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Here’s the key to trumpism and how to go ahead—a futurist’s perspective

November 13, 2020

Some people still struggle to understand the strong support for president Trump. Others fight about which narrative on the presidential election 2020 is true—did Biden win or was the election “stolen”? From my perspective as a futurist, the key insight is another. The political movements we have been seeing in the US and in other countries in the last years depend on a mostly overlooked phenomenon—gradually increased pace of change.

Change is hard, and it always have been. At every change there are those who make resistance. Some of them are people who find change unpleasant. Others are people who simply have something to lose, in all social classes. Through history we have always been able, over time, to bridge the gap between winners and losers of change, although the fight has sometimes been violent.

What’s different this time is the increased pace of change. During a lifetime this acceleration might be hard to notice since the it is gradual, but most people would agree that a thousand years ago, not much changed over a few generations, while the change from one generation to another is obvious today. In fact, there is much support for the view that the pace of change has been increasing exponentially since billions of years, for the simple reason that every invention made, in nature or by humans, increases the speed of new innovations. A feedback loop.

It should also be clear to most people that the change we have been seeing over the last ten to fifteen years, with digitalisation and e.g. the introduction of the smartphone, is unparalleled and far beyond what happened over a timespan of ten to fifteen years only a century ago.

And when the pace of change increases, bridging the gap between winners and losers from change becomes increasingly difficult. For the same reason, the risk for polarisation and for a divided society becomes greater.

Polarisation is the fertile ground for political leaders such as Trump, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, Kaczyński, and others. They are not the reason but the consequence. They grasp the opportunity, exploiting polarisation, and they add fuel to it in order to strengthen their position.

They have all been helped by the second key phenomenon that has paved the way for increased polarisation—digital information distribution through the internet, peer-to-peer, which is fundamentally different from hierarchical information structures that have been the norm for thousands of years.

Also this has been a gradual change, hard to spot initially. When the internet was young, most people were convinced that it would give everyone access to the truth if they were only connected to the internet. What really happened was that everyone was given the opportunity to spread their own “truth” to the world.

We have all witnessed the consequences: Since spreading home-made information or even disinformation is much easier and requires less effort than doing the hard work of investigation and fact checking before publishing anything, those who obviously have been better fit for this new information system are people who care more about their own opinion and their own interest than about what is true.

This is ironic. Because on one hand, the internet has given leaders such as Trump the tool to strengthen their position through massive disinformation campaigns, but on the other hand it is the driver for a societal change that their supporters are opposing.

Improved communication technologies and digital information distribution inevitably leads to increased global integration. It also helps women and groups such as LGBT and ethnic minorities to make their voice heard and claim equal rights. These are all aspects of a global change that political movements represented by Trump and others are trying to stop.

It is important to note that communication technologies have been steadily improving since humans invented spoken language some 50,000 or 100,000 years ago, followed by written language 5,000 years ago, the printing press 500 years ago, the telegraph 200 years ago, radio and telephone 150 years ago, television 100 years ago, the internet 40 years ago, the World Wide Web 30 years ago, and the modern smartphone and social networks 15 years ago.

There’s simply no reason to believe that this steady improvement will stop. On the contrary, it will keep accelerating. And for the same reason, fighting the global effects of innovation and improved digital technologies is a strategy that is doomed to fail, since you would essentially need to force seven billion problem solving brains to stop thinking. That is also why this kind of regimes tend to be authoritarian.

It should then come as no surprise that those who oppose this technology driven global change are fighting violently for their cause, watching with rage those who are in a position to adapt to, and take advantage of the emerging new society, describing the adapters as a privileged elite. In fact, they have good reason to do so.

Since Trump’s supporters are often labeled extreme right, or alt right, it is also worth noting that what largely unites them is a resistance towards almost all kinds of ongoing change. And it is not a coincidence that they are looking back – to the 1950’s with Make America Great Again, to the Victorian era as with Brexit supporters, or even to the Middle Ages as with ISIS.

This is different from traditional conservatism that is rather striving to conserve a series of traditional values that have evolved over generations, which is not necessarily in contrast with ongoing change, depending on which values you are trying to preserve. On the contrary, conserving some long-standing values might even be important in times of intense change.

The conclusion is that both left wing and right wing movements have a common interest—to fight for a united society, yet resilient to change. And the only way for them to save democracy and make political leaders such as Trump irrelevant and superfluous is to offer a better alternative, which can only be done by increasing the efforts to bridge the gap between losers and winners of the accelerating and inevitable global change driven by innovation and digital technologies.

Since the pace of change is steadily increasing, this will not happen by itself or by winning an election or two. On the contrary, it will require great efforts and political reforms, by left and right, not only providing equal access for everyone to basic needs such as education and healthcare, but even reforms of the democratic system itself, in order for society and its institutions to remain relevant for all people, not only for the winners in a digitalised world.

Yet, this will not be enough. What is also painfully lacking in politics today are longterm future visions.

Given that the pace of change will be higher next year, and the year after that, more people will find it hard to adapt. Fearing an uncertain future, they will all be prone to listening to leaders promising to stop the change. Only when political leaders are starting to understand the future, making them able to provide longterm visions that are both credible, realistic, and attractive, most people will have the courage to look ahead instead of looking back.

In this perspective, what Trump represents today is not potentially the end of a passing political phenomenon, but the beginning of a much larger challenge for society as a whole. And we all have to look up and learn, and strive for a united society. In the end, it will be in everyone’s interest.

