Posted Jul 17, 2016 at 10:03. Revised Jan 13, 2019 at 15:27.
History is bunk, right? After all, if that were not the case modern, enlightened, up-to-date educators would not have all but eliminated it from curricula. People familiar with the last seventy years of history might spot a Complexity Trap cycle covering the period from Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) to Donald Trump. Ashes to ashes. J.D. Nobody didn’t know that Donald Trump would become President when this was written, but that is not the point. Beneath the surface, Trump, Roosevelt, and even Abraham Lincoln have some surprising similarities that their respective enthusiasts do not see. J.D. Nobody, however, clearly sees similarities between Trump and FDR.
Years ago J.D. Nobody had an acquaintance who was a deep thinker and scholar of history who understood that history is not bunk. He had an interesting theory: The U.S. has experienced three great crises since its founding, happening about 70 years apart. In his view, each crisis in America’s evolution involved different issues, but each was serious enough to put the country’s very survival in jeopardy.
Several characteristics have been common to all the crisis periods, with oversimplification being a primary one. Each crisis cycle has involved varying degrees of religious ferment in the years preceding its end. Most people underestimate both the complexities and the subtleties of the moment and wake up only when they are finally overwhelmed.
Each crisis has been marked by at least two political factions with strong, growing, deep convictions about whether or how to approach the perceived need for controversial change. The biggest faction is strong enough to block the next largest faction, but not strong enough to win the day. The political parties become more fragmented as the crisis comes to a head, and after the crisis, many voters “go over to the other side.” New political alignments and parties form, albeit some with the same name.
Changes coming out of each crisis period have resulted in at least some Constitutional change in governance. These changes happen either by formal Constitutional amendment or via “amendment by abandonment.” The abandonment route either simply ignores the Constitution’s requirements or uses as much glib lawyering as necessary to reinterpret the Constitution for the convenience of the moment.
Unfortunately, facts and logic become progressively less relevant as the crisis deepens. Both 85 years ago and today, most people have not recognized that the President has limited power to influence most events. Nevertheless, political theatrics have been central to fanning the perception that important political personalities have almost complete power over all events in the world and therefore must get the credit or blame for whatever happens.
The winner in a crisis period Presidential election is a controversial candidate who probably would not have been electable in immediately prior elections. His election victory is largely attributable to his having a dynamic, new personality and being able to seize the changed tone of the times and run with it. Most people perceive him as genuine, honest, and being concerned about them, whether or not he has those qualities. Once in office, the new President is hated by many, partly because of the need to expand presidential power to deal with the problems and partly because he must make decisions that will be widely hated.
“Crisis Zero”: The Revolutionary Period
Depending on how one counts, the U.S. has experienced four crises if one assumes that a crisis begins a cycle rather than ends it. The period between the publication of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the inauguration of George Washington as President in 1789 is Crisis Zero by this reckoning. By J.D. Nobody’s friend’s reckoning, the lead-up to Crisis One started after George Washington was inaugurated and ended with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.
Growing, but often unrecognized, relationship complexities and subtleties between England and the Colonies made the “crisis zero” period the first complexity trap in the nation’s history. The escape from the trap into a new era was long and not easy. The outcome of the Revolutionary War was far from certain, and the thirteen-year period under the Articles of Confederation was unstable.
Crisis One: The Constitutional Crisis
After breaking free of the Revolutionary period’s complexity trap, the nation embarked on a period of growth and prosperity fueled by having new territories to populate and by building the first transportation infrastructure. Replacing cowpaths with canals and railroads, growing the nation, and complementing slow mail communications with telegraphy ended in the constitutional complexity trap crisis. This crisis came to a head about 70 years after George Washington’s inauguration.
The Constitutional crisis was over the degree to which the states could govern themselves and whether states had the right to secede from the Union. Slavery was the third issue, and could not be addressed at the federal level because the Constitution reserved the needed authority to the individual states. These three issues resulted in the Civil War once passions on both sides finally reached the boiling point. The Crisis One troubles were highly visible and clearly seen by just about everyone.
