Situational Assessment 2017: Trump Edition
In 2015, I took a swing at assessing the shape and state of our global challenges. Looking back, that essay is still well worth a read, but it is high time for an update.
While many things have changed in the world in the past two years, 2016 saw what looks like a phase transition in the political domain. While the overall phenomenon is global in scale and includes Brexit and other movements throughout Europe, I want to focus specifically on the victory of the “Trump Insurgency” and drill down into detail on how this state change will play out.
I use John Robb’s term “Trump Insurgency” here to highlight the fact that the election of 2016 was not an example of “ordinary politics”. Anyone who fails to understand this is going to be making significant errors. For example, the 2016 election is not comparable to the 2000 election (e.g., merely a “close” election) nor to the 1980 election (e.g., an “ideological transition” election). While it is tempting to compare it to 1860, I’m not sure that is a good match either.
In fact, as I go back and try to do pattern matching, the only real pattern I can find is the 1776 “election” (AKA the American Revolution). In other words, while 2016 still formally looked like politics, what is really going on here is a revolutionary war. For now this is war using memes rather than bullets, but war is much more than a metaphor.
This war is about much more than ideology, money or power. Even the participants likely do not fully understand the stakes. At a deep level, we are right in the middle of an existential conflict between two entirely different and incompatible ways of forming “collective intelligence”. This is a deep point and will likely be confusing. So I’m going to take it slow and below will walk through a series of “fronts” of the war that I see playing out over the next several years. This is a pretty tactical assessment and should make sense and be useful to anyone. I’ll get to the deep point last — and will be going way out there in an effort to grasp “what is really going on”. I’ll definitely miss wildly, but with any luck, the total journey will be worth the time.
Front One: Communications Infrastructure.
All modern warfighters know that the first step of any conflict is to disrupt the enemy’s communications and control infrastructure.
Our legacy sensemaking system was largely composed of and dominated by a small set of communications channels. These included the largest newspapers (e.g., NYT and Washington Post) and television networks (e.g., CNN, CBS, Fox, etc.). Until very recently, effectively all sensemaking was mediated by these channels and, as a consequence, these channels delivered a highly effective mechanism for coordinated messaging and control. A sizable fraction of the power, influence and effectiveness of the last-stage power elites (e.g., the neocon alliances in both the Democratic and Republican parties) was due to their mastery at utilizing these legacy channels.
It is important for anyone planning in the contemporary environment to recognize that the activities of the Trump Insurgency are entirely different to all previous actors. Rather than endeavoring to establish control over the legacy infrastructure, the Trump Insurgency is in the process of destroying it entirely and replacing it with a very different architecture. One that is intrinsically compatible with its own form of collective intelligence.
It is clear to me that the Insurgency is engaged in “total war”. They are simultaneously attacking the legacy power structures on multiple fronts (access, business viability and, in particular, legitimacy) while innovating entirely novel approaches to the problem of large scale communications and control (e.g., direct tweets from POTUS). Their intent is not to play with or even dominate the legacy media — but to eliminate them from the field entirely and to replace them with something else altogether.
This approach is strategically optimal. The Trump Insurgency represents a novel model of collective intelligence in general. It is the first truly viable approach that is connected directly with the emergent decentralized attractor that has been driving technical/economic disruption for the last several decades. This form of governance is structurally incompatible with the legacy media architecture. It is intrinsically dissonant with the kind of top-down, slow, controlled, synchronized approach of the old media. It therefore both must dismantle this architecture and replace it with one that is in synch with its mode of operation and, thereby, benefits massively by hamstringing any collective intelligence that works in the old top-down fashion (i.e., all existing forces currently at play).
To use a concept from Gilles Deleuze, the Trump Insurgency is a nomadic war machine and it is in the process of smoothing the space of communication. To use a simpler metaphor, if you imagine the Trump Insurgency as highly effective desert guerrillas, they are currently in the process of turning everything into a desert. The Establishment, optimized for “jungle conflict”, is going to have a hard time.
From where I sit, it seems evident that the Insurgency’s ability to read-plan-react (their “OODA loop”) is simply of a higher order than the legacy power structures. For at least the past 18 months, the Insurgency has been running circles around the the Establishment and the old media. Accordingly, I fully expect the Insurgency to win this fight. Specifically, for all functional purposes, I expect the memetic efficacy of the New York Times, CNN, the Washington Post, MSNBC and related channels to be near zero within the next two to four years. I would not be surprised to see several of these entities actually out of business.
