Towards Tipping Point: Understanding Trump In Larger Historical Context

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Above Photo: Rex Tillerson – Exxon Mobil CEO and Trump’s pick for Secretary of State – with Vladimir Putin: part of a burgeoning global kleptocracy

“In the heart of darkness, a light still shines.”

Every day, the news seems only to get worse. Trump’s Cabinet appointments are brazenly turning the U.S. into a kleptocracy – a land where those who have gained unprecedented wealth and power by cynically manipulating the rules now get to rewrite the rules for their own exclusive benefit. With all branches of government – executive, Congress, and the Supreme Court – in the hands of a morally bankrupt Republican leadership, the most powerful military and surveillance state in history is becoming a vehicle for corporations to ransack what’s left of the natural world for their short-term gain. With free speech under attack, along with threats of a Muslim registry and mass deportations of undocumented workers, we appear to be plunging rapidly into a bottomless abyss.

It’s natural for anyone who cares about dignity, justice, and the welfare of future generations to feel some despair. But in the very darkness of the times ahead, there is reason for hope that this bleak period will be the harbinger of a transformed society: a new economic and social order based on principles of equity, compassion, and natural flourishing. How can that be?

How change happens in complex systems

The source of this hope emerges from research in complex systems – and more specifically, how phase transitions occur in these systems. Complex systems exist everywhere in the natural world: in weather patterns, lakes, and forest ecologies. They exist within humans – think immune, cardiovascular, and neurological systems – and they exist in the systems we humans create: in markets, and in social and political systems.

These systems are nonlinear, which means the relationship between an input and output can vary wildly, and this characteristic makes them very difficult to predict. However, leading complexity scientists have studied how change happens in these systems, and have discovered principles that seem to occur universally. They are as true for a lake ecology as they are for a stock market. And they are equally applicable to our political system.

A crucial principle is that, while a complex system can remain resilient within a set of parameters for a long time, occasionally it becomes so unstable that it experiences a tipping point: a dramatic shift that transforms the system into something very different. A forest, for example, can get thinned out until it can no longer sustain itself, and it turns into scrubland. A real estate market gets overheated until it suddenly collapses. A person’s neurological firing can destabilize and suddenly puts them into an epileptic seizure.

These shifts – known as phase transitions – can also herald beneficial changes. A chrysalis transforms into a butterfly. A fetus develops until it undergoes the phase transition known as birth. Same sex marriage can remain unthinkable for generations, until it becomes the widely accepted law of the land within a few years.

A chrysalis becoming a butterfly is an example of a phase transition

A chrysalis becoming a butterfly is an example of a phase transition

Scientists have studied intensively how to predict when these phase transitions might occur, and have identified a few flags that indicate when we might expect one. An important indicator is an increase in the variance of fluctuations within the system. A stock market, for example, might start gyrating giddily before it finally crashes. Rainfall patterns may fluctuate wildly before a long-term drought sets in.

Tipping points in history

When we apply these findings to history, it’s easy to see these turbulent fluctuations preceding phase transitions – in retrospect. The Great Depression in the 1930s led to the rise of fascism. The global devastation of the Second World War cleared the way for new norms such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted three years later in 1948.

As we look at the current political situation, many signs suggest that we’re arriving at a new, historic tipping point. The globally dominant neoliberal political-economic system has caused unprecedented wealth and income inequalities, which have destabilized the foundations on which the past seventy years of relative peace and prosperity have been built. The Brexit shock, the rise of neo-fascism in Europe, and the impending cataclysm of Trump’s lawless brutality seem to signal an approaching tipping point. Our global society is most likely about to enter a phase transition, after which it will emerge into a new, stable state.

What will that new state look like? There is a real threat that we’ll see the end of democracy in this country. An even grimmer possibility is the total collapse of civilization. Trump’s narcissistic capriciousness could drive the world to global war which might easily go nuclear. Even without war, we can expect an acceleration of climate change following an orgy of fossil fuel extraction from the new Exxon Mobil/Trump/Putin axis, which could drive the climate to its own tipping points that may be incompatible with continued civilization.

Arctic melting: one of the climate tipping points that will be accelerated by an Exxon Mobil/Trump/Putin orgy of fossil fuel extraction.

