Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Feedback Loops

As I write this, we sit just 48 hours away from the beginning of the Trump presidency. So much has been (and will be) written about this era that it's tempting to sit it out in terms of offering a prediction about how it will unfold, but here I go anyway.

The best way to view what's about to happen is to see it in terms of feedback loops. This won't be so much a "presidency" as it will be a stress test on democracy—from which we will either survive or split apart into separate nation states. In the end, I do believe that we will survive this era, but I also think that it will bring this country closer to a true state of chaos than I've seen in my lifetime.

Here are the three biggest feedback loops that we have already entered, but that will now accelerate incredibly quickly.

Feedback Loop #1: "Violence & 'Law & Order'"

Borrowing from Nixon, the soon-to-be-president has branded himself as "the law and order president." The feedback loop is this: As a professional provocateur, now with an even bigger megaphone, Trump will continue to say and do controversial things that stir people up. In addition, we can count on a steady stream of audio and video showing us things he has said and done in the past. All of this will spark more and more protest—from women, from minorities, from immigrants, from Muslims, hopefully from white dudes like me. These protests will grow larger, more frequent and more violent.

In addition, the president's rhetoric will fuel even greater anti-American hatred abroad, possibly leading to an uptick in domestic and/or 9/11-type terrorist attacks. The more violence we see, the more need for "law and order" there will be. And the antidote will come not only from the White House, but from an increasing array of vigilante patriot groups on state and local levels.

Like a firefighter who also happens to be an arsonist, the president will purposely and accidentally foment chaos, then position himself as the only man who can restore order. The question is, will more of the electorate see him as the problem or the solution?

Potential feedback loop catalysts: Another 9/11; audio or video of the now-president using the "n" word in the past. 

Feedback Loop #2: "Scrutiny & Access" 

Like an effective cult leader, the soon-to-be president has laid a great deal of groundwork to discredit all sources of information except himself. To his most ardent supporters, he is the only person who speaks the truth. And his enemy is now no longer Hillary Clinton; it's "the media."

This loop is simple: The mainstream media will point out the president's falsehoods with increasing vigor. He will respond by calling all negative coverage "fake news" and restricting media access from his "enemies." This will lead to greater scrutiny and negative coverage from those sources, leading to their further estrangement from the president.

Very soon into his first term, Trump will have discredited and cut off all credible media sources, leaving only truly fake (and conspiracy theory-based) sources to (pretend to) cover him. CNN and the New York Times will be barred from press conferences, while Breitbart and Alex Jones will have front-row seats. We will further split into not just competing political parties, but competing versions of reality. The question is, will more or fewer people trust Trump over time?

Potential feedback loop catalysts: Any new bombshell from the president-elect's past. A mainstream media reporter trying so aggressively to get their question answered that they lose all self-control on camera and become the poster child for "the out-of-control media."

Feedback Loop #3: "Victimhood & Power" 

Fundamentally, Trump's core supporters—and Trump himself—see themselves as victims. His supporters feel ignored and demeaned on economic and/or religious grounds. And the president-elect continually paints himself as the victim of unfair attacks.

This feedback loop has been growing in strength for quite some time, but over the next four years, it will down a healthy dose of steroids. The president will attack someone or something. The target of that attack will retaliate. And the president will retaliate to the retaliation, claiming that he was the original victim. It will be a game of "he started it!" on a geo-political scale, exacerbated by the fact that the satire industry—refusing to cower in the face of liable lawsuit threats and worse—will step up their attacks on both the president and his supporters, furthering the divide between "elitists" and "real Americans."

The result will actually be an INCREASE in power directly proportional to feelings of powerlessness. For example, in cases where Trump can't get Republicans in Congress to fall in line with his agenda, he will do everything he can (from tweets to holding rallies in their districts) to fire up the victimhood of that person's constituents. These Republicans will then have to decide whether to continue to fight (and risk getting primaried by a pro-Trump candidate with passionate support), or cave to the will of the president. Either way, the president will win. And when the next election comes around, he and his supporters will feel even more victimized, despite the fact that they will have even more power.

Potential feedback loop catalysts: Hot-button issues like The Wall, Russia, a Muslim ban (or registry), and a huge infrastructure investment that will dramatically raise the national debt and deficit. 

Bottom Line: The country will have to decide whether its president is the cause of, or the solution to, its all-encompassing sense of fear. My prediction is that in four years, we will be in such a state of chaos—and the president will have done such a good job blaming others for it and building conspiracy theories that make him the victim—that he will be seen as the solution by a greater percentage of the electorate than in 2016.

Trump cares about winning more than anything else, and he clearly knows how to do it. So he will definitely run for reelection in 2020. He will even more aggressively position himself as the law-and-order solution to our problems. And, after a campaign that makes 2016 look quaint, he will win.

Within the first two years of his second term, however, he will resign from office. A variety of reasons will be offered, but the real one will be this: There's simply nothing left to win.