Note, the relative position of “new media” such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube is harder to predict. I suspect that most of the important conflict of this front will take place here. Right now, all of new media is controlled by forces broadly opposed to the Insurgency. Yet the Insurgency must establish dominance on this territory. They can accomplish this either by capturing these existing platforms (aka “bend the knee” capitulation) or by moving the center of power to new platforms that are aligned with the Insurgency (e.g., gab.ai replacing Twitter). If you think that this latter is highly unlikely, I strongly urge you to reexamine your models and assumptions.
My sense is that the decisive decision in this conflict is whether the “new media” remain coupled to the legacy power structures (and their OODA loops) or decouple and enter into a direct conflict for “decentralized supremacy” (see my last point below). If they choose the former, they will lose. If they choose the latter, the outcome is hard to predict.
Front Two: The Deep State
In ordinary politics, an elected candidate is expected to integrate with and make relatively small fine-tuning changes to the existing state apparatus and the mass of career bureaucrats that make up most of the actual machinery of government (AKA the “deep state”). Thus, while the Obama Administration might differ quite significantly from the Bush Administration in political theory and intent, the actual impact of these differences on the real trajectory of the “ship of state” is relatively small.
My assessment is that the Trump Insurgency has identified the Deep State itself as its central antagonist and is engaged in a direct existential conflict with it.
Normally this would be an easy win for the Deep State. However, I expect this front to be the most challenging, uncertain and dangerous of the war. The Deep State is massive, has access to vast resources and capabilities and has been in the business of controlling power for decades. But two things are moving in the Insurgency’s favor.
First, the Deep State appears to be fragmented. For example, the “Russian Hacking” scenario of the past two months looks surprisingly uncoordinated and incompetent. I don’t know exactly what is going on here, but it is clearly not the product of a unified and smoothly operating Deep State.
Second, it seems highly likely that the Deep State is prepared to fight “the last war” while the Insurgency is bringing an entirely different kind of fight. The Deep State developed in and for the 20th Century. You might say that they are experts at fighting Trench Warfare. But this is the 21st Century and the Insurgency has innovated Blitzkrieg.
Let’s take a look at the “fake news” meme for example. This has all the earmarks of a Deep State initiative. Carefully planned, highly coordinated, coming from all authoritative directions, strategically targeted. My read is that this was a Deep State response to the Communications Infrastructure fight. But it looks like this initiative has not only failed, but that the Insurgency has been able to leverage its decisive OODA loop advantages to turn the entire thing around and make “fake news” its own tool. How? By moving rapidly, unconventionally, in a very decentralized fashion and with complete commitment to victory.
If my read is correct, the balance of the struggle between the Deep State and the Insurgency will be determined by how quickly the Deep State can dispense with old and dysfunctional doctrine and innovate novel approaches that are adequate to the war. In other words, is this the Western Front (France falling in six weeks) or the Eastern Front (the USSR bleeding and giving ground until it could innovate a new war machine that could outcompete the Wehrmacht).
If my read of the situation is correct (which, of course, it very well may not be), then the Deep State would be ill advised indeed to undertake any major efforts in the next 12–24 months. For example, an “impeach Trump” initiative, would almost certainly be an enormous strategic disaster. In spite of the apparent strength of the Deep State, the Insurgency’s superior OODA loop would likely result in an Insurgency victory in this fight — and victory here would greatly strengthen the Insurgency’s position. (Can you say “Emperor Trump?)
From the opposite direction, the Insurgency would be well advised to Blitzkrieg. Right now it has the advantage of an approach and a model that its opponent doesn’t understand and can’t react to effectively. But the Deep State is deep. Given time it could learn how to win this fight. If the Insurgency wants to win, it needs to radically reduce the Deep State’s strategic agency quickly. This means moving fast and moving decisively.
I cannot overstate how deeply dangerous this fight is. Classically, when a long-standing hegemony (cf “Pax Americana) is weakened and distracted by intra-elite conflict, rivals like Russia and China will see an opportunity to move from a hegemonic to a multi-polar world and can be tempted into adventurism. In these conditions, even the slightest mistake can push the system into nearly catastrophic conflict.