Arctic melting: one of the climate tipping points that will be accelerated by an Exxon Mobil/Trump/Putin orgy of fossil fuel extraction.

Towards a Great Transformation of values?

But there’s another possibility for the long-term outcome of this dark period. The American people will only take so much trampling over accepted norms. Trump, with his cabinet of billionaires and corporate titans, is likely to pursue a strategy of continued reckless violations of traditional American values such as decency and civil rights. There’s a real possibility that their frenzy of greed, bigotry, and hatred will catalyze a powerful counter-reaction. A significant majority of voters already chose the Democratic candidate over Trump at the election. After years of having their rights trampled upon by a Trump presidency, and most likely witnessing brutality once unthinkable in their own country, Americans may be ready for a radically different type of society: one based on values such as dignity, compassion, and fairness.

This leads to another important lesson from complexity science: During a phase transition, a system goes through a chaotic period of shifting power dynamics. In this period, seemingly insignificant actions can have an outsize effect, sometimes dramatically impacting the character of the long-term outcome. When we apply this lesson to the current situation, this becomes a clarion call for citizen action. What each of us does over the next few years could have extraordinary effects on the future society we bequeath to posterity.

For those who care about humanity, many of our actions will need to respond directly to Trump’s brutalism. To counter his xenophobia, we must support the sanctuary movement and resist his onslaught on Muslims. We need to protest forcefully when he doubles down on fossil fuel extraction and cuts taxes for his billionaire friends. We must guard diligently against any normalization in the media of his regime.

At the same time, we need to shine a light on a flourishing future that could still be available after this period of darkness. There is an enormous power arising from millions of interconnected people striving together towards a shared vision. We already know, within ourselves, what that vision looks like. In contrast to Trump’s intolerance based on a rhetoric of separation, the foundation of a flourishing future is our intrinsic connectedness: within ourselves, with others, and with the natural world.

Even before Trump’s regime begins, people are picking up on the urgent need for a transformation of values in American society. Political commentator Van Jones has initiated a “Love Army” to conquer Trump’s message of hate. Author Neal Gabler has called for a “kindness offensive.

A society based on love and kindness is not just an abstraction. Kindness in action means resisting Trump’s brutalism. Love in action means working towards a transformation of society. Pioneers of a flourishing future have already been busily constructing a coherent platform of alternative ideas that can form the framework for a system founded on compassionate values. I’ve attempted to summarize some of them in a recent online conference where I took the role of a historian in 2050 looking back at how the world just survived climate catastrophe to enter a period known as The Great Transformation.

The traditional Chinese understood profoundly the dynamics of change that modern complexity scientists are discovering. Their famous yin-yang symbol captures a deep truth about how polarities can engender their opposites. In the middle of the black, there is a spot of white. When a wave reaches its peak, that’s when it begins to crash. The darkest hour is just before the dawn.

We haven’t yet hit the darkest hour of the Trump era. We’re just entering the abyss, and no-one can predict how bad it’s going to get. But as we move together into the darkness, along with our anguish and outrage, let us never lose sight of the light that lurks beyond. There will be casualties from his brutality. Few of us are likely to make it through unscathed. But by recognizing the power of our interconnected action, while keeping our gaze focused on the light beyond the horizon, we may well succeed in ultimately directing this tipping point away from collapse, and towards a society of flourishing, compassion, and justice.

  • ljg500

    Realistic and compassionate assessment. Thank you…

  • TecumsehUnfaced

    Clinton would have done the same thing but with facade greased into place to promote compliance. But Trump is being brutally obvious. Will that be enough to awaken our normally somnambulating population to effective resistance?

  • DHFabian

    The funny thing is, we remain on a course that was first set in the 1980s, with the “Reagan Revolution.” The only ones who didn’t seem to notice were our more fortunate, those still in the middle class.

  • Mari McAvenia

    I do not see MOST people in the mood to be awakened. Yet. It will take a shattering of their daily lives, families and formerly predictable patterns to get their attention. Even then, many will panic and lash out in random violence against others. Or, retreat to hidey holes well stocked with survival gear. The sooner we face the reality of what our “leaders” are doing – leading us off the cliff like lemmings – the sooner we can formulate workable solutions. Those who manage to survive, that is. All for the “love as an act of rebellion” thing, myself, but don’t know anybody else who is. That gets mighty lonely. Oh well, rather die trying to keep on loving than to give up on it altogether.That’s playing right into their cynical hands.

