One of the more frustrating things about being a Cassandra who sees paradigm shifts coming in advance only to be ignored as “unserious,” is the self-satisfied preening of traditional analysts who insist that the big shift will never happen while looking down on all the supposed crazies who point out that this time really is different.
Even more frustrating than that, however, is that when the non-serious people are proven right, the traditional analysts explain away their lack of vision by describing the predictable paradigm shift as a once-in-a-lifetime, totally unpredictable “black swan event.” Like black swans in nature, a black swan event is a rare, statistically unlikely occurrence that nevertheless randomly happens from time to time, defying the expectations of even the smartest analysts. Describing predictable paradigm shifts and tipping points as black swan events allows prognosticators who make drastically wrong predictions by missing major trends to reassure themselves that their failure of vision was due to the randomness of the universe–much like a random genetic mutation–rather than a serious deficiency in their own analytic abilities.
This happened most prominently after the housing bubble collapsed leading to the crash of the world economy. Many people, in fact, knew that housing was in a gigantic bubble, from the writers at the Housing Bubble Blog to Nouriel Roubini and many others. It wasn’t just the short-selling traders in The Big Short who saw it coming: they just were simply among the few with the ability and courage to profit from their clarity of vision in the face of mass delusion. As dedicated readers of the Housing Bubble Blog back in 2005, my wife and I advised everyone who would listen not to get involved in real estate, even as many friends and relatives chided and mocked us for throwing away money on rent. Then when so many of their properties went underwater they felt victimized, but few acknowledged the truth: the collapse was entirely predictable for anyone who was looking in the right places.
The same effect is now underway as Donald Trump seems to be the odds-on favorite to win the GOP nomination–as some of us have been predicting for months now based on the evolution of the GOP base and its near-complete transition to paranoid white-identity politics.
Jack Shafer wrote in a widely-read Politico Magazine piece that Trump is a black swan candidate supposedly “immune to the natural laws of politics.”
The problem, of course, is that the supposed natural laws of politics that traditional analysts were counting on don’t really exist. That the Republican electorate usually flirts with outsider candidates before choosing an establishment choice is merely an accidental artifact: Ronald Reagan himself was the outsider choice for president, and the GOP electorate was significantly different culturally and demographically prior to the last decade. John McCain almost backed into the nomination by virtue of the failures of other candidates rather than his own strength, and the GOP base was positively unexcited by him until he picked Sarah Palin as a running mate–and it was her they loved, not him. Then rose the Tea Party wave in 2010 that ousted so many establishment Republicans, followed by a 2012 primary that saw Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum consistently win a plurality of votes over Mitt Romney: it was only the fact that neither non-Romney candidate dropped out soon enough that Romney, derided and disliked by the GOP base, eventually won. Upon doing so, Romney needed to shore up his right flank by selecting Paul Ryan as his running mate, rather than softening his image by picking a VP who might help with moderate and minority voters. Romney’s loss was followed by another Tea Party wave in 2014 that saw the GOP base oust its own House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary.
In the context of that history, it actually seems foolish to believe that the GOP would select a safe, establishment choice in the face of a cultural warrior populist revolt. Scott Walker seemed to be the only candidate who could unite both the safe establishment and bullying culture war wings of the party, but he simply lacked the charisma to pull it off.
Meanwhile, the demographic shift of the GOP to an almost entirely older, white, Southern, evangelical and rural party, combined with the obvious failure of supply-side economics and ascendance of both social liberalism and a much more liberal minority and Millennial population, has intensified the anger and paranoia of the base. Anyone who spent more time reading the real sentiments of Republican voters in conservative forums and online comments than the non-representative musings of the editors of National Review would have known that core Republican voters were far more interested in standing up to the big, liberal politically correct behemoth and the supposed Latino/Hispanic “invasion” than in protecting low tax rates for hedge fund managers while winning votes from conservative Hispanics with a pathway to citizenship.
As for Trump’s supposedly disqualifying statements, all one need do is recall that Sarah Palin remained beloved of the GOP base despite making much wilder statements and similarly denigrated John McCain. Todd Akin and Sharron Angle were the GOP base choices for Senate because of their tendency to make wildly offensive statements in public, not in spite of it.
It was entirely predictable, then, that the race would fall to an outsider like Trump, Carson or Cruz. Even as the campaign progressed, some of us pointed out for months that Carson, Cruz and Trump were all pulling from the same voting pool, that the collapse of one would simply serve to benefit the others, and that the sum total of the vote being received by the establishment candidates wasn’t rising to even 25%. This was obvious for months to anyone who actually bothered to look. It was always possible that Trump could fall for some reason, but Trump’s fall would only have elevated Cruz or Carson–an equally or even more troubling prospect for the GOP establishment.
So no, Donald Trump is not a black swan candidate. Those who failed to predict his staying power and dominance weren’t subverted by a randomly occurring riptide in the electoral pool. They simply missed the obvious trends. Their failure to see the obvious coming was due to a combination of wishful thinking about the nobility of the American electorate, and the attempt to preserve a both-sides-do-it version of American politics in which partisanship derives from extremism in Washington rather than genuine divisions within the American public. As in any science, flawed assumptions and a failure to account for the available evidence will lead to mistaken conclusions. And indeed, the flawed assumptions that led mainstream pundits to miss the Trump phenomenon are very similar to the ones that also leading them to underestimate Bernie Sanders’ popularity with the Democratic base.
To make better predictions about electoral politics, traditional pundits need to look in the mirror and revise their assumptions about the electorate. Americans in both parties are afraid for their futures and fed with up the current system, theRepublican Party has become far more extreme on the right than the Democratic Party on the left, and the GOP electorate specifically is far more demographically isolated and less interested in small-government conservatism and far more driven by racial animus, authoritarianism and cultural backlash than most centrist pundits care to admit.
The conclusions one can draw from these trends are easy, if you make the right assumptions and know where to look.