Trump: The Explanation of No Explanation

I am here to offer an "anti-explanation" for the rise of Donald Trump. In 2009, in an article for Red Team Journal I talked about the utility of "anti-explanations" for security analysis. The political sociologist Charles Kurzman offered the following "anti-explanation" for the Iranian Revolution:

All of [the Iran] analyses are wrong, even if events unfold the way they predict. After all, if you make enough predictions, some are bound to look accurate. They are wrong because the outcome of this week’s events is simply unpredictable. Unpredictable means that no matter how well-informed you may be, it is impossible to know what will happen next. Moments of turmoil make a mockery of accumulated knowledge. Routine behavior, on the other hand, can be predicted. It is likely to occur tomorrow the way it occurred yesterday, with adjustments for shifts over time. But breaks from routine are a different beast altogether. The more that people feel that normal rules of behavior no longer hold, the more they search around for new rules, surveying their neighbors, collecting rumors, checking their text messages in a frantic attempt to figure out what everyone else is planning to do. Very few people are willing to be the only ones out in the street when the security forces start to advance. If people expect millions of their compatriots to demonstrate, many will want to help make history…. Such moments of mass confusion are unsettling and rare. They usually fade back into routine. Occasionally, however, they create their own new routines, even new regimes, as they did in 1978-1979. In later retelling of these episodes, especially by experts, confusion is often downplayed, as though the outcomes might have been known in advance. But that is not how Iranians are experiencing current events. Their experience, and their response to their experience, will determine the outcome.

The paradox of the "impossible" Iranian Revolution, Kurzman argued, is that the CIA was indeed correct that the Shah was strong. Despite the fraility of the regime, it had been frail for some time. All of the monocausal explanations for why the regime collapsed do not hold water. The problem for typical social science explanation, Kurzman argued, is that it underrates the contingency and uncertainty over whether typical rules of the game apply in times of great upheaval. And it would be foolish to deny that we are also living in one at this point. All across America, analysts are scurrying about like headless chickens trying to explain the unanticipated rise of one Donald J. Trump. Some have turned to "root cause" explanations that explain Trump as the inevitable product of structural forces -- which range from political correctness on the left to the right's playing with political fire since the Southern Strategy. None of them can be anything more than partial observations, and many of them are worse than useless in that they very much products of the very political fracas that they are trying to explain.

In frustration, political scientist Brendan Nyhan trenchantly observed that root cause analysis was both inconclusive and pointless. No one person or institution was responsible for the rise of Trump. Monocausal explanations are not useful. Nyhan instead urged a focus on the undeniable ways in which Trump is fraying the basic norms of our Republic and the potentially severe consequences to come from such norm-defiance. Nyhan has a point. As someone that has spent a substantial amount of time studying organized political violence (war) abroad, I have observed how much "root cause" explanations often correspond to the political beliefs of those sympathetic to people engaging in political violence. "The 9/11 attack was bad, but it was the chickens coming home to roost" or "there was no other way for the Palestinians to express their frustration other than murdering Israelis" tends to be the way this is understood.

By this token, I have not been surprised that many people who pooh-pooh structural explanations for violent rhetoric and behavior in overseas populations such as the Palestinians rush to defend Trump and Trumpism in a way that would awe and impress many Cold War Western "useful idiots" for Moscow, Havana, Hanoi, and Beijing. However, I believe by the same token that Nyhan somewhat overestimates the strength of democratic norms against violence and extremism in America. America has always been a violent country, as an essay by Richard Hofstadter shows. Societal memory of this violence and extremism has gone down the memory hole, and it is not something that is taught in schools (which prefer to depict American history as a succession of struggles and triumphs toward a more perfect union). But among those of us who are familiar with both political violence and American history, only the most rose-colored of glasses can deny its existence, prevalence, and consequences. However, my quibble with Nyhan is not just historical.

I can, after all, find far more recent examples of somewhat ambiguous American attitudes towards violence and politics in the case of Vox and the Baltimore (and other) riots last year. The news site Vox has been running a stream of stories about the terrifying nature of Trumpian ideology and Trumpism, many of them of a rather exceedingly low quality. Recently, the site published a story on Trump's violent ideology -- "[v]iolence is scary. But violence-as-ideology is terrifying. And that's where Trump's campaign has gone." I agree, violence is very scary. Ideological justifications for violence are also scary. Perhaps this is why Vox running columns about the politically redemptive nature of riots a little while ago was not a good idea. Perhaps this is why insinuating that riots are rightful expressions of political discontent was not a good idea. Now Vox has seen what political rage, discontent, and crowd violence looks like when it is done by people that they are not politically sympathetic to, and unsurprisingly they are terrified.

