What follows are the variables that led to Donald Trump’s improbable but nearly unstoppable rise to becoming the presumptive Republican nominee. I realized, as I analyzed these variables, how much they had in common with artificial intelligence, technological explosions, and Moore’s Law.
He took the world by surprise.
The surest way to reach frontrunner status is if no one else sees you coming, or takes you seriously, when you happen to show up happy and ready to go.
Trump had made overtures about running for president for years, and therefore was relegated to “boy who cried wolf” status.
We in the media mocked him regularly.
Until, of course, the wolf arrived – and announced that he would run.
Then, no one thought it possible, given Trump’s penchant for outrageous statements, that he could make this circus last. However, no one counted on a new kind of electorate either: one that, for better or worse, took what Trump said with a grain of salt. Giving him the historical “bubble of entertainment immunity,” they forgave him what they would not forgive others.
He could make jokes befitting of a Comedy Central roast, and get away with it. This was not just a first, it exemplified Andrew Breitbart’s central belief that politics is downstream from culture.
But being new to politics meant that Trump left no visible trail.
Sure, he had published books and appeared on morning television. He had ranted congenially on Howard Stern about war, marriage and sex – but there were no concrete issues attached to his views.
As he got older, his businesses likely served as a front for him — as he prepared for his big foray onto the world political stage.
While America watched “The Apprentice,” Trump was watching America.
Because most presidential runs are preceded by the normal gradient of steady advances (run for a seat in the House, then on to the Senate, maybe become governor, then get sidetracked into a disastrous affair with a nanny), no one took him seriously – and their response to Trump came off as condescending and clumsy.
In fact, it was his surprising entrance that led to his Party’s own misunderstanding of him. The Republicans came off as stiff: how could they not see this coming? The fact is, they could not see it coming because there was no sign to be seen.
It wasn’t their fault. If you expected a black swan, then they wouldn’t be called black swans.
His rise fed off of existing content.
Trump’s rhetoric, vision, and ideas are rooted in a short-hand version of talk radio and cable television conservatism. It is hard to explode onto the scene, if you have spent decades creating your principled vision (like say, Ronald Reagan or um, Ronald Reagan).
Trump didn’t have to: he just scooped it all out of the white noise generators around him, and shaped it into a digestible, accessible platform of promises. He exploited existing hardware to great effect — and like no other.
He did his homework, which was the equivalent of “books on tape” as reconfigured by Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Fox News.
A good comparison might be the lone hacker, who succeeds in putting the whole thing into action – after all the work had been done previously by other companies and organizations.
You can’t hack something that isn’t there, after all.
So what did Trump hack? The conservative movement.
He got in, figured it out, and ran with it.
All of those conservatives who had been in that movement for decades expressed understandable frustration. Imagine being in line for a Springsteen concert, and a chap cuts to the front of the line — then disses you for waiting patiently. That’s Trump entering the 2016 race, and relegating all before him, as establishment.
In sum: The traditional ideologies of patriotism, American exceptionalism – along with strong alpha male nationalism, buffet style cable TV content, linked to the alienation of an endless Obama era (eight years of the same, continuous political ideology naturally becomes tiresome – even to the apolitical) – all of this set the table for Trump to flip that final switch. It could just as easily have been Glenn Beck or Oprah Winfrey.
In fact I believe much of the animosity toward Trump from notable names and faces is due to the fact that they feel Trump’s dare exposes their cowardice to do the same.
His machine ran itself with no outside help
His steady fast rise inspired greater interest, which then accelerated his steady, fast rise even more. Essentially, his momentum creates more momentum – and the power driving the movement starts to increase on its own – without needing input from the outside (aside from talking heads constantly pointing to the momentum, as its proof of life).
In the frightening world of artificial intelligence, one would call this “recursive self-improvement,” in which the entity’s primary purpose is to become more powerful, so that its rate of improvement keeps doubling.
Trump figured out how to apply Moore’s law to politics. Moore’s law is the theory that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit double every two years (roughly). Trump, by using the media’s vulnerability (they must find content to fill space) to his advantage (let me give you this “winning” story), created his own momentum.
He worked his advantages, quickly calling in favors
Trump obtained the strategic advantage by tapping into the social networks he’d already built among the media – which translated into massive amounts of free time on television – a plus that his 16 competitors did not have.
The social network created personal friendships, which translated to camera-ready spokespersons (old friends who now owe something to this mythic celebrity in their midst) on different shows, crafting the message.
The message was clear: Trump was not part of the establishment; his adversaries are. This provided excellent camouflage for his underlying posture: that of an authoritarian ruler. His many supporters could embrace the autocracy, without admitting to. Instead of saying, “I want an autocrat,” they can say, “He’s an outsider.” That doesn’t seem as bad. And it worked like magic.
He neutralized the enemies
Trump gained this advantage so quickly that he was able to use it not only to build his base, but to suppress his competition: elbowing them out of coverage. He created a monopoly among the candidates – one they could not imitate. In the realm of entertaining the masses with blunt rhetoric, Trump was Coke, and everyone else was Royal Crown. Ultimately he was able to turn the election season into a single obedient agency shaped around him. Everyone else was outside, looking in. Beware if you cross the machine. Like Coke, he only linked himself with “winning,” not with losing.
It would be hard to maintain a big lead like his, if his adversaries could mimic his style, or steal his ideas, effectively. But they were too slow, fearful and unfamiliar with these tactics.
The gap between Trump and the others only increased, as strong candidates like Jeb Bush and Rick Perry found it too difficult to assimilate. A dog can’t beat a cat, at being a cat. Or possibly, a pig.
He kept it lean, and mean
Trump’s tight organization made him a nimbler, fast moving warrior. In most organizations, bureaucracy slows you down – humans have different preferences and their squabbling and pernicious gossip adds a drag to your revving engine.
As Trump campaigners have noted: there is only one boss, and one voice – and they do as he says.
The allegiance is infectious, turning his supporters into dedicated, aggressive sports fans for Team Trump. Ultimately, this finite system of working parts allows the team to move faster than everyone else.
Trump is a sports car; the rest are school buses.