I’ll admit I didn’t expect Trump to win. As a conservative I thought my worst case scenario was Clinton winning but Trump keeping it extremely close and outperforming Romney. That would allow Trump to stop the GOP from reforming back to its roots. Trump definitely beat that. With his win he’ll almost certainly consolidate power and remake the GOP in his own image. As a practical matter I suspect the conservative movement is dead although honestly it’s been on death’s door for some time. (I sincerely hope it rebounds) That said it’s hard not to agree with a lot of the anger from within the GOP against their own leadership and elites. Yet this is something more.
Even though Trump’s win was unexpected, the forces leading to it were easy to discern for some time. Democrats let one of the most disliked figures of the last 30 years run largely unopposed in the primaries. That a self-described socialist did so well against her should have been a wakeup call to Democratic leaders. However they kept their head in the sand, much like GOP leaders have the last decade. Any self-reflection on how they are disconnected from regular voters seems a bridge too far, much as the GOP did. That a figure like Trump was able to be so close in so many polls is as much a reflection on Clinton and the campaign she ran as anything. That he won suggests something broader than most of the hue and cry has indicated.
There’s a case to be made that Trump isn’t, as most GOP elites hoped, merely a perfect storm of improbable events. I think right up until Trump won most of the GOP elites thought everything would go back to normal after the election, despite the setback of Clinton winning. Instead we have uncharted territory. Unlike nearly any other candidate in post-war history Trump wins without having many advisors of the party that nominated him. From the beginning of Trump’s campaign he ran against elites. It was running against the GOP in ways people thought unthinkable that won him the nomination. Even in the last months of the campaign he was as apt to run against GOP leadership as he was to attack Clinton. (Paul Ryan in particular drew his ire) In the run-up to his victory, it became clear that a major feature of this election is the death of elitism. (Or at least the attempted death – one imagines elites saying in a Monty Pythonish way, “I’m not dead yet!”)
Now politicians have run against Washington elites since time immemorial. William F. Buckley famously said he’d rather be governed by the first 400 names in the phone book than the faculty of Harvard. Even on the left attacks on elites are common, as we saw with Bernie Sanders this cycle. I think though the problem with elites runs deeper than normal political hyperbole suggests.
Most of us are familiar with the work of Thomas Piketty that took the world by storm a few years ago. Piketty saw a looming problem of wealth inequity driven by the returns of capital. Outside of a short period after the two world wars when most wealth had been destroyed, this rising inequity has been a feature of the world. Since Picketty’s book shook up economics there has been a lot of focus on inequity. While a self-designated billionaire like Trump might seem an unusual locus for this tension there are explanations for this. Some point to the huge divide between rural and urban America and the resentment that holds. Again though things may be deeper than they appear.
My brother has done quite a bit of study in the field of demographic structural crises. He pointed out to me the work of Peter Truchin who has several books on the subject. Truchin notes that
Historical analysis shows that long spells of equitable prosperity and internal peace are succeeded by protracted periods of inequity, increasing misery, and political instability.These crisis periods–“Ages of Discord”–have recurred in societies throughout history. Modern Americans may be disconcerted to learn that the US right now has much in common with the Antebellum 1850s and, more surprisingly, with ancien régime France on the eve of the French Revolution.
The key feature in this analysis isn’t just the rise of inequity between elites and the rest of the country but the overproduction of elites. This causes inter-elite rivalry and conflict. This in turn leads to societal stresses, riots, violence and similar upheavals. Truchin saw the data suggesting that there were many worrying trends in our own society. Back in Nature in 2010 he suggested that these trends would intensify around 2020. In an eerily prescient post in 2013 he noted that:
Viewed through the lens of the structural-demographic theory, however, these trends (and a number of others) all pointed to the same conclusion: that the USA was entering a pre-crisis phase of the secular cycle. Our investigations of historical societies showed that rising economic inequality, elite overproduction (in the US taking the form of overproduction of law and business degrees), and increasing political violence are reliable indicators of a crisis to come. Particularly worrying is the recent shift in shooting rampages, from workplace- and school-related rampages to violence against the state and state representatives.