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4 Comments
  1. Thanks for reading my article Mark.
    – As for nations getting their house in order first, I agree with you that it is important, but when it comes to controlling corporations’ activities and wrongdoings by checks and balances, I think it is safe to say that the Nordic’s social liberal systems are among those who have managed better to do so compared to both traditional republican and democratic governments in the US, both tending to give lots of playroom for the power of large companies. And from my perspective, I cannot see that republicans would be those who favour a stronger control of large corporations and the power of capital.
    – As for Trump using Twitter, I quote myself:
    “This is ironic. Because on one hand, the internet has given leaders such as Trump the tool to strengthen their position through massive disinformation campaigns, but on the other hand it is the driver for a societal change that their supporters are opposing.

    Improved communication technologies and digital information distribution inevitably leads to increased global integration. It also helps women and groups such as LGBT and ethnic minorities to make their voice heard and claim equal rights. These are all aspects of a global change that political movements represented by Trump and others are trying to stop.”

    The challenges that internet based peer-to-peer information distribution poses on the democratic system have been obvious in the last few years.

    I quote myself again:

    “Since spreading home-made information or even disinformation is much easier and requires less effort than doing the hard work of investigation and fact checking before publishing anything, those who obviously have been better fit for this new information system are people who care more about their own opinion and their own interest than about what is true.”

    Big IT-companies have long claimed that they have no responsibility for the content being published on their platforms, comparing to the postal services not being responsible for what content is being sent by mail. Eventually, however, Facebook and Twitter now start to realise that they need to take an editorial responsibility for the content. In the end, I don’t think this is a decision based on ethics or societal responsibility, but simply realising that shareholders are afraid that users will abandon these platforms if content not being fact checked is being published widely without checks and balances by well-known users with large amounts of followers, making the platforms lose credibility, and therefore also market value.

  2. Mark Underwood permalink

    Hey Matts, finally got around to reading your article! Although it was long it was very well written and I enjoyed it. For instance I like what they’re doing in Estonia – they seem serious about doing data systems right, at least from what I gathered from the essay. Here in Canada they seem to be doing a great job at certain things, like making income tax filings much easier through electronic means. Other things, like the health care system, not so much. I regard modern civilization as still in the primitive dark ages of data : it is weak and vulnerable to abuse. That is what the typical Republican doesn’t like; it’s not like they don’t like progress or technology per se. Look at Trump. He uses Twitter, speaking to the masses directly. Pretty progressive if you ask me. But then Twitter goes ahead and censors even him! Who is backwards and repressive and lacking in transparency here? Things like this, from Google algorithms to electronic voting without checks should be seen as the potential pitfalls courtesy of Big Tech, the same players leading the globalization charge. Big Tech, Big Pharma, Big Food : are they serving their own interests or the interests of the real, living, individuals? It used to be that development agencies would focus on local infrastructure : water, sewage, energy generation, roads, farming techniques, to essentially lift people out of poverty conditions. Now, their service is veering off this and going into high tech ‘solutions’: imported vaccines, imported GMO crops and imported solar panels. They are making poverty sustainable, all the while enriching their high tech coffers.
    So, you’ll have to pardon people like myself for being suspicious of the globalization reach as it is now. Nations need to get their own houses in order, get their corporations under control, and attain some moral authority, all the while honouring individual sovereignty. Then, I would welcome a growing global confederacy of nations. After all, I’m a Star Trek fan. I listened to the very impressive Gene Roddenbery speak at my university in the early 1980s. 🙂
    best,
    Mark

  3. Thanks for your comment Mark. The topic of globalisation is complex, and the balance between localism and globalism is delicate. Instead of giving a lengthy answer I would like to point you to my essay “The Future of the Nation-State in i Digitalised World”. To make it very short: As long as we have physical bodies the nation-state will have an important role to play, but it needs to evolve with digitalisation in order to remain relevant to its citizens. Meanwhile, globalisation is inevitable, and the nation-state will also need a relevant collaboration with the global community, not the least to counter-balance the interests of global corporations and other entities that can use the possibility to move both capital and data freely over the world. Global legislation is necessary in order to manage this situation, and leaders trying to defend their countries through exaggerated localism will follow a losing strategy. Feel free to read my essay—you will find the answers there:
    https://matslew.wordpress.com/2019/11/10/the-future-of-the-nation-state-through-digitalization/

  4. Mark Underwood permalink

    Thank you Matt. Liked many points, but others not so much. The elephant in the room your article missed is the tension between nationalism and globalization. Big corporations love globalism. Their market expands and they are more free from accountability in their nation of origin. They can hide taxes, launder money, rape foreign natural resources, use foreign slave labour and bribe foreign officials using complex international banking schemes. These same corporations fund political enterprises, academia, and big media in almost all nations. Thus it is no wonder there is a concerted effort in national fundamental institutions to tilt towards globalism, and those who resist are seen as antiquated, etc, as your article depicts. Globalism is seen idealistically and freed from the dirty details of local living. Globalism is the ‘answer’ to perceived global catastrophes like global warming and pandemics. This is why stories of potential global catastrophe have been greatly exaggerated – to promote globalization. Accountability and control by local democratically elected officials is passed to higher ups, to supranational interests, that do not represent local interests. They represent the interests of global corporations. Popularists like Trump are localists. They want to restore the priority of national interest, productivity and accountability and ensure local democracy is not subsumed by global interests. Totalitarianism will come from the left, not the right. People who escape to the West from China or the former USSR know this. Mandated vaccines, or this or that, are not coming from the right, but from the left, from the ‘progressives’ who think they know better, who think we are all safer in the big strong arms of global corporatism. No, it is from the individual who is sovereign, free and creative that society progresses. Look at Andrea Rossi.

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