Trump, Vegans and the New Rules of Power [Trend Report]

The Republican Party is one of the oldest, most well-structured, efficient and powerful political powerhouses on the planet, whose members hold among the highest ranks in the U.S. government, and business, the military and judicature. It is a machine designed for producing the party’s most important asset: the presidential candidate.

In this system of power, it is the party leadership that gets to decide who is destined to take this position. Still, the GOP’s meticulous organizational hierarchy could not stop a foul-mouthed intruder with a decent amount of funds to snatch away their treasured presidential candidacy. Of course, Trump’s presidential campaign has been analysed abundantly by now. Some of the explanations include: the Democratic party’s hubris, its lack of concern and engagement with the ‘deplorables’ that could have been their electorate, the inheritance of a colonial mind-set, and the way Trump dominated the debate with emotion rather than reason.

This might all very well be true, but they do not fully touch upon the underlying reasons why Trump could, in recent times, destroy the American political establishment. Below we will set out two underlying principles that are illustrative for Trump’s rise to power.

The end of power

The failure of the GOP is one of the examples that Moses Naìn, ex-Foreign Affairs editor and an expert on international relations, uses to illustrate the idea that power itself is decaying. Big states and corporate leviathans might, at first hand, still look impressive and all-powerful, but, as Naìm demonstrates, these superpowers have gradually lost their ability to truly impact the world by themselves, or to cooperate efficiently and decisively. ‘Power,’ he says, ‘is easier to get, harder to use – and easier to lose.’

A case example is Syria. As Naìm argues in an interview, none of the parties involved, not even superpowers like the U.S. or Russia, can fully steer the war to their own benefit. However, all parties involved can and act to deny others in accomplishing their own favoured outcome. The support from Russia and Iran to the Syrian Government and the support from the U.S. to the Syrian Opposition and Rojava demonstrate how these states stop each other from achieving a decisive victory for their respective fractions.

The reason why we don’t notice the decay of power is that we tend to rank the most eye-catching players, for example Russia and the U.S. or Google versus Apple, according to the power or impact that they might have in the world. This fallacy is what Naìm calls ‘elevator thinking’. We can always compose a list of ‘rankings’ to decide which company, individual or state occupies the penthouse and bottom floors. However, such rankings offer little to no insight in the total stock of power and the total number of participants, because they only single out those at the top and bottom of the top. According to Naìm, ‘speculation on what nation will become the next superpower, or on which coalition of nations will control the planet, indicates a fundamental misunderstanding on how our world is changing’.

He demonstrates that the downfall of power can be linked to a number of developments. The first of these is what Naìm calls the More revolution. The fact that there are simply more firms, organizations, political parties, armies and states, also means that they are harder to control. Moreover, the Mobility of these players and the knowledge they take with them has become less constrained by national borders and boundaries to information flows. The high future expectations of the global growing middle class and the drop of trust in governments has also played its part.

As Naìm argues, the decidedly best way to understand the loss of power among (former) superstates and superfirms, is that power is being decoupled from size. So-called micropowers, which include ‘insurgents, fringe political parties, innovative start-ups, hackers, loosely organized activists, upstart citizen media, leaderless young people in city squares, and charismatic individuals who seem to have “come from nowhere”’, have an easier time grabbing the attention and accumulating power. In comparison to bigger players, say, long-standing political parties, well-established and influential media, megabanks and megafirms, the micropowers have one big advantage: they are not constrained by their size and are therefore able to move and outflank their competitors much quicker. The fact that firms like Google and Facebook are buying start-ups en masse (and that Mark Zuckerberg is a big-time fan of The End of Power) should hint at the idea that their taste for acquisition is partially a self-defense measure.

The same can be seen on the level of national politics. As we have seen in the last couple of years, new populist movements mushroomed, and in many cases they were able to challenge and outmaneuver the establishment. They can act quick and decisive, without being constrained by long-standing party democracy or ideological traditions.

Why the biggest mouth gets what he wants

A much more generalizable variant of the End of Power-theory is proposed by gentleman-mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In contrast to Naìm, Taleb shows that the ‘End of Power’ is not necessarily unique for our times. Rather, he proclaims, the minority rule is that which underlies much of what Naìm argues in the context of power shifts.