The last time these tensions arose was the late 1960’s. Truchin and many others suspect the conflicts this time will be much worse. Social norms are breaking down. In particular social inequity (which goes much deeper than financial income) is leading to grave anger on all sides.
The actions of Trump’s main constituent may seem irrational. Why would they eagerly vote in a man whose policies are apt to hurt them most of all? Trump can’t bring back the factories. If he does they’ll be automated and require more college educated workers and not the laid off steel workers, textile workers and other blue collar workers. Further trade wars not only won’t help blue collar jobs but will lead to significant price increases at Walmart and other retailers hurting these classes most of all.
Surprisingly this is the exact kind of dynamic you’d expect in norm enforcement when society breaks down. The fact it is so costly is itself a signal of just how serious the norm breakdown is. One might suspect it’s in the genes and people are inclined to become masochistic if it leads to a return to social stability. If social norms don’t return then what we end up instead is Balkanization or a French Revolution.
Writing just prior to the election he noted that “neither of the candidates has a good program that could even start addressing the deep structural causes of our current troubles.”
[There] are two proxies for current elite overproduction:overproduction of multi-millionaires, and overproduction of politically ambitious holders of advanced degrees, most importantly, law degrees (because a law degree is the best kind of credential to have if you want to become a politician).
…Donald Trump is emblematic of the new crop of politically ambitious newly rich, who aim to translate their economic power into political office. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is emblematic of the Law School route to political office. As the number of multimillionaires and law degree holders per population capita exploded in recent decades, we now have an overly large pool of contenders for a fixed number of political offices (there is only one POTUS, only nine high justices, 100 senators, etc.). Structural-demographic theory posits that as competition for these offices becomes intense, so will intraelite fragmentation and conflict.
As in past conflicts social norms break down. We see that in our candidates where actions that would have immediately disqualified politicians in the past have been ignored. Actions and comments by the public go well beyond what was acceptable in the past. As I write this the very people criticizing Trump supporters for even suggesting he might not accept the election results are in the streets protesting and saying Trump isn’t there president. As the poem goes, the center can not hold.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Turchin’s view of civilizations is correct. I certainly hope it isn’t given the stress point we find ourselves at. But a thought came to mind. If you knew the history of the French Revolution and could go back in time to advise Louis XVI, what would you do? Knowing what you know now if you could go back in time to 2010 could you really change anything?
Rather than ending on that depressing note let me instead quote Turchin from the conclusion to an article he wrote in Aeon a few years ago.
…we are rapidly approaching a historical cusp, at which the US will be particularly vulnerable to violent upheaval. This prediction is not a ‘prophecy’. I don’t believe that disaster is pre-ordained, no matter what we do. On the contrary, if we understand the causes, we have a chance to prevent it from happening. But the first thing we will have to do is reverse the trend of ever-growing inequality.
While conservatives and liberals disagree on how to do this, my sense is that there certainly is a recognition that inequity is a problem to deal with. The question is whether we’ll be able to do so.
 A common joke going around is that Republicans are racing to send in their resumes and delete their anti-Trump tweets. It’s interesting to me how many outside of the GOP don’t realize just how deep and wide opposition to Trump was. However this means that Trump has a very small pool of people to appoint from. I suspect that’ll change now that he’s won. Contrary to some I don’t think that’s bad or hypocritical considering the alternative is him picking from his supporters and The Apprentice candidates. I’d like at least a few people with real foreign policy and economic expertise advising him whether I agree with him or not.
 Nature is the preeminent science journal so to publish this there is quite significant. That said his theories are not without critics. Laura Spinney also writing in Nature provided quite a set of critiques. While I find the data interesting and suggestive, one should also keep the skeptics’ arguments in mind. That said I’d really recommend his article in Aeon. “History Tells Us Where the Wealth Gap Leads“