I am not, however, picking on Vox as much as using it to illustrate the banal point that "thou shalt not kill" has always had a number of caveats and interpretations that allow thou to kill with the blessing of the high priesthood as long as they approve of who is being killed and how they are being killed. Deterministic rule-following is, after all, for computers. We humans tend to do things a little bit differently. In 1997, Seth Finkelstein wrote that some political ideologies can be seen as axiomatic in that "[t]here's a set of rules to be applied to evaluate what is proper, and the outcome given is the answer which is correct in terms of the moral principle of the theory." While Finkelstein wrote his essay about libertarianism, I think it is broadly true of all major political ideologies. The problem with axiom systems, like any kind of formal logic, is that "P --> Q" depends entirely on what P and Q are defined as. The fact that logical rules shift depending on how the variables are defined explains how Vox can sanction political violence when the people committing the violence are sympathetic and issue appeals to common decency and order when they are not.

When Vox ran those columns, I made the observation that while the writers seemed to enjoy flirting with political violence, history suggests that the likes of Vox writers are the ones who tend to end up panicking and crying out for order and decency to be restored when they end up on the receiving end of political violence. Which is why, of course, I am not claiming that Vox endorsing riots somehow led to Trump. That would be ridiculous. It is only to suggest that, contra Nyhan, American norms against the endorsement of extremism and political violence are really not that strong and never have been that strong to begin with. Has everyone somehow ignored, for example, Nixon's "hard hats" clubbing college students, the Kent State Massacre, or the ugly face of the Democratic establishment being revealed at Chicago in 1968? We are sadly quite quick to sanction violence against our fellow Americans. The only distinction really lies between people who flirt with political radicalism and extremism for pageviews and those who are serious about it and revel in it. As the rap duo Mobb Deep once rapped, there is no such thing as halfway crooks.

Nonetheless, I very much agree with Nyhan's argument that there is no one monocausal explanation that tells us what created Trump. As a good social scientist, Nyhan is appreciative of uncertain knowledge and the possibility that the answer may be "all of the above." However, recall the earlier Kurzman quote about anti-explanations; they are about when expected norms of behavior and expectations are suddenly and systematically transgressed and analysts retroactively attempt to grope for meaning in the chaos. Any "anti-explanation" for Trump must begin with the problem of how much the norms that Trump and his followers trangresses were always contingent in nature. Here, our story begins where it started in this essay, with institutions and norms and the uncertain nature of how much people really follow norms and respect/obey institutions. As I noted, norms against political violence and extremism are simply not as robust as many believe them to be. But we can generalize the argument to say that norms are simply not as powerful as many believe them to be in 21st century America. And The Donald, a figure determined to violate all of them simultaneously, is taking advantage.

Let's begin with political and social institutions. Democracies depend on systems of professionals for health. The government is a giant system of salaried civil service professionals, but there is also the "third estate" of journalism and many other informal institutions. These institutions are not free of political bias and self-interest and never can be. Public trust in them depends on whether or not they are at least perceived as professional. However, this trust has been declining for a very long period of time. Professionals and the "experts" no longer enjoy automatic deference, in part because they have demonstrated that they do not deserve it. The Rolling Stone debacle surrounding the UVA case, for example, is a case of how grossly unprofessional behavior was sanctioned by senior management. The United States military has lost two wars. There has been no serious accounting or punishment for the 2008 financial crisis. These professional crises go to the core of each profession's professional identity, because they are indicative of systematic and consequential deviations from observed professional norms with little internal or external policing occurring as a result. And their failures to live up to their own lofty rhetoric can be weaponized by Trump-like figures when they try to deploy such rhetoric against Trump.

A political party can, in part, be seen as a system of professionals, as Michael Brendan Dougherty observes:

What so frightens the conservative movement about Trump's success is that he reveals just how thin the support for their ideas really is. His campaign is a rebuke to their institutions. It says the Republican Party doesn't need all these think tanks, all this supposed policy expertise. It says look at these people calling themselves libertarians and conservatives, the ones in tassel-loafers and bow ties. Have they made you more free? Have their endless policy papers and studies and books conserved anything for you? These people are worthless. They are defunct. You don't need them, and you're better off without them.

It is very clear that one partial explanation for the rise of Trump is that despite my earlier analysis of the flexibility of political rules, GOP elites and opinion-makers could not perpetually tell their voters that blue was red and red was blue. They were caught between their own desires to be "reasonable" and "pragmatic" (e.g, have political power) and the fact that they only had power because they continuously made promises that they would never deliver. Like Vox and its flirtation with political violence, there was a significant amount of political theater at play. Over time, the cumulative impact of this political theater was the widening of the gap between the party's promises and reality and the growth of cynicism within its base. "You need us because we are the only ones who can realize your interests and goals," the GOP party men said. "Don't vote for this bad guy, he is dishonest and cannot be trusted." And the base did not listen because the GOP had, in fact, revealed itself to be systematically unworthy of trust.