Front Three: Globalism
Anti-globalist rhetoric was one of the most enduring and central features of the Trump campaign. Indeed, if Trump clearly stood for anything, resisting the “false song of globalism” was it. And all evidence in the post-election environment is that the Trump Insurgency will indeed be actively anti-globalist.
What is flat out astounding is the relative ease with which Trump has been able to cut through globalist Gordian Knots. For half a decade, the Trans-Pacific Partnership was an unstoppable juggernaut. Until, that is, Trump decided to end it. Perhaps this is evidence of a “below the surface” weakness that made TPP a paper tiger. Perhaps it is evidence of the relative balance of power between nationalist and globalist institutions. At least when the nationalist institution is the United States. (Compare the Greeks vis a vis the EU). Perhaps it is evidence of a larger scale anti-globalist conflict that has been raging for nearly a decade and has been surfacing all over the place (Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, etc.).
In any event, it is a significant victory and I am certain that it will embolden the Insurgency. At this point, I expect the Insurgency to cut deep into globalist power institutions (the World Bank, the UN, various treaty organizations) and, more importantly, globalist-allied national institutions like the Federal Reserve. The Globalists have an odd connection to power. Generally, they must move through influence and threat to elites, with a non-trivial amount of mass level propaganda to smooth the way. The Insurgency is broadly immune to globalist propaganda, the Insurgency elites seem unlikely to play ball with globalist elites or to back down under threat. At this point, I see only two real moves available to the globalists. 1) economic destabilization hoping to turn “the people” against the Insurgency; 2) some kind of social/military destabilization.
But I don’t give the globalists much of a chance. Of all of the major world powers, only the EU is currently dominated by globalists, and with the victory of Brexit and the surge of nationalism in France, the Netherlands, etc., even the Eurocrats are on the run.
By moving quickly and decisively against the Deep State allies of globalism at home and erecting nationalist resilience to global institutional influence (e.g, high tariffs and protectionist monetary policy), combined with shaping a narrative that points all bad economic news directly at globalists, the Insurgency might well be able to cut most globalist power off at the knees.
Notably, even large multi-national corporations — until recently appearing to be pulling the strings of political policy — seem to be rapidly capitulating to the Insurgency. The two major globalist forces that have not yet been publicly tested are the energy companies and the banks. What will happen here remains to be seen. A cynic might suggest that the Insurgency itself is only superficially populist and in fact really simply represents the interests of Energy and Banks against other elites. That cynic might be right, we shall see.
The net-net result of this front will be a significant weakening of the post-War global institutional order and a rebalancing of power along not yet fully understood nationalist alignments. It is not clear what effect this change will have. For example, one might expect “global scale” issues like climate disruption or terrorism to lose focus and efficacy — but that isn’t clear. It is certainly plausible that nation-to-nation alliances can make significant forward progress in even these areas of interest. Particularly if you assume that globalist agendas were extracting value from global scale crises rather than resolving them.
Moreover, there is no reason to believe that a multi-polar nationalism will be less stable over the long term than a hegemony. History has certainly cut both ways. Perhaps what is most clear is this: the period of transition as globalist forces struggle to maintain power while nationalist forces are not yet in any form of stable equilibrium with each-other is a moment (possibly lasting years) of extreme danger.
Front Four: The New Culture War
Last week, Reddit user notjafo expressed something important. It is worth reading his entire post, but the gist is this: the left won the culture war of the 1960’s — 1990’s. And the Trump Insurgency does not represent “the next move” of the old right in that old war. It represents the first move of an emergent new culture. One that is directly at war with the “Blue Church” on the ground of culture itself.
“The Blue Church is panicking because they’ve just witnessed the birth of a new Red Religion. Not the tired old Christian cliches they defeated back in the ’60s, but a new faith based on cultural identity and outright rejection of the Blue Faith.” — /u/notjfao
While I can nit pick at some of his analysis, broadly speaking I agree. As of 2016, the shoe is on the other foot — the counter culture has become the mainstream and the Insurgents are the new counter culture.
Similar to the other battles, this Culture War front is characterized by a distinction between a more powerful and established Blue team organized around and fighting “the last war” and a Red team still in flux but beginning to figure out how to fight from the future. And, as per the other fronts, until the Blue team figures this out, it will continue to lose ground without understanding why.
In this case, however, the superior OODA loop of the Insurgency is only part of the strategic shift. Of far more importance is the fact that the Insurgency evolved within a culture broadly dominated by the values and techniques of the Blue Church and therefore, by simple natural selection, is now almost entirely immune to the total set of “Blue critique”.