Not until after Lincoln’s March 4, 1861 inauguration did this growing complexity trap become a full constitutional crisis. Just about everyone in the country was demonizing someone. Reason was almost completely missing from the scene. Lincoln was an exception to the lack of reason because he had a perspective tempered by being a Northerner, but had married into a Southern family.
When the war started most people thought the troubles would be resolved quickly because the other side would turn tail and run once confronted on the battlefield. The war’s opening battle – the First Battle of Bull Run, also called the Battle of First Manassas – occurred on July 21, 1861. The fierce fighting and many casualties sobered both armies, and only then did they realize that the war was going to be much longer and bloodier than either side had anticipated.
Many Washington, D.C. residents were so sure the rebellion would not last long that they came to the battlefield with picnics to see the rebels’ defeat. Instead, when the battle was over the picnickers were fleeing for their lives. Similarly, most people caught up in the next two crises were initially prone to minimizing the situation.
Initially, Lincoln’s thinking was that upholding the Constitution and keeping the nation together were more important than the slavery issue. Toward the war’s end, Lincoln changed his mind and made ending slavery his top priority. Deep wounds remained on both sides long after the war ended.
As in the later crises, the adversaries on each side were partly right. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution denies all power to the federal government that the Constitution does not explicitly grant to the federal government. The Constitution makes it abundantly clear that the South was essentially correct on the states’ rights issue, while the North was right on the slavery issue. Ending slavery required a Constitutional amendment to give the federal government the expanded power needed.
The de facto Constitutional changes coming from Crisis One advanced the erosion of the Tenth Amendment’s original intent. This slow but relentless shift of power to the federal government caused both the people and the states to look progressively more to the federal government for solutions to problems.
Curiously, Britain’s recent vote to withdraw from the European Union is a modern “states’ rights” issue. In its way, history is repeating itself.
In the U.S., the political party alignments changed by Crisis One lasted for 70 to 100 years and reflected the growing trend toward more central power and a changed electorate. The new Republican Party became both the party of blacks who were able to vote and an advocate for more central power and business interests. The new Democratic Party became the party of farmers, laborers, and Southern whites. These somewhat illogical alignments slowly restructured themselves along more logical lines as a result of the 1965-1980 Civil Rights reforms.
Crisis Two: The Financial Crisis
Crisis Two, by the reckoning of J.D. Nobody‘s friend, was the financial crisis of the Great Depression. The Crisis Two complexity trap ended a 64 year period of growth and prosperity that was fueled by new territories to populate, industrialization, improved communication, and transportation innovations. In the course of one lifetime, the nation had become a nation of 48 states, a rapidly growing world industrial and financial power connected by rail, radio, telegraph, and telephone communications, and home to a growing urban, immigrant population. Television and aviation existed, but neither was ready for general use. World War One had transformed the country from a debtor nation into a creditor nation.
The 1920s were the culmination of the prosperity that came from all those developments. These new complexities set the stage for massive sociological, economic, and political change and launched the second crisis – almost 70 years after the first one. The world was far more complex sociologically than it had been 70 years earlier.
Herbert Hoover was the man in the White House when the roof fell in. Herbert Hoover, who preceded FDR as President, was widely perceived as responsible for the 1929 stock market crash and the serious depression that developed during Hoover’s term in office. By the end of his term, Hoover became soundly reviled by most of the public, similar to what President Barack Obama has experienced.
The spectacular 1929 stock market crash extended only from September 1929 to November 1929 and was attributable more to corrective market forces than to either any presidential actions or to the deteriorating economy. A major bull market followed the 1929 crash and continued until June 1930. Only then did the big, nearly three-year-long stock market trip to the bottom begin. This second stock market collapse was primarily a reflection of the failing economy and not the cause of the failure.
In Crisis Two, things fell apart to a far greater degree than just about anyone had thought possible. Financial difficulties fed on themselves as many solid loans and financial arrangements went bad along with the shaky ones. No doubt existed about the seriousness of the situation because the troubles were plainly visible, and everyone could see them everywhere. The economic disintegration had caused massive damage to the nation’s ability to produce food, clothing, and shelter. For many citizens, survival was now an issue.
