Dave Tucker

System Theory and the Rise of Trump

Posted on March 5, 2016
A wild fire

Forest fires in some parts of the United States used to be common, but small. Before the 20th century, every five or ten years, a fire would sweep through and kill off mostly the small and young foliage, leaving the forest damaged, but intact1. Many saw this as a waste of resources. The logging industry wanted the forests for lumber, and Roosevelt wanted them for national parks. And so it was that the newly created US Forest Service adopted fighting fires as their primary goal2.

Yet here we are in 2016 and forest fires are as a great problem now than they were then. What went wrong? It turns out that small fires are beneficial to a forest. By clearing away all the debris often, small fires keep too much fuel from accumulating. This is a common property of organic systems. Beyond just surviving small stressors, such systems actually benefit from them. This is true across domains. Hygiene hypothesis suggests that exposure to pathogens is beneficial to us, possibly causing some temporary harm, but strengthening the immune system in the long run3.

Society, being an organic system, is subject to this same phenomenon. So how have we now come to suffer the wildfire that is Trump? We've been removing stressors. Just as our country became intolerant of any forest fire, no matter how small, we've become intolerant of any offensive idea. When some such idea springs up, we squash it immediately.

In 2015, a group of Williams College students invited anti-feminist author Suzanne Venker to come to campus and and speak about her ideas. They invited her specifically because they disagreed with her, but valued exposure to conflicting ideas. In today's PC climate, such an action by university students should be considered an act of heroism. Unfortunately, protests by other members of the student body were great enough to scare them in to revoking their invitation. Everybody loses in this scenario. Neither side will hear opposing arguments.

This is the environment we find ourselves in. Those who even question the science behind climate change are labeled "deniers" and told "the science is settled". Those are both ways of ending a debate before it begins. Two a penny labels like "racist" and "misogynist" are tossed around like profanity in a George Carlin bit. Question the military and you hate America. Want to reduce welfare? You hate the poor. Most every libertarian has been told they should move to Somalia, but last week I witnessed a libertarian tell a communist he should move to North Korea.

So how does a person react when their ideas are met with hostility, but no debate? First, they find people who will talk to them. Communities of like-minded people form, allowing their members to talk about their ideas among themselves, free from hostility, but also free from challenge; an echo chamber. But mostly, such people wait. They wait for some chance at legitimacy.

And it's in this environment that Trump lights a fire. The forests are packed dense with fuel. No debate has occurred to remove bad ideas. No stress placed on the system. And now people have a focus. A major political candidate seems to feel just like they do.

Think about what Trump is. He's the antithesis of the politically correct movement. He's the personification of the ideas that nobody will honestly confront. He's the chance for legitimacy that so many people have been waiting for. He's the inevitable result of trying to suppress ideas through any means other than a good argument. He is saying all the things his supporters have been saying, but nobody can silence him.

Instead of small brush fires burning throughout the country as people rationally debate ideas, we have a massive wildfire on our hands, and it's burning out of control. There may be no stopping this one now, but we can avoid such catastrophes in the future. Talk to those who disagree with you; especially those who disagree with you. Really listen to and try and understand their argument. Don't attack them, attack their ideas. Telling someone that they are wrong is useless. Tell them why. These conversations will likely spark some hostility, but it will be small - contained - a mere brush fire, and such small fires will prevent the wildfires of the future.


  1. http://www.npr.org/2012/08/23/159373691/how-the-smokey-bear-effect-led-to-raging-wildfires
  2. Ip, Greg. Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2015. Print. Page 17.
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hygiene_hypothesis