In other words, if we map the arc of the culture war from the 1950’s through to the 1990’s we will see the slow emergence of a set of strategies, techniques and alliances on the part of the emerging Blue Church that became increasingly perfected and effective over time. For example, the critical power of the epithets “racist” or “sexist” which had little or no traction in the 1930’s and 1940’s had, by the 1990’s become decisive.
Yet, even as the Blue Church was achieving dominance, the roots of the Insurgency were being laid. And, like bacteria becoming increasingly immune to an antibiotic after constant exposure, those aspects of the emergent “Red Religion” that were able to survive at all began to coalesce and expand. What has now erupted into the zeitgeist is something new and almost completely immune to the rhetorical and political techniques of the Blue Church. To call an adherent of the Red Religion “racist” is unlikely to elicit much more than a “kek” and a derisive dismissal. The old weapons have no more sting.
Moreover, the Red Religion does not intend to engage the Blue Church in any way other than “outright rejection.” It considers the Church and its adherents to be acting in bad faith by default and the doctrines of the Church to be little more than a form of mental illness. Accordingly, the Red Religion has no intention of dialogue, conversation or even sharing power with the Church.
The Blue Church should expect to meet the Red Religion in war. And in this conflict the Red Religion has the advantage.
In the nature of every movement that has endured the crucible of selection, the Red Religion is much more coherent and focused than the dominant Church which is criss-crossed with internal conflict and in-fighting. The Red Religion was born into and optimized for new media (e.g, optimized for memes rather than films) and as the balance of power shifts from 20th Century media to 21st Century media, this inures to the advantage of the Reds. Going deeper, even as the Red Religion has developed an immunity to most of the primary techniques of the Blue Church, it has simultaneously developed its own memetic/values structure connected with deep human values that stem from ancient “tribal selection” and are highly attractive to the portions of the human family (men and women) who are focused on protecting and defending their tribe (hence the Red Religions’ intrinsic focus on Nationalism).
In other words, over the short to mid term, most of the humans who are best prepared to wage war — who are most attuned to and psychologically ready for war — will be attracted to the Red Religion. They will be focused, almost entirely immune to the entire portfolio of Blue weapons and they will be armed with and optimized for 21st Century techniques of waging culture war.
As a consequence, the result of this conflict will almost certainly be fatal for the Blue Church. We are already witnessing it, in the form of both an increasingly desperate “doubling down” on obviously impotent attacks and a creeping demoralization within the fabric of the Church. I expect to see this accelerate and as the Insurgency wins on other fronts, the set of alliances that hold the Church together will begin to unravel and the Church will collapse.
The sooner that happens, the better it will be for everyone.
Right now, the Church is killing us. While it is holding many important, necessary values, it is also holding a ton of stuff that is deeply dysfunctional. But by monopolizing the instruments of culture and power, it inhibits us like a well meaning but overbearing parent from being able to form the new innovations in culture, practice and value that are necessary to our age. The collapse of the Blue Church is going to lead to a level of “cultural flux” that will make the 1960’s look like the Eisenhower administration. As the Church falls away, the “children of Blue” will explode out in a Cambrian explosion and reach out to engage in all out culture war with the still nascent Red Religion.
This Culture War will be unlike anything we have ever seen. It will take place everywhere all at once, constrained less by geography than by technical platform and by the complex relationship between innovation and power on an exponential technology curve. It will be a struggle over not just the content, but the very sense and nature of identity, meaning and purpose. It will mutate so quickly and will evolve so rapidly that all of our legacy techniques (both psychological and institutional) for making sense of and responding to the world will melt into so much tapioca. This will be terrifying. It is also the source of our best hope.
The War for Collective Intelligence
If you’ve made it this far (or chose to skip directly here), take a breath and settle in. This is the interesting part. For that precious few who prioritize understanding over brevity, what follows will make much more sense if you have read my Foundational Assumptions, The Coming Great Transition, Introducing Generation Omega and The Future of Organization.
For those who want the tldr, it is this: we live in a non-linear world, stop thinking linearly.
Once you have accepted this as the task, you will eventually come to an important conclusion: you can’t. By yourself, you can’t think non-linearly. This isn’t your fault. Individual human beings can’t think non-linearly. Only “collective intelligences,” those agents of “inter-subjective consciousness” can. To put it more simply, we implement and do things as individuals. We innovate as tribes. And the world we live in today — the world of the 21st Century — is a world of continuous innovation.
