On Thursday, March 3, former Governor and Presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave a speech denouncing the front-running GOP candidate, Donald Trump. It was a stunning and historical statement when viewed through the Mimetic and Fractal Lenses. I throw a little of the Prospecting Lens in as well for good measure.
Looking through the Mimetic Lens, the two major U.S. political parties form two archaic sacred structures that have essentially the same goal -- obtaining and retaining political power. They operate in largely the same way, mimicking each other almost move for move. They are almost perfect Mimetic Rivals, each desiring the same object and each following the same basic operational structure.
Each party has designated a series of issues or positions as "sacred", which are used create slogans, to generate support in votes and funds and to distinguish the loyal from the disloyal. Each party has also designated certain scapegoats, which also helps rally and excite the followers in crystallizing the opposition, which can then be characterized as evil, decadent or otherwise corrupt and undesirable. Because these are entities in a Western society, however, it is also important for each party to identify the victims whom it is championing, and whose causes justify persecution and denigration of the chosen scapegoats.
For the parties to function properly, there must be broad consensus among the leaders as to identification of the sacred issues and the scapegoats who are part of the problem. When would-be leaders deviate from the consensus too far, they are typically marginalized and may lose their status in the party. Former Governor of Florida Charlie Crist and former Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Spector are examples of this. Others like Ron Paul are simply pushed to the periphery.
In many ways, MItt Romney's speech was standard fare, and touched on the sacred issues of his party, including increased national security, "embracing conservative principles" and controlled anger, and generally following the example of Ronald Reagan. But in other ways it revealed an abrupt fissure in the structure of the Republican Party -- namely the failure to agree on who should be scapegoated. For a party to be unified, it must agree on who can or should be vilified and sacrificed, metaphorically or literally. But as Romney stated:
"I understand the anger Americans feel today. In the past, our presidents have channeled that anger and forged it into resolve, into endurance and high purpose, and into the will to defeat the enemies of freedom. Our anger was transformed into energy directed for good.
Mr. Trump is directing our anger for less than noble purposes. He creates scapegoats of Muslims and Mexican immigrants. He calls for the use of torture. He calls for killing the innocent children and family members of terrorists. He cheers assaults on protesters. He applauds the prospect of twisting the Constitution to limit First Amendment freedom of the press.
This is the very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss."
This was extraordinary in its context. As Rene Girard often said, the members of an archaic sacred community would NEVER recognize or identify the selected scapegoats as "scapegoats", at least not publicly, but only as guilty or defective persons to be sacrificed or removed so that order in society can be maintained. To do so causes cognitive dissonance. From the Girardian perspective, to do so is also an admission that the scapegoating mechanism will not work and that putting down the scapegoats will not restore order as advertised.
Surveys show that many Trump supporters agree that he has identified the correct scapegoats. Yet it is clear that many in the party disagree. This kind of disagreement is untenable and will have to be resolved before the party can be unified again.
Trump's campaign is also highly unusual for a modern Western society. In Western political campaigns, because of the necessity of appealing to protection of victims, it is generally considered improper to make appeals that are not couched in uplifting the downtrodden, but a rooted fundamentally in restoring order. The slogan "Make America Great Again", the pointed criticisms of everyone in both parties as incompetent decision makers and the argument that he can fix the country's problems are in fact, pre-Christian appeals that were common in the Roman Republic described in Plutarch's Lives.
in that society, while power was ordinarily distributed amongst many, it was possible for a dictator to be appointed for the purpose of restoring order and preserving the Republic -- to Make Rome Great Again, as it were. The person appointed was usually someone with a powerful personality who was expected to take drastic actions. In the case of Sulla in the first century B.C.E.:
"At the end of 82 BC or the beginning of 81 BC, the Senate appointed Sulla dictator legibus faciendis et reipublicae constituendae causa ("dictator for the making of laws and for the settling of the constitution"). The "Assembly of the People" subsequently ratified the decision, with no limit set on his time in office. Sulla had total control of the city and republic of Rome, except for Hispania (which Marius's general Quintus Sertorius had established as an independent state). This unusual appointment (used hitherto only in times of extreme danger to the city, such as during the Second Punic War, and then only for 6-month periods) represented an exception to Rome's policy of not giving total power to a single individual. Sulla can be seen[by whom?] as setting the precedent for Julius Caesar's dictatorship, and for the eventual end of the Republic under Augustus.
