Before the last-minute intervention of the FBI director in October, 2016, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign appeared to be unraveling. Most Republicans were frustrated because they felt he went into the election with a winning hand based on a call for change. “This election is all about change,” is what we heard from “Establishment Republicans” and Trump surrogates. With Trump’s surprising victory came enthusiasm by all varieties of Republicans for impending change.
When not sabotaging his campaign by displaying personal flaws, Trump rattled off numerous changes needed to undo the Obama administration in domestic and foreign policy. Establishment Republicans embraced the anti-Obama changes as great strides forward that would soon boost the American economy.
When this election is viewed in historical perspective, we see that Trump’s message was essentially anti-change. His changes attempt to reverse irresistible demographic, economic, and international forces. His candidacy represents decades of Republican efforts to avoid embracing significant changes resulting from historical forces unleashed by the combination of industrialization, unrestrained capitalism, and science. But Republicans are not the only ones chafing from the impact of these changes which feel overwhelming to much of the world, not just our country.
To gain perspective on this recent electoral victory, we need to look at Republican electoral strategy in the twentieth century and at a much larger picture gained by using something called Big History. Promising to turn back the clock after an era of reform is a “tried and true” Republican formula that worked again.
The theme of “Make America Great Again” is a rehash of the successful Republican strategy in the 1920 election. Beginning with the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, America experienced two decades of reforms pushed by the Progressive movement. Roosevelt failed to turn the Republican Party into the party of Progressivism, losing out to business and financial forces that continue to dominate the party today. Democrats under Woodrow Wilson became the leaders of Progressive reform, resulting in constitutional amendments prohibiting sale of alcohol and the national vote for women. During World War I the economy was managed for the first time, resulting in prosperity during the war despite Republican resistance. With the end of the war, Republicans and the public demanded a hasty return to business as usual, forcing too fast a transition from regulation and bringing about a recession that was exploited in the election of 1920.
The Republican call for a return to “Normalcy” meant turning away from reforms putting more authority in the hands of the federal government and toward traditional laissez faire policies supporting unrestrained capitalism. The boom of much of the 20s obscured the economic calamity endured by farmers who were neglected until the crash of 1929 brought in Democrats concerned about farmers and labor as well as business. Returning to “Normalcy” meant tax cuts to business that spurred dramatic growth along with financial speculation as little effort was made to regulate increasing excesses on Wall Street. IRS figures indicate that the 20s were a period of increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a minuscule percentage of the population.
My first point, then, is that “Make America Great Again” is a rehash of returning to “Normalcy” – which means tax cuts to business and pulling back on regulatory efforts that might prevent another 1929 or 2007. It means continued concentration of wealth in a small percentage of the population. It also means pulling back on important social, economic, and political reforms as rejection of “political correctness.”
My second point is that seeing Trump from the vantage point of Big History reveals even deeper cause for concern.
What is “Big History?” It is a new approach to world history that embraces multiple science and liberal arts disciplines to gain perspective on history since the Big Bang. Study of the evolution of the universe as part of the human story includes the origin of life on our planet, evolution of our species, and the dramatic evolution of human culture from societies based on agriculture to contemporary industrial-capitalist societies.
Big History covers billions of years and loads of information not usually included in histories. But it also brings a perspective that is especially needed in our time. The first textbook on Big History tells the story in terms of reaching and surpassing eight thresholds. Each threshold brings progress as a new level of complexity and opportunity is reached. With the accomplishment of each also comes increased vulnerability and fragility as a higher level of danger comes with each increase in complexity.
The most recent threshold has been the transition of human cultures from societies based on agriculture to industrial-capitalist societies. Important changes have included accelerated population growth, depletion of non-renewable resources essential to industrial-capitalism, development of nuclear capacity for weapons and generating electricity, and communication and transportation technologies that increasingly integrate the world economically. Side-effects include more global epidemics and use of the internet as an instrument for war and destabilizing misinformation as well as a social and economic integrator.
Two large issues stand out that are resisted by Trump and his supporters. First is the need to begin ameliorating and, if possible, reversing human damage to our planet. Business forces have too often supported Republican efforts to deny global warming and other climate issues that are already threatening national security of all nations.
The second issue highlighted by Big History is the impact of accelerating change. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s, innovations have occurred at an increasing rate. Innovation may be good for business, but it necessitates unrelenting social, economic, and political adjustments. Birth control pills, television, portable computers, the internet, smart phones, and tablets have all revolutionized our economy in the recent past. These fantastically appealing innovations have challenged traditional social values and radically modified daily environments we experience at work and in our homes. Furthermore, this radical experience of change is accelerating. There has been no letting up to allow us to absorb one wave of innovative revolution before another hits us. The demand from Wall Street that companies like Apple continue to invent revolutionary products is growing stronger as the rate of change continues to accelerate.
Donald Trump appears to represent the business forces calling for more change, but that is not the heart of his message. Trump’s call to reverse the Obama administration and his personal example of disregarding political correctness have brought to the forefront discontented fringe elements in our society who reject fundamental changes in social norms. These forces represent opposition to the loss of white male dominance. Increased rights and prominence of women, African-Americans, disabled people, LGBT groups, Latinos, and Muslims are civil rights gains that are not accepted by groups who want to return to the “Normalcy” of the 1950s and earlier. The violence of their rhetoric and behavior mirror the anxiety of most Americans over the pace and extent of change that keeps shaking up social norms. Attacking political correctness shows anxiety over the vocabulary changes that keep coming as we are told to use certain words rather than our usual terminology to keep from offending groups. Our usual behavior is constantly challenged by new and unexpected social groups demanding recognition and respect.
The more Republicans act to make industrial-capitalism more effective by removing “unnecessary regulations,” the more change will continue to accelerate. That means degradation of our planet that may soon be irreversible. That means faster implementation of innovations with gigantic effects on social norms that hold a society together. It means that sooner or later we are likely to reach a point at which human capacity for change is saturated with disastrous consequences that are hard to predict. Many scholars think that societal collapse is the most likely outcome – and an M.I.T. computer model has predicted it will probably happen by around 2050 if not before.
Political campaigns that unleash hostilities toward these rapid social changes are becoming a threat to our democracy and our constitution. As Donald Trump continues to “be Donald Trump,” he is galvanizing resistance to social change while he is taking actions to further accelerate change. As the pace of change continues to accelerate, we can expect other Trump-like figures to emerge as the voice of fear and anxiety.
Let’s hope someone emerges who can address irresistible changes in ways that assuage public fear and anxiety – and that we have members of Congress who will get behind this approach rather than continue to give priority to the interest of their political party.