'Disruption' Comes to U.S. Politics

Trump & Co. appeal to voters who want to turn the system upside down.
Kanye West said Sunday that he is running for president, but not this time around.
Kanye West said Sunday that he is running for president, but not this time around.
Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

WASHINGTON -- Of course Kanye West declared that he is running for president. And of course he did it in an unconventional way: during MTV's Video Music Awards. And of course some people are taking him seriously, or at least not laughing.

West's only mistake is that he isn't running until 2020. The often controversial but never dull artist should jump in now. The anti-politician thing is red, red hot.

Disruption is the way to go.

One poll this week from Iowa, where the primary season will kick off in February, found that three Republican candidates who have never held elected office -- real estate mogul/reality TV star Donald Trump, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina -- register a combined 46 percent. Another new poll shows Trump and Carson tied for the top spot in Iowa, at 23 percent each. With Fiorina third at 10 percent, the three get a combined 56 percent.

All of the current and former elected officials running for the GOP nomination, meanwhile, are stuck in the single digits in both surveys. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the son and brother of presidents, is at an abysmal 5 or 6 percent.

On the Democratic side in Iowa, the details differ but the anti-insider theme is the same. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has dropped from 57 percent in May to 37 percent now. Her main challenger, lone-wolf Senate socialist Bernie Sanders, has risen from 15 to 30 percent.

Clearly, this is a treacherous year in which to be part of the old order.

Twenty years ago, a professor at Harvard Business School named Clayton Christensen first applied the term "disruption" to the world of innovation. He was thinking of economics and business: how cell phones would replace land lines and personal computers; how LEDs would push aside light bulbs.

But the same word -- and the same process -- applies to whole societies and governments. In recent decades, most have been massively disrupted.

The Soviet Union was undermined by individualism, free markets and its own inefficiency. European nations that had been at war for a thousand years decided to try a new form of unity. The People's Republic of China launched its vast experiment in controlled capitalism. The Arab Spring tried, with some success, to sweep across the Middle East.

Perhaps the least disrupted government since 1945 has been that of the United States, which won World War II and stood astride the planet. But the "American Century" is ending. In the face of new challenges, the victor's public institutions have seized up and stalled out in ways that threaten to render them useless -- and that have left them despised and distrusted by the American public.

The reasons for public disgust are everywhere.

Congress can't be relied on to accomplish one of its most basic functions: enacting a budget. Political parties, fixated on money and voters from their extreme wings, no longer function as brokers of compromise. Washington supports a welfare state, but borrows trillions to pay for it. The military hasn't "won" a conventional war since 1991 and doesn't know how to defeat the Islamic State. Borders are porous and immigration laws a mess. Big banks are more powerful than ever; corporate CEOs are richer than ever; the middle class is neither. The advances of the civil rights movement, in the courts and legislatures, have not brought true equality and are now being rolled back. Post-Watergate reforms to campaign financing laws have been wrecked by the courts, which now allow billionaires to buy campaigns. Barack Obama, an effective president on many fronts, has failed to inspire the kind of fundamental change that so many had hoped for.

In this swamp of stalemate and dysfunction, traditional politicians -- not to mention dynastic ones -- face disruptions by outsiders. The latter seem unbound by old ways and old media; they tend to offer exciting, albeit simplistic or unrealistic answers; they appeal directly to voters' emotions and fears, rather than reciting timeworn party agendas; and they campaign with a swirl of celebrity style, sensational accusation and combative stance.

Donald Trump speaks for those ready to disrupt it all.
Donald Trump speaks for those ready to disrupt it all.
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Trump, who has lapped the GOP field, is an expert at all of this. He blames America's ills on forces and people outside the U.S. -- Mexicans, Chinese and Japanese in particular. He calls all elected officials in Washington "impotent." He derides Obama and his advisers as "clueless." He vows to solve every knotty problem with his own forceful "management."

Dismissed first as a clown, then as a man on a fling, then as a summer curiosity that would fade, he is now being taken seriously by Republican operatives and mainstream commentators of many stripes.

Some conservatives see in Trump the Jeffersonian idea that each generation needs a "revolution" of the people. "Waves of populist reform come in cycles, and Trump looks like the next one," said historian Craig Shirley, a prominent biographer of Ronald Reagan. In previous centuries, leaders such as Andrew Jackson and even Teddy Roosevelt used their perceived outsider status to stoke resentment of entrenched power and promote change.

But other conservatives join some mainstream writers in worrying that Trump evokes the dangerous tropes and deliberate ignorance of an authoritarian "strong man."

"My family and I left Cuba in the late 1950s to escape a leader like him," said GOP consultant Alex Castellanos. "I'm not saying we are about to become a 'banana republic' or a communist dictatorship, but he worries me."

Conservative columnist George Will (whose wife works for another presidential candidate, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker) has raised similar alarms, as has political moderate Thomas Friedman of The New York Times.

Will derided Trump's vow to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants en masse as implicitly Nazi-like. Friedman was less apocalyptic. Trump, he wrote, reminded him of the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who briefly rose to prominence in the 1950s by indiscriminately accusing government officials of being Soviet spies.

Kanye West, who entered politics in 2005 when he said President George W. Bush didn't "care about black people," hasn't taken on Trump so far.

It can't be long, though. And when it happens, it'll be one disruption against another.

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