And the institutional rot and lack of professionalism within the GOP itself enabled Trump's rise -- the party did not "decide" because it could never decide whether it wanted to righteously denounce Trump or attempt to curry favor with him in the hope of riding his wave. Even today, GOP elites are lying to themselves in a position of weakness, saying to themselves "we can control him-- he needs us!" To call this a collective action problem is a gross understatement. It is hard to simultaneously project a credible belief that your opponent is a mortal enemy who must be defeated at all costs when you have also pledged to support him if he is nominated. Even before this process of bargaining and accomodation happened, the GOP attempted to play a too-clever-by-half game of trying to make an complete end run around its base. Not only was this Pinky and the Brain-like plan executed in the most inept way possible, it opened the path for Trump to rise to prominence.

Donald Trump is not a master political strategist. But in strategy there are very rarely "master strategists" as most people think of them. Strategy is a matter of exploration and exploitation -- in other words finding a balance between doing random shit just to see if it works and exploiting random shit that ended up working. Like all men of his caliber, Trump does have certain skills in abundance. First, he is a master political opportunist. He looked for weaknesses in the armor, cleavages and divisions to exploit, and gaps in the enemy's defenses to rush through. A Leninist circa 1917 would be very impressed by how Trump succeeds by "heightening the contradictions" in bourgeois elites and playing them against each other. Moreover, Trump -- like all political manipulators -- understands the psychology of his friends and enemies on an intuitive level. All of these things give Trump the ability to engage in a form of political arbitrage.

Trump finds weak institutions and normative structures and subverts them by taking them to grotesque extremes. Take, for example, Trump's endorsement of the Chinese crackdown in Tiannamen Square. Despite the pious denouncements from across the political spectrum, the unpleasant truth is that much of the West has accepted the outcome. In fact, Very Serious Man Thomas Friedman endorsed the authoritarianism of the Chinese Communist government and wished that ours could be more like it. Trump not only dispenses with the euphemisms by restating Friedman's opinion in his typically crude and disgusting manner, but he achieves escalation dominance over Friedman by going farther than any American politician I have ever seen in endorsing Beijing's point of view. The old party men in Zhongnanhai would probably be raising Tsingtao cans and toasting to the 老外 who finally "gets" them if they weren't watching with some distress as Trump threatens to shut down the post-World War II economic system.

The difficulty in defending from such an attack lies in the issue of somehow policing the violation of a norm that you yourself do not obey or even remotely take seriously. Denounce violent rhetoric and political extremism? Seems to be difficult to do that when you, the GOP party leadership, have not only stirred it up but failed to deliver any meaningful sacrifices to the dark forces you have summoned beyond occasional slices of red meat. But this problem occurs in more situations than just Trump. Denounce scientific objectivity as an oppressive myth? Don't be surprised when global warming is being vigorously denied and you are the one wondering why they won't just shut up and accept what the experts say. The flipside of this is that, as Michael Berube observed, those in the sciences who made situational alliances with opponents of academic freedom and abstract inquiry are also finding themselves in those opponents' crosshairs.

The key for future historians to analyze is simply Kurzman's "why now?" question. Our institutions -- formal and informal -- have been fraying for a very long time. And the strategy of ingroup-outgroup outbidding that Trump has exploited is not exactly new to modern American politics either. Perhaps the answer lies in a very granular analysis of what precisely happened in the ground during the GOP primary as a flawed and increasingly tottering array of institutions tried and failed to bend the electorate to their will and people began to feel like they were part of something larger and greater than themselves. But the reason why I have focused on the flaws, contradictions, and weaknesses of institutions and professionals despite Kurzman's emphasis on contingent outcomes is that social structures work by minimizing possibilities for contingent outcomes.

When the possibility for great upheaval exists in contingency, the hour may go to the man or woman willing to seize it. This is something Karl Marx explained quite well in his 18th Brumaire, the story of why a revolt that might have succeeded in an earlier time failed catastrophically. The uncertainty of how much adherence to what we would think to be common norms of behavior exists as well as the impact of the manner in which our institutions and elites only partially at best observe those norms creates a space for contingency, chance, and possibility. And this space has been dramatically and vigorously seized by a quasi-fascist populist sloganeering thug with a bad haircut and his army of passionate followers. For now, explaining Trump may just be as simple as that.