The law required the Federal Reserve to protect the dollar by maintaining strong bank reserves, so the Fed had to raise interest rates to comply with the law. This tightening helped strangle the limping economy and made it impossible for many people and businesses to pay back bank loans. These bad loans then caused many banks to fail, making it progressively more difficult for the economy to work.
No economic group had wanted the troubles or benefitted from them, but there were plenty of simpletons with naively incomplete answers about how to fix things and whom to blame. The big difference between then and now is that today’s difficulties are not as overtly obvious as were those in the 1930s, but today many more simpletons are probably endowed with “the” answer. Complexity traps breed a backlash of simpletons.
The growing social, economic, and financial complexities after World War I eventually collapsed into chaotic simplicity and national despair. The situation provided the perfect setup for scapegoating those in positions of responsibility and blaming them for a colossal mess which they had only partly created. People love simple explanations for problems. Notice any similarities to today?
The 1932 election chose Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the next President in an atmosphere of much vitriol. The political tone of the times was not about to listen to the sitting President, even when his ideas made sense. Notice any similarities to today?
An opportunistic Congress had blocked Hoover’s ideas until FDR could get the credit for addressing the problems of the times. Notice any similarities to today? Indeed, Hoover had tried to carry out various of the ideas FDR implemented once he was in office.
The Hoover Presidency started at a time when civility and respect for both the presidency and the person of the president were normal but ended on a very different note. The nearly complete breakdown of political civility and growing political venom made the transition from Hoover to Roosevelt quite nasty and needlessly worsened the economic damage to the country. Notice any similarities to today?
During the transition period, Hoover repeatedly asked Roosevelt what he (Hoover) could do in his last days as President to smooth the transition into the Roosevelt Presidency and keep the crisis from becoming even worse. Roosevelt was not statesman enough to accept Hoover’s offer because he would not risk allowing a political “enemy” to be involved in part of the solution – even for the good of the country. More cooperation doubtless would have helped make the four-month transition between the presidents less damaging, but FDR saw increasing the damage to the country as a low price to pay to maximize the damage to a political opponent.
On Roosevelt’s inauguration day this situation rose to a crescendo of boorish indecency toward the departing President. Once the new President was sworn in, Hoover was forced to walk, alone, to the train station. No simple act of courtesy such as driving the former President to the train station or thanking him for giving his best efforts under often impossible circumstances occurred. Doing so would have risked both elevating the former President above demon level and reduced the “politically necessary” rancor the nation was feeling toward the “enemies” of the new administration. Notice any similarities to today?
Many people agreed with the actions taken by FDR to deal with the crisis, but many others were violently opposed, thinking the changes were a great mistake. The actions taken in the 1930s resulted in an intensely hot discussion between those who believed that FDR was saving the nation and those who believed that he was destroying it – a discussion that continues to this day.
Only one other instance of a catastrophic financial crisis has unfolded during the transition from a Republican President to a Democratic President. In the 2008 transition, George W. Bush and Barack Obama coordinated and cooperated effectively and with some gentility and civility. That situation was at high risk of becoming a financial Armageddon that would engulf the entire world, but fortunately, a few big men acted quickly and decisively to prevent disaster. The Presidential staffs focused on dealing with the problem at hand, not on vilifying their counterparts or maximizing their personal glory.
Both Trump and FDR have understood well that politics is theater and that their acting skills must be good enough to keep supporters from seeing through their performances. Conversely, it is equally important that their detractors see through the dishonesty and phoniness of those on the other side. This theater, in turn, feeds a self-reinforcing anger among the supporters and detractors, anger that further increases supporters’ motivation.
Building a power base via mutual vilification keeps the supporters as motivated as possible. This strategy works best when your supporters significantly, but not overwhelmingly, outnumber your detractors. You want your opponents to be strong enough to make a lot of threatening noise, but not strong enough to win. Although Lincoln did not extensively use vilification, it worked in 1862 and 1932, and it still works today.
The truth probably is that FDR saved the country from an even bigger disaster, but he also did some long-term damage in the process. The proud independence and self-reliance that most Americans had during the Depression lessened in the following decades and progressively more borrowing decreased the financial independence of most consumers.
