How the Science of Context Explains Trump — In 2 Graphs

The ability of Donald Trump to rise to the top of the presidential race and to remain there has caused much mystification and dismay among the professional political pundit class. While a seemingly large segment of Americans appears to provide the Donald a formidable base, the pundit class can only shake their head and worry. The Donald is a phenomenon which Americans seldom see. But, when one looks at the Donald phenomenon from the perspective of cybernetics — the science of context — it suddenly all makes sense.

Most presidential candidates present themselves to the public as some form of archetypal president. Not so with the Donald. Trump presents himself as the voice of the people. His campaign appearances are anything but presidential. His public articulations range from the seemingly obvious to the blindingly insulting. That seemingly large segment of Americans loves it. The Donald does not match the archetype for president. But more importantly the Donald does not match the archetype of politician.

Archetypes matter. But archetypes are exclusionary. They do not draw people in — they define a territory and exclude others.

Politicians either say what they mean or attempt to diplomatically give voice to expressions which they must channel in other directions. The Donald says what the crowd is feeling without regard to consequence. There is no need for the Donald to channel for his future actions are not dependent on his prior articulations.

The science of context has a name for this kind of behavior: the chasm of dissonance. The chasm gets its name from the dissonance caused when we are presented with an archetypal story which we cannot buy into. The teller of the story (and his believers whomever they may be) possesses some background information or experiences which allow the archetypal story being told to be believed. But the other listeners those nonbelievers were asked to buy into the story do not share that same background information or experiences. Instead of believing the archetypal story they reject it. The story as told has no resonance for the nonbelievers. The absence of the shared background information evokes dissonance instead of confidence.

The goal of the archetypal story is to define category in such a way that minimizing variance from the archetype is the measure of membership. All other stories told are measured against the archetype. Variance is frowned upon. The resulting homogeneity looks to outsiders like loyalty. But, is a loyalty based on exclusion.

What the Donald has discovered is that outside of archetypal stories lie abstractions and metaphors. Indeed, the Donald’s opponents and the professional pundit class both frequently accuse the Donald of reciting mindless aphorisms and empty slogans. Both the opponents and the pundits are looking for the Donald to tell the same kind of archetypal story as the other candidates. Wisely the Donald refuses.

In our Internet mediated age the soundbite, the slogan, and, yes, the mindless aphorism are easier vehicles to evoke resonance then is telling of the archetypal story. Much of Apple’s success lies in the memes and soundbites which describe its product line. Much of IBM’s woes lies in the inability of modern businesses to relate to the detailed archetypal story of why they should use the big blue. We live in an age where apparent simplicity can trump nuance. The other candidates tell stories filled with nuance. They present a detailed picture of how they want the public to perceive they would be as the president. And the Donald pulls his trump card every time. Simple abstractions invite the listener to find personal resonance. Detailed archetypes do no such thing.

The graphs below illustrate the story.

Graph 1 — What Communication Theory Teaches and What Professional Politicians and the Pundit Class Believes

If you believe in this graph, then adding specificity to your stories and proclaimed identity helps. By telling detailed and specific anecdotes the politician, the pundit, and the media are NOT attempting to trigger resonance between the reader/listener and the story, but instead they are trying to better define what membership in some category means — a category defined by its archetypal stories. This graph would suggest that the key to holding onto voters, supporters, etc. is to have them self-identify with the pre-defined category. The most obvious example of this is Hillary. And we all saw what happened to Rubio when he deviated from the script. To the political/pundit class identification with category matters. Voters vote by category.

Cybernetics, the science of context, does not accept Graph 1. The science points out that the Graph makes an all-important assumption: namely that the listeners to the story being told share a set of common beliefs and background experiences. If — and ONLY IF — that assumption is true does Graph 1 hold. But, most of the time, those who listen to stories come to that story with very different background beliefs and experiences. Graph 1 fails to recognize the effect that the listener’s own “truth” has on how a story is heard and processed. When a listener hears a story, the story is not perceived in isolation with a “fixed” meaning, instead the story is filtered through whatever subset of the listener’s prior beliefs and experience is summoned up by the present context. And, if there is anyone who is a master at engineering the “present context,” it is the Donald.

Graph 2-What the Science of Context Teaches

When stories are filtered through the listener’s context then what is important is resonance. How does the story relate to something personal to the listener? Can that something resonate? Memes, metaphors, and abstractions hold great power because in their lack of specificity they invite resonance. Each listener can find something personal to them in the abstraction being told. Where archetypes are used as a test for exclusion — where variance from the archetype is a “bad thing”, abstractions are used as a means of inclusion — find some resonance and join us.

The politicians and pundits are telling archetypal stories in the belief that Graph 1 holds true. The Donald is reciting memes and abstractions in the belief that Graph 2 holds true.

It seems the Donald is right. Abstractions TRUMP archetypes — every time.

For more about the science of context see

For more about second order science see

For more about the Chasm of Dissonance see

The opinions above are those of the author and do not reflect the position of any institution with whom he is affiliated.