In total control of the city and its affairs, Sulla instituted a series of proscriptions (a program of executing those whom he perceived as enemies of the state). Plutarch states in his "Life" of Sulla (XXXI): "Sulla now began to make blood flow, and he filled the city with deaths without number or limit", further alleging that many of the murdered victims had nothing to do with Sulla, though Sulla killed them to "please his adherents".
"Sulla immediately proscribed eighty persons without communicating with any magistrate. As this caused a general murmur, he let one day pass, and then proscribed two hundred and twenty more, and again on the third day as many. In an harangue to the people, he said, with reference to these measures, that he had proscribed all he could think of, and as to those who now escaped his memory, he would proscribe them at some future time." -Plutarch, Life of Sulla (XXXI).""
Trump has promised similar actions against the scapegoats he has identified. During the debate on March 3, he said repeatedly that he would be a Great Leader" and "people would do what [he] tells them." Prior to the advent of Christianity, this was in fact a well-accepted method of maintaining an orderly society. It has only appeared sporadically in modern Western history, beginning with the French Revolution, and has never been looked upon favorably by history. In fact, modern historians often go to great lengths to explain these incidents as aberrations caused by particular evil-doers, even though over the entire course of human history they are more-or-less the general rule.
Looking through the Fractal Lens, we can envision and model the two political parties as the sand-pile models of complexity theory. Each party builds its sand-pile slowly and carefully, building issues upon issues and attracting supporters. But eventually the piles become too high, the positions to brittle or outdated and the supporters die off, leaving fragile structures that are prone to collapse as more grains of sand are dropped. Alternative candidates represent grains of sand that might fall away harmlessly off the pile or might cause avalanches. Changes do not come gradually or in an orderly manner, but in fits and starts.
Both parties are subject to avalanches, but they often occur at different times. The Democratic Party experienced a series of them between 1968 and 1988, and was rarely unified. Even the one candidate they were able to elect in 1976 often clashed with the other leaders of his own party. They could not agree upon what issues were sacred and who were the scapegoats. This resulted in a situation that is not that dissimilar from the 2016 Republican campaign. In 1988, for example, the Democratic party had 14 candidates for president that included David Duke and Lyndon LaRouche. But by that time, the avalanches were beginning to subside and rebuilding of the Democratic pile could begin to occur.
We saw a minor avalanche again in 1992 with the candidacy of Ross Perot, which affected the Republican side more than the Democrats. But, by contrast, the outsider candidacies of Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul did not cause serious avalanches for the GOP. Now we see a large avalanche occurring with the success of Donald Trump. Looking through the Fractal Lens, this has as much or more to do with the fragile state of the sand-pile as it does with the particular grain of sand that falls upon it.
Taking a quick peek through the Prospecting Lens, the disbelief that is common among the Republican leadership and Mitt Romney harkens to System 1 thinking. It is an example of the heuristics associated with overconfidence and the failure to appreciate that an older sand-pile that now dates back nearly 40 years is likely to also be brittle and subject to collapse in a spectacular way. By ignoring the signs in the electorate in favor of relying on old patterns of primary elections, they failed to appreciate the risks inherent in their situation.
On the other hand, both Trump and the other Republican leaders underestimate the role that luck always plays in these kinds of events -- good or bad as the case may be. This is also a characteristic of System 1 thinking.
I have always been curious about the way the world works and the most elegant ideas for describing and explaining it. I think I have found three of them.
I was very fond of James Burke's Connections series that explored interesting intersections between ideas, and hope to create some of that magic here.