing so, Asimov seems to dial back his original more broadly humanistic vision: That mankind was capable, with the help of science, education and progress, of growing into a better, more civilized, version of itself.

Asimov’s disenchantment reflects, perhaps, our own. And the fundamental choice he left his universe is now, perhaps, also ours.