In this environment, for the first time ever in history, the ability to innovate is decisively superior to the ability to deploy power. Prior to today, the rule of “the battle goes to whoever gets there the first with the most” was a decent rule of thumb. Of course, this has never been strictly the case. Most of the great stories of history are built around moments of innovation where the smarter but less powerful group was able to outwit and undermine their opponent with superior technique, technology and strategy. Over time the balance has slowly but consistently moved in the direction of innovation. Ask Turing and Oppenheimer about the accelerating pace of innovation as it relates to war.
The conflict of the 21st Century is about forming a Collective Intelligence that can outwit and out innovate all of its competitors. The central challenge is to innovate a way of collaborating and cohering individuals that maximally deploys their individual perspectives, capabilities, understandings and insights with each-other. Right now, the Insurgency has the edge. It has discovered some key ways to tap into the power of decentralized collective intelligence and this is its principal advantage. While it is definitely not a mature version of a decentralized collective intelligence, it is substantially more so than any collective intelligence with which it is competing and unless and until a more effective decentralized collective intelligence enters the field, this advantage is enough.
Like all wars, the shape of this particular conflict will be highly dependent on path, timing and surprise. Right now, for example, the relative difference in power between the Establishment and the Insurgency is large, and while it continues to lose it’s impact, power still matters. At the same time, while the Insurgency has a meaningful advantage in “collective intelligence” this advantage is not overwhelming. Thus the details of the situation that I describe above.
So, for example, if the Deep State uses its power advantage as a way to stall until until it can innovate a collective intelligence advantage, it has a decent chance. (Of course, becoming a decentralized collective intelligence is going to be really hard for the actual individuals who make up the Deep State to understand and accept.)
But watch out as the conflict evolves. As the Insurgency cuts down and unplugs legacy power structures (e.g, the media, the intelligence agencies) and replaces them with more fluid and innovative approaches (e.g., gab.ai and Palantir) the balance will begin to tip quickly. If the Establishment cannot stave off the Insurgency in the next 4–5 years, that phase of the war will be over.
Then the real question. Does the Insurgency and the Red Religion represent a stable attractor in the 21st Century. Can it form a collective intelligence that is able to select-against and out-compete all comers. If so, what does this look like? My sense is that this is ultimately a highly unstable state. While tribalism (nationalism) can be very potent in the short term, it is ultimately a deeply unstable ship to navigate the oceans of the future.
Or is there a different timeline where one of the “children of Blue” discovers an approach that is more intelligent still — one that is more fit to ride the wave of exponential technology and global scale crisis? One that is more fully in line with the true nature of inter-subjective consciousness? One that can scale without losing its coherence? One that is adequate to the whole set of existential challenges of the 21st Century?
Such an eventuality is certainly possible — although the most robust collective intelligence is likely to be more purple than red or blue. How likely? Well, right now I think we have a decent chance but really do believe that the die will be cast in the next 3–5 years.
For those who want to take action, I have three recommendations:
- The Blue Church, the Deep State, the Old Media and all the other aspects of the Establishment are holding you back. Free your mind. This is going to be much harder than it sounds. For most people, if you are under 40, your entire development has taken place within the context of the Blue Church. Many of your deepest assumptions and unconscious values are going to have to be examined with brutal honesty and courage.
- All Collective Intelligence is gated by Sensemaking. Right now, our collective sensemaking systems are in complete disarray. We don’t know who or what to trust. We barely even know how. Find ways to improve your individual sensemaker and collaborate on collective sensemaking systems. This should get easier as the old media and the Blue Church collapse.
- Both #1 and #2 require other people. And, since all of our old ways of collaborating with other people are either suspect or obsolete, you are going to have to learn how to build real faithful relationships the old fashioned way. Get much better at making friends. I don’t mean casual acquaintances. And I definitely don’t mean social network contacts. I mean the kinds of people who ready willing and able to actually care for you — even at risk to themselves. Not because of shared ideology or even shared mission, but because of the deep stuff of human commitment.
[Note: this was published in Deep Code and is intended to be challenging and to move the conversation forward. Comments that are thoughtful and contribute will be greatly appreciated. Comments that are not will be deleted.]