There are some observant types over at the BBC suggesting that the election of Trump has some echoes of what a Greek philosopher once told us over two thousand years ago. I’ve not returned to my Penguin classics to check it out but it certainly sounds convincing. In summary, the theory is that we are entering the next natural stage in the political cycle: what follows democracy – when democracy has entered its declining and decadent stage – is tyranny. In a similar vein, last year some other commentators started to draw comparisons between Trump and Julius Caesar. It necessarily follows that, if he is assumed to be Julius Caesar, then he should also be likened to Palpatine, though this is disputed.
So far, so depressingly familiar. Human history repeats itself, recycling similar patterns and events. Only knowledge can take us forward*.
So, let’s use some of our knowledge then. There are a couple of interpretations available to the events we are now witnessing.
Firstly, what if the election of Trump is little more than an oscillation? By that, think of the democratic political system as a complex organism, constituted of many agents all connected and affected by environmental factors. Assume a growing dissatisfaction in the US with people’s stagnant wages, rising levels of inequality, upheavals in cultural bases, too many wars fought and lost etc etc. Consider these as either internal changes in properties of the agents of the system (i.e. the people, processes and norms of the US) and external changes (e.g. the rise of ISIS following the war in Iraq). These factors have caused the normal equilibrium (Democrat v Republican, free market is good, internationalist outlook) to be disturbed. Sometimes in a system that tends towards equilibrium, things can get disturbed, and thus amplified beyond the usual levels. Trump getting elected could be seen as one of those amplified oscillations.
I’m not actually sure whether Trump represents a right-wing oscillation. Some of his policies are very left-wing, for example, he is pushing for high levels of government funding and protectionism (against the free market) and most Republicans hate him. However, let’s continue to lightly label him right-wing. Oscillations will swing back in the opposite direction. So what might represent the amplified oscillation in the other direction? We already witnessed a large number of young voters leaning towards Bernie Sanders during the primaries. Could that tell us something?
Communism might yet come to America. Just at the moment fascism descends upon Russia.
But what if this is no oscillation? What if this is something more significant? Some systems oscillate but others can re-configure themselves to such an extent that they lead to monumental change. As explained in Phillip Ball’s book Critical Mass, what we could be witnessing here is ‘phase transition’. For example, when a liquid’s temperature is sufficiently lowered, it ceases to be a liquid but becomes (surprisingly quickly) a solid. Phase transitions are not scalar events – you don’t have ‘slightly liquid’. There is a possibility that what we are witnessing is the wholescale phase transition from a democratic society into … well, something else. Something that is not merely concerned with elements of legislation and administrative decision-making but something that changes the very structures of democracy itself, that changes media, cultural norms, possibly even laws and the concept of truth and rational thinking. It might be too soon to call it tyranny. But there is a strong likelihood that it could affect a significant proportion of people’s lives for the worse. I’m thinking of those people who use science, evidence and rational argument as the foundation blocks for their worldview.
And, if this is the case, we need to start planning how we’re going to protect the knowledge.
*Until we lose that, cf some SF books by name of The Lost Archive