It seemed like everyone on social media posted their day-after assessment on Wednesday. I’d rather give an assessment of the day-after assessments.
They fall pretty cleanly into two camps:
- The world’s going to hell in a handbasket; or
- It’s just a(n election) cycle, things will be fine on the other end of the cycle.
This is, in fact, the exact same response people have to pretty much everything in life that’s changing:
- Linear trend to either hell or heaven; or
- Sinusoidal cycle, all will be well.
Think about it: whether we’re talking about climate change, or your favorite football team, or computers in the classroom, or the new menu at one’s favorite restaurant, these are the two main philosophical camps that are diametrically opposed (trend vs. cycle) and they fight it out to the death.
It’s as if Americans learned, at most, a little trig before the brain cells started dying en masse and learning was halted.
Life is more complicated than linear trend vs. cycle. For example, you can have a linear trend and cycles. At the same time! That’s what global warming is — an unnatural linear trend superimposed upon various cycles, from the daily cycle to the yearly cycle to Milankovitch cycles of tens to hundreds of thousands of years. (Yes, I have a Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences.) But none of the climate change doubters I have ever talked to has ever been able to grasp this concept, at least not enough to understand that saying “cycles” exist does not disprove a linear trend superimposed on it.
Turning to the election, it’s easy to say that Trump’s election will lead either to the end of American democracy and life as we know it, or else it’s the Second Coming of Orange Jesus. But instead the Trump presidency will be superimposed on cycles of birth and death, among others, as well as other cycles that affect our country and democracy and our world. (And other non-cyclical phenomena as well. And don’t get me started on climate change.)
One thing about history: there’s really no such thing, in my experience as “oh, it’s just four years.” Chance and temporal alignment determine a lot. And so, since I am a meteorologist with broad interests in prediction, here’s my read of the situation in two predictions.
My first prediction for the next four years is that some things that are on the table and within reach now, will not be in four years. I don’t know what those things are exactly, but that’s how governance goes — maybe even in gridlock. The tumblers will realign, and the lock that was almost open in 2016 will be firmly locked in 2020. Other doors that were locked firmly in 2016 will fly open, as well. And not just in 2020, either way — but beyond.
Why “beyond”? That’s my second prediction, based on my experience: the ramifications will be longer-lasting than just four years and will permeate the culture. American culture is driven to some extent by what we see in our imperial Presidents, from at least Kennedy onward. These days it’s driven by celebrity more so than who is President, but the new President brings celebrity to the table as well and so will have a double dose of influence.
Therefore, the values that the Trump family exudes during the next 4–8 years will feed back into the culture, and the culture in 2020 or 2024 will not be the same as now. We will think a little differently and ask different questions than we did in 2016.
This was indisputably my experience having lived through the Reagan administration from 1981 to 1989. The country was palpably different by 1989, with a different set of expectations and priorities than in the late 1970s.
In other words, in the T. S. Eliot image from Murder in the Cathedral, the wheel turns.
A Facebook friend of mine suggested that the appropriate image is not the water wheel, though; it is the threads on a water screw. He said, “Yes it moves in circles along one axis, but it also moves forward along another. When the ‘turn’ comes back around, the world will have moved on and we will be in a different place.” Exactly.
Anyone expecting this election cycle to be a one-off where we can pick up where we left off, needs to realize that this is a white lie to those who are hurting. Life doesn’t work this way. Doors open and doors close, but time moves forward. The moment passes for one kind of leader and arrives for another. The door opens for one way of thinking about our society, and closes for another. The lag time determining when that door can open again is surprisingly long, especially in politics — sometimes several decades. As Stevie Nicks wrote in her song “Gypsy”: “Well, lightning strikes, maybe once, maybe twice.”
And so that’s my meta-assessment of the election: an assessment of how we think about change. Our collective inability to get beyond the Manichean dichotomy of trend vs. cycle means that we don’t anticipate the future very well; I know, I’m in the business of trying to anticipate the future. (Although claims of authority by expertise may be one of those things we won’t do anymore in 2020 or 2024.)
If I give a graduation speech in the next few years, this is probably what I would talk about — not climate change, not jokes, not platitudes about greatness or leadership. Why? Because this is a societal cognitive weakness that makes us vulnerable to future changes of any sort — we just don’t ‘get’ how systems evolve in time. (Maybe Amos Tversky wrote about this; he understood so much about most of our other cognitive issues.) It’s one of the most important things a college student could learn: how to understand change and the future, and be ready for it in a more sophisticated way than when the student came to college. In the long run, that skill might almost compensate for all the tuition and all the student debt.
The graduates would probably hate the speech and boo me and call me a loser, though.