  • TecumsehUnfaced

    I agree with much of what you say.

    People in places like France, Brazil, and Argentina seem to be able to mass in protest. It’s still not enough yet, and the MSM will certainly not help us to know about it for fear it might motivate us. We need the Internet.

    Look up in Wikipedia, “Battle of Blair Mountain”, to see the abuse it took for W.V. coal miners to rise up in armed self protection.

  • Jon

    What he describes here is quintessential dialectics–contradictions within the system (whether butterfly from caterpillar, a moving wave, or political repression–get resolved fast at the time of critical mass. This happened in 1871, 1917, 1949, and 1959 as major examples of historical events. There is along period of gathering discontent, then suddenly it can no longer be contained. Sometimes,however, as in Egypt recently, the transformation gets stillborn, a sobering thought.

  • You mention two places where right wing forces have wiped the pink wave out of existences and France, where neoliberal technocrats and their useful idiot lackeys from the pseudo left have opened up space to a mixed bag of reality(populism) laced with a different mix of poisons and untruths.

    The jelly-spined left has much to answer for…

  • TecumsehUnfaced

    That’s a very general statement that’s very hard to argue against. Do you have specific examples?

    It seems to me that most of it was castrated or compromised, or co-opted in the 1st half of the 2oth century.

    Some that people call leftists, I don’t regard as leftist, such as the Bolsheviks. They were actually bankster subsidized thugs, that stole a revolution that was genuinely leftist by the worker soviets.

    So maybe we need to hammer out some mutual understanding as to who and what attaches to term, leftist.

    Maybe we can agree on such people as Eugene Debs and Upton Sinclair, but those seem to be confine to the 1st half of the 20th century.

    Then there’s Martin Luther King, Ralph Nader, but who else besides writers and philosophers.

    We have go outside our borders to find well-organized leftists, like Fidel Castro and supporters.

    You see? I’m fumbling around here. What do you have to improve this?

  • “seems to me that most of it was castrated or compromised, or co-opted in the 1st half of the 2oth century.”

    I’m keeping to the nearest cycle, starting late 60’s… Otherwise we can just as easily go back to, at least, the 1st half of the 19th century – perhaps we should. Though for more of a general consumption geared narrative it would already be difficult to convince Dem party voters to accept that Bill Clinton was a corporatist and Wall Street quisling – personnel is policy – and that Obama was/is no less a made President. More feckless and evil than Bubba by some accounts:

    The reason he’s so much worse than President Bush or even President Clinton is that 2008 was a potential turning point. When you look at who are the great presidents in history, you really think about who was a president during a great war or other turning point. Obama promised hope and change. But that was all demagogy. He didn’t bring about any hope and change. Or rather, the hope was for Wall Street. He delivered his constituency to his Wall Street backers. Instead of making a change, he turned the economy over to Wall Street. He turned the treasury over to Robert Rubin and his Wall Street gang who had supported Bill Clinton. Rubin had taken over the most corrupt bank in the country, Citigroup. Sheila Bair at the FDIC wanted to close it down and turn it into a public option. But Obama turned over the Justice Department to Wall Street factotums like Eric Holder, who refused to put any of the crooked bankers in jail.

    So basically, Obama made it appear as if he was representing the people where he slammed down hard on them. Just as he slammed down on them in his work in Chicago when he gentrified the city’s black neighborhood, making billions of dollars in real estate gains for the Pritzker and Crown families. He was able to deliver his constituency to his backers, using false promises and a “golden tongue.” – Michael Hudson

  • TecumsehUnfaced

    In other words, We don’t have a genuine left anymore, just a few scattered individuals of conscience unconnected to each other, some small socialist-worker organizations like the Workers World Party, but nothing capable of significant impact.

    Upon a little research Obama’s rottenness was clearly visible from the start. His history is jumbled and incoherent, and he was sponsored to the ruling elite by Penny Pritzker. If we had a sound main stream media, all that would be have been ferreted out and presented to the public. If I with no news experience could do it, they could do it. (I blush to admit I didn’t do the necessary research, until I saw all the horrors he was nominating to responsible positions.)

    I hate to say it, but I think we will have to wait for some major disasters, before people will act radically to preserve themselves.