The minority rule can be explained as the inverse of a common political sentiment, namely that morals held by a society reflect a majority rule, and that it is the outcome of reasoned compromise and bargaining between different parties in society. The inverse principle, however, states that an obtrusive minority imposes morals on society, and that the majority just adapts to these morals as long as this majority itself does not think that it will be affected that much. According to Taleb, ‘the formation of moral values in society doesn’t come from the evolution of the consensus’. Rather, ‘the entire growth of society, whether economic or moral, comes from a small number of people’. Taleb applies the so-called renormalization group concept to show that the counter-intuitive process of the minority rule has some validity.

Think of the following example: It just takes one stubborn vegan in a dinner party and you’ll have to change your main course, and your starters, and your desert. Likewise, it just takes one Englishman in a group of Dutchies and you’ll have to switch to English (unless you’re rude of course). Our vegan, or English-speaker here can be called the ‘intransigent’ agent, and all the others are ‘flexible’. Much depends on whether our vegan or Englishman has enough ‘bargaining power’ to convince the others to follow his rule. If we are dealing with a very modest vegan, he will probably ditch his foie gras under the table while no one is watching, but if he has the willpower, charm and persuasiveness to let his preferences be known, the other guests will be forced to comply. Our vegan sets a new standard and ‘renormalizes’ the group. If our dinner party happens to be a particularly influential bunch of people with an appetite for organizing banquets, then they have the power to impose their newly acquired taste for vegan on an even bigger group of people.

Taleb’s little thought experiment shows that, by outsmarting and outwhining opponents, a minority can impose and enforce its own rule. As he further argues, a minority rule is way more common than we might believe: ‘You think that because some extreme right or left wing party has, say, the support of ten percent of the population that their candidate would get ten percent of the votes. No: these baseline voters should be classified as “inflexible” and will always vote for their faction. But some of the flexible voters can also vote for that extreme faction. (…) These people are the ones to watch out for as they may swell the numbers of votes for the extreme party.’ Thus, the political potential of a party depends on its number of baseline voters and the stock of highly volatile ‘flexible’ voters.

Jasper Johns, White Flag, 1955

The implication of both the end of power and the minority rule is as follows: Trump might have profited from the ‘end of power’ as Naìm describes it, but he has relatively limited power in comparison to his predecessors, even with both congress and the Supreme Court on the Republican side. That, however, should cause us to drop our guard. The minority rule implies that Trumpist panic-mongering works, and that political correctness based on the underlying reason of majority rule is powerless in the face of populism. A fruitful comparison between Trump and Berlusconi showed that no-one, especially not the media, could force themselves to steer their attention away from Trump, and that the democrats were way too concentrated on attacking Trump rather than getting their own message across.

In this context, the British philosopher Jonathan Wolff talks about the failed political performance of the ‘PPE-generation’ in recent times. The PPE generation, named after the Oxford University’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics Bachelor, represents the fraction of politicians that combined academic success with political success in the eighties, nineties and millennial years. Their way of practicing politics has been of very little value in the face of populism, according to Wolff:

‘Despite their intellectual strengths, the political weakness of this generation, which lasted up to the [British] EU referendum, is now apparent. Fatally, they had learned to be reasonable and listen to argument. Consequently they saw each issue from several sides, and could rarely bring themselves to press a single line relentlessly, or to show sufficient contempt for opponents and contrary views. Their nuances and subtle messages – right or wrong – were too complex for any banner. They spoke for the liberal elite, it was said, and against ruthless populism they were lost.’

Simply said: political correctness is not going to convince anyone anymore. The end of power shows how flexible and fast-moving micropowers are bound to have an advantage, and the renormalization group concept shows how minorities can control the political debate. However, the exact ‘content’ of the moral rules is open to question, meaning that they do not necessarily have to relate to currently popular populist themes such as immigration, nanny states, China and national security. Among any minority, leftist or rightist, populist or liberal, power is up for grabs. But only as long as they dare to engage in outrageous whining and are willing to impose its minority views on others. As Taleb concludes, ‘it is the most intolerant person who imposes virtue on others precisely because of that intolerance’.

In november werkten wij voor de Rabobank en droegen wij bij aan de PR en communicatie van 'De Trump Editie' van WorldTalks &Co in de Stadsschouwburg.

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