I’m not worried about Donald Trump becoming the president of the United States. Except when I am.
Through author Mark Schapiro and his new book “The End of Stationarity,” I have come to know that term – stationarity. It technically refers to little-changing – or stationary – patterns of statistical certainty.
Practically speaking, in climate, because we have been tracking data like rainfall, temperature and tides for hundreds of years, we have been able to anticipate weather patterns with an exacting level of predictability.
But because of climate change, winters are colder (or warmer), summers are hotter (or cooler), the ability to plan around patterns that have been thousands of years in the making is unraveling. In other words, for climate, stationarity is dead.
Watching Trump defy everything we thought we knew about what Americans accept in language and behavior from their leaders, I wonder if stationarity is dead in our politics as well.
The rise of Justin Trudeau in Canada shocked pundits. In England, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the top of the Labour Party took that nation by surprise. On the other side of the spectrum, England has seen the rise of the radical-right UK Independence Party, and in France that same extremism has emerged by way of Marine Le Pen and her National Front party.
These are not normal or particularly predictable events. So when you look here at home and see Trump’s unflinching rise in the polls – even when he says we should kill innocents as a deterrent to terrorism and engage in filtering out tourists and immigrants based on their religion – you see the same kind of broken pattern.
In the television age, one can’t always predict the exact winners in our politics. But you can make some pretty reasoned guesses within certain parameters. For example, America hasn’t historically loved jerks. The angrier candidate almost never wins – even as a nominee.
Barry Goldwater was an exception. But for the most part, Americans prefer leaders to be strong, but also representative of the kinder parts of our nation’s ethos. Howard Dean didn’t stand a chance in the same way Pat Buchanan never really did.
Further, Americans don’t tend to choose actual outsiders for the job of president, although many claim to be outsiders. Every nominee since Kennedy has been a vice president, senator or governor. Even President Barack Obama, who ran as an outsider in 2008, did so as a U.S. senator.
So then, what allows for an angry outsider with no relevant government experience who demeans women, Muslims, Mexico and immigrants, to continue actually expanding his support? To paraphrase someone much smarter than me: It’s the economy, stupid.
When James Carville first uttered those words during the 1992 Clinton campaign, the economy was just about to take off and the country, buoyed by hope, elected a young Arkansan governor to be president of the United States.
Now, as Americans read news of stock market highs, low gasoline prices and an unemployment rate that has been cut in half since the height of the recession, Americans don’t feel better.
Wages are stagnant, and education and health care costs are rising. And while wages seem stuck for low- and middle-income workers, people at the top are doing better than they ever have.
The gap between the top earners and bottom earners is bigger in the U.S. than anywhere in the world, and that gap is creating even greater anger at a system that feels rigged for a small privileged class.
The comfortable, conventional pattern of our politics has become unglued because of voters’ anxiety over the economy, and the real and present fear of terrorism. Acceptable rhetoric has gotten hotter, and publicly expressed attitudes toward immigrants and Muslims are colder. The climate of American political history is changing.
Given our nation’s history, it is almost impossible to imagine how Trump could cobble together a majority, or even a plurality, of votes to claim the most important job in the world. But to ignore what his rise represents, and what it says about how politics is changing, would be a mistake.
Bill Burton is California managing director of SKDKnickerbocker in Los Angeles where he is a political and public affairs consultant. Previously he served as White House deputy press secretary and special assistant to President Barack Obama.
The 2016 presidential campaign has defied predictable politics in America; what’s your opinion of the campaign and the change in behavior of the candidates?
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