Friday, January 29, 2016

Disruptive Trumping

Almost a year ago I did a piece on an example of what the "forward thinkers" in the high-tech world refer to as "disruptive technology".  Disruptive technology is something which changes the way we go about doing some normal part of our lives, in a fairly decisive way.

The piece was actually about single-cup coffee brewers, but the principle is usually used for  technologies such as the smart phone, wireless-in-the-home, that sort of thing.  I would say that the more sudden and abrupt the impact and the pervasive nature of the change, the better is the characterization of the innovation as "disruptive."

I love the term, because it has real meaning.  We all do something differently from the way we used to, and we trace it to a specific innovation.

This brings us, as you probably would not have assumed, to the Republican campaign for the presidency that is now occupying our consciousness in a very big way.  A huuuge way, if you get my drift, and that is a hint to today's topic.

I have observed many, many presidential races in my lifetime, going back to the 1956 race between President Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson (at five, I probably didn't have an opinion, but I darn sure watched it).  Over the years I have witnessed the advent of the debate as an evolutionary component of the campaign.  I have also witnessed "reverse schedule creep", in the sense that while 50 years ago at this stage there might not even have been any formally-announced candidates, here in the 2016 campaign we've already had a year of speeches, a passel of debates, and candidates already have dropped out.

However, through 2012 the basic campaign had a fairly common and predictable pathway.  Candidates announced, they made speeches, held interviews and kissed babies.  They participate in debates, touted their records, and some dropped out.  Almost invariably, by the time of the conventions in the summer, one candidate had garnered enough delegates to ensure his nomination.

Rarely was there anything at the convention to write home about.  In fact, my favorite -- and nearly only recollection of an actual convention, save for Ronald Reagan's incredible acceptance speech in 1980, was in 1968 during the vice-presidential roll call at the Democrats' convention.  I recall it well.

The delegation from New Mexico had given some of its votes to the state's lieutenant governor, Roberto Mondragon.  When the roll call got to New Mexico, the state delegation chairman finished reading the state's tally "... and three votes for Mondragon!", followed by raucous cheering.  Then the lady at the podium read off her acknowledgement of what she thought she had heard, solemnly announcing "... and three votes for Mao Tse-Tung", as if it were perfectly reasonable that Democrats would have voted for the head of the Chinese Communist Party.  Seriously, she did not seem surprised at all.  Forty-eight years since, neither am I.

But I digress, a lot.

While all those campaigns since have had common and predictable pathways indeed, never has there been a campaign like that of Donald Trump.  Now, I've probably written here that if he were the nominee I would vote for him, although he is not my first choice.  Let's just leave it at that.  I really did not agree with the whole not-showing-up-for-the-debate thing last night; he came off as petulant and, more importantly, made a decision knowing it would not impress anyone, and help his opponents.

But the debate no-show flap is simply the latest in a series of things that makes Trump's campaign what can only be characterized as disruptive.  For example --

- His is an entirely self-funded campaign; when he says he is beholden to no one, it is completely credible in the political context.

- The debates, save last night's in his absence, are dominated by questions about things Trump has said, often only remotely connected to actual issues voters care about.

- He has had business relationships with people in government leadership positions on both sides of the aisle over the years, and given lots of money to candidates of both parties, so he would come at governance relationships totally differently.

- He rarely is specific about how he would do anything, and his ratio of platitude-to-solution is unbelievably high.

- He has zero government experience; he builds buildings for a living (very successfully, it is worth adding).  His government experience is limited to donating to campaigns -- both sides, as noted.

- He does not ever apologize for anything he says in the campaign.  This is in stark contrast with the media's normal expectation that when they "Aha!" a Republican for saying something, he or she will immediately cower, apologize and back down.  Trump does none of that, and the media have no idea how to react.

- When he does make a statement that the media would normally "Aha!", his poll numbers rise.  That's "rise", as in "go up."  The media don't know how to deal with that, either, except to vilify him reflexively as a bigot (the best they've got) and discard his candidacy.

- He is not a lawyer, nor is he a practiced debater.  You can readily see that in the debates he does attend, but he is confident, not nervous, there, because he believes he has answers to whatever someone will ask him.

So when I say that his candidacy is "disruptive", I think that is a completely accurate description of what Trump 2016 has done to campaigns everywhere.  It is so completely different from what anyone else -- including the closest analog, Ross Perot -- has done, that we do not know exactly how to take it.  The fact that Barack Obama has been such a colossal failure as president that anyone with a spine and a clue would be a relief, well, that probably explains why his disruptive campaign has been so effective so far.

Of course, disruptive technologies cause permanent change, to whatever the status quo is for doing whatever they are intended to do.  Perhaps "disruptive" is not exactly the right word for the campaign of Mr. Trump in 2016.  We probably won't see this effect again.

Because there is only one Donald J. Trump.

Copyright 2016 by Robert Sutton
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