MUNICH – American democracy is a complex, self-organizing system. In terms of network science, President Donald Trump is a “superhub”: the most well-connected human “node,” located in the center of the network. While Trump does not have control over the entire system – he himself is subject to its systemic forces – he has enough influence that he could cause it to fail.
Complex systems don’t fail easily. They are generally adaptive and self-correcting. When they become too skewed, circuit breakers kick in to restore balance. But if circuit breakers are disabled, the system will ultimately self-destruct.
The likelihood of such an outcome is hard to predict. But in situations of absolute uncertainty, it is advisable to assume the worst, and many indicators seem to point to a potential “hostile takeover” of liberal democracy by Trump and his cohorts.
The most effective way to destroy a complex system is, first, to manufacture chaos. Within a month of taking office, Trump’s administration has already employed shock tactics to paralyze and distract the electorate, while antagonizing allies, provoking enemies, and creating new alliances with dubious partners. He has gone so far as to create a parallel universe using “alternative facts.”
Trump has not taken these steps, as some claim, entirely out of ignorance or irrationality. In a 2014 speech, Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, cited the Fascist Italian philosopher Julius Evola, who argued that “changing the system is not a question of contesting and polemicizing, but of blowing everything up.”
It is also a question of applying “divide and conquer” tactics. The “divide” part has been well underway since Trump launched his presidential campaign, which was based on divisive rhetoric, sowing mistrust, and polarizing policy promises.
Now comes “conquer,” through the dismantling of democracy’s institutional underpinnings. Trump has launched aggressive attacks on institutions intended to hold him accountable. This includes US institutions such as the judiciary and the media, as well as the international institutions that underpin our geopolitical and economic order, including the United Nations, NATO, and the European Union.
So far, democratic institutions, particularly the press and the judiciary, have proven resilient. But Trump’s willingness to abide by the US Constitution and Supreme Court decisions is far from certain. He seems to have no plans to adhere to basic rules and norms relating to his own conflicts of interest. And his fascination with autocratic leaders, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, has already translated into an eagerness to adopt their tactics and symbols of power, evident in his (unfulfilled) request for tanks and missile-launchers at his inauguration.
What if Trump openly defied a court decision and ordered civil servants to act in violation of it? What if he declared martial law, a possibility he seemed to be intimating when he threatened to “send in the Feds” to Chicago to deal with crime there.
Trump’s contempt for the law extends beyond the US. He has casually suggested that the US should commit war crimes, such as pillaging countries’ oil resources and torturing prisoners. He has also casually suggested defaulting on the national debt as a way to reduce it – a strategy he has employed with his companies.
Because the judicial system’s design assumes that everyone will operate within it, a powerful actor operating outside of it – and, indeed, actively undermining it – could produce a system failure. Even if the judiciary remains uncompromised, America’s international soft power and status as an economic safe haven may not.
Of course, Trump did not inherit a perfect system. But, rather than working to strengthen its resilience, he is exacerbating its weaknesses – and creating new ones.
Consider income inequality, already at record levels in the US. If Trump’s tax proposals are enacted, experts agree, the income of the top 1% of earners will increase by 13.5%, while middle-income household incomes will rise by just 1.8%. Financial deregulation will further enrich the wealthiest Americans, while making the financial system more fragile.
Trade protectionism won’t help, because trade is not a zero-sum game, and most US manufacturing jobs have been lost to automation, not trade. Worse, given the implications of trade for geopolitical and financial-system dynamics, the net consequences of protectionism will likely be negative.
Given his penchant for oversimplification, Trump not only fails to deal effectively with the problems at hand; his short-sighted policies will likely trigger unintended consequences, and possibly even the so-called butterfly effect, whereby remote minor events can trigger the failure of complex systems.
Although resistance has been forming, it is not yet loud enough. Trump’s administration – comprising largely white male billionaires – lacks the diversity and experience to advocate for policies needed to sustain a more equitable and stable system. Republicans in Congress have quickly fallen into line behind Trump, as have CEOs, even those who once vociferously criticized him. While the public is pushing back, complacency is already beginning to take hold, with previously unimaginable actions and events being rationalized, normalized, and accepted.
Eventually, network dynamics will kick in to recalibrate the US democratic system. Whether they produce gradual and orderly corrections or sudden, uncontrollable chaos remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that, the longer we allow Trump to distort our system, the more difficult it will be to limit or repair the damage. All Americans are part of the system and, with their individual actions, they have the power to contribute to large-scale effects in defense of their liberal democracy.