This trend probably occurred because the growing complexity of post-Depression life gave people fewer simple, clear choices and less control over the growing complexities that they faced. Their slowly eroding self-reliance and decreasing ability to control their destiny and cope with growing complexity has forced people to look increasingly to the government for solutions to problems. This trend has not turned the land of the free and the home of the brave into the land of the freeloaders and the home of the bravado, but the trend is in that direction.
Crisis Three: The Cultural Crisis
The third great crisis, by the reckoning of J.D. Nobody‘s friend, arrived about 70 years after the previous crisis. J.D. Nobody‘s friend viewed this cultural crisis as probably the most serious of the crises to date because it goes to the heart of everything that the nation is. Everyone alive at the time of the first two crises could plainly see the troubles everywhere, whereas a cultural crisis is much more intangible and invisible. People know that something is very wrong but cannot clearly articulate what it is.
The more we reflect on the times in which we live, the more we notice the similarities between today and the times at the bottom of the Great Depression in 1932–1933. Both situations have involved colossal political upheavals having many similar crisis attributes. Emotions often transcend logic when such crises deepen.
In the first and third crises, many people threatened to leave the country if Abraham Lincoln or Donald Trump, respectively, were elected. Lincoln was thoroughly hated by much of the country for the duration of his presidency. Only after his death did Lincoln become a national hero.
Even though the party labels are reversed today, it is interesting that Donald Trump has learned presidential theater well from perhaps his best mentor – Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Both Trump and Roosevelt are renegade agents of change who are totally hated by “the establishment.” Both are men of great wealth who have put themselves forward as populists. Their most enthusiastic supporters are the people who hate wealth and privilege the most. Trump has gained their support by speaking to them in locker-room English rather than country club English and by dressing accordingly.
Roosevelt, like Trump, was notorious for glib double-talk that his supporters loved. FDR’s relentless vilification of bankers and industrialists played extremely well in Peoria but did little to build the bridges that could have helped heal the nation. In a sense, Roosevelt was a lifetime ahead of his time politically, with the difference being that he focused his double-talk on largely innocent bankers and industrialists, while Trump has focused his double-talk on Mexicans and Muslims.
Counterproductive slander is counterproductive slander, but it is a major ingredient in a crisis election. In pursuing the Presidency both Trump and Roosevelt have allowed the pursuit of political gain to demean both the office and the path to it.
One can only guess what psychological forces might have turned Trump and Roosevelt into emotional pieces of work obsessed with completely destroying their adversaries. Some of this would have been influenced by the homes in which they grew up. Trump hardly grew up in a gentle, teddy-bear atmosphere; FDR’s mother, Sarah Delano, was an overwhelming force in the lives of those around her, dominating FDR’s entire life until nearly the end of his second term as President.
In today’s history-exempt world almost nothing interconnects over time with anything else, and everything is somebody else’s fault. Nevertheless, the lives of FDR and Trump interconnect in that both came to the forefront in rapidly changing times with the recognition that the previous ways of doing things were on their way out. Theatrics and maverick behavior are the primary ways in which FDR and Trump have led their electorate away from the familiar and got the public to regard the newly evolving world as normal.
Of course, Trump is much cruder than FDR ever was, but we are living in much cruder times. Today the world is in an international cultural crisis, whereas FDR faced only a national financial crisis. After allowing for the differences between the times in which these two men have lived, their similarities stand out more strongly than do their differences. As long as people see history as bunk, people won’t connect many of these dots.
In short, both FDR and Trump are very wealthy men from the Establishment who have deep support from the common people. Both have been able to speak the language of the average person at times when that skill has mattered and to successfully appeal to those endowed with gullible ignorance.
History also says that, like FDR, if Trump is elected he will have his periods of political cheapness, such as 1933–1939, and periods of effective leadership, such as 1939–1945. Could today’s sins of Donald Trump be long-delayed and exaggerated blowback from the sins of FDR, and even from earlier leaders – a perverse payback, with compounded interest?
Now you can honestly say Nobody told me.
Copyright © 2016-2019 Charles E. Dial. All rights reserved.
Retrieved Apr 21, 2019 at 12:44.
Podcast RSS Feed: https://ct.complexitytrap.org/?feed=podcast
Transcript News Feed: https://ct.complexitytrap.org/feed/