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Trump or not, the collapse of the US may be inevitable


When former US President Donald Trump was found guilty of sexually assaulting journalist E Jean Carroll last month, some observers may have hoped it would make him less attractive to American voters. Not so. Looking at a Quinnipiac poll released in late May, Trump now has the support of 56 percent of Republicans for the 2024 race, more than twice as much as his closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Granted, about 56 percent of polled voters say they disapprove of Trump, but a similar percentage also disapprove of President Joe Biden. A Pew survey also found that 56 percent of Americans currently believe the US cannot solve its own problems, up from 41 percent in June last year. To top it all off, the survey found that “about three-quarters of the public say they have little or no faith in the wisdom of the American people when making political decisions, up from 62 percent in 2021.”

What explains this level of dysfunction? We are often told that American politics is in the grip of dark forces fueled by political manipulation and Big Tech, as misinformation undermines democracy. That may be partially true. For a different take, however, it’s worth considering some of the ideas of Peter Turchin, a biologist and complexity scientist who uses Big Data to study ecosystems. Applying those methods to analyze the rise and fall of complex societies is an approach he has dubbed “cliodynamics.” Clio was the Greek muse of history.

Turchin uses a wealth of economic and sociological information from history to explore the cycles of political economies around the world over thousands of years. This led him to conclude that there is a basic pattern: an elite seizes power and over time tries to protect it by grabbing more and more resources. That inevitably leads to poor people becoming even poorer (“popular immization”) and leads to an “elite overproduction” – too many elites chasing too few roles – which in turn leads to extreme frustration, fear and infighting .

The result is usually social explosion and political disintegration, with Turchin’s models suggesting that such structural shifts typically occur about every 100 years in complex societies. Even before Trump’s election in 2016, he predicted that the US and Western Europe were destined for a “turbulent 1920s”.

Turchin’s ideas are controversial. Twenty years ago his theory of empires, laid out in the book Historical dynamics, provoked opposition from historians. “Perfected math will not improve naive social theories,” argued one critic. But with Trump trying to stage a return, Turchin is back too. His new book, The End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites and the Path of Political Disintegration, argues that the dynamics he previously predicted are only getting stronger. Decades of falling real wages have had an impact, he says, as evidenced by the falling life expectancy of poor Americans. Meanwhile, elite overproduction is on the rise, as graduate numbers explode and competition for jobs intensifies, fueling insecurity and resentment among the 1 percent, even among the top tier.

Indeed, when Turchin takes a cliodynamic model based on the past 60 years of economic and sociological trends in the US, his results—even without taking into account other details about Trump and Biden—suggest that “by 2020 both immization and elite- overproduction. . . reach very high levels (in America). The radicalization curve starts to grow after 2010 and literally explodes in the 2020s. So does political violence.” In this world, events such as the January 6 uprising can only be foreshocks.

In plain English, this suggests that a figure like Trump is a symptom rather than the cause of the unrest in the US. The only way to shift this trajectory, based on the data, is to replay the New Deal policies of the 1930s and immediate post-war years in the US, using redistribution to reduce inequality. For example, in the 1950s, the top US federal income tax rates rose to 90 percent, compared to 7 percent in 1913 or 37 percent today.

Such calls would horrify many American elites, so much so that they might dismiss these predictions outright or point out that relying on mechanistic models is dangerous. But Turchin isn’t the only present-day Cassandra; even hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio, who also believes in cyclical shifts, warns that rising inequality could spark social explosions.

So it would be foolish for US leaders to ignore Turchin. If nothing else, the concept of elite overproduction is a good way to explain why elite education in the US is now so expensive, competitive, and harmful to future elite children and adults alike.

Follow Gillian on Twitter @gilliantett and email her gillian.tett@ft.com

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Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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