(Editor’s note: This is not a partisan political piece. An objective read will reveal important analysis that bears reflection. The thoughts, concepts, and products included in this paper are the author’s own, developed in over 30 years as a Special Forces qualified officer both in uniform and during the past 11 years as a civilian strategist at USSOCOM.)
The Problematic Symptom of Donald J. Trump
By Robert Jones
Blaming people like Donald Trump for instability is easy – but it is wrong as well. Trump is far more symptom than causation. He is a symptom of a deep and growing sense of outrage and abandonment felt across a vast and diverse segment of our nation. To ignore that grievance and fixate on symptoms places the stability of our nation at risk. It places our democracy at risk. As a retired Green Beret Colonel, and as a special operations strategist I have spent a lifetime studying and participating in the drivers of political instability. If I could offer one insight it is simply this: the old playbook is obsolete.
The modern information age has served to shift the relative balance of power to populations everywhere from those who seek to govern or control them. Old mantras of “effective government,” and “control of populations” are no longer adequate to serve the rapidly evolving expectations of people who are connected, empowered, informed - and misinformed – in unprecedented ways. “Facts” as measured by governments are interesting, but it is how distinct demographics feel about the governance affecting their lives that matters most.
Assessing such grievance demands the empathy to see governance through the lens of those who one hopes to understand. Sadly, this is not a trait encouraged in the natural selection of government. Politicians shift blame as easily as they breathe; bureaucrats cling to the status quo; diplomats believe others wish to be a lesser version of us; and the military sees only threats to deter or defeat. All of this enhances the friction of the modern era. This is the old playbook at work. A new playbook realizes it is the influence one can foster, rather than the control they can exert, that best advances interests and facilitates stability in this revolutionary age.
Which brings us back to Mr. Trump. Problematic symptom? Sure. Catalyst of the events of January 6th? Absolutely. Yet just a symptom all the same. The large and diverse demographic he resonates with needs someone to champion their cause. Understand it or not, like it or not, he is the one who stepped into that role in a way neither Democrat nor Republican politicians recognized the need to address, nor possessed the moral courage to attempt. Instead, we have resistance by any means by the former, and sad collaboration by the later. Neither approach addresses the growing problem within our society.
Mao Zedong famously said of his own rise to power in China, “I saw a parade, and leapt in front.” Such was the rise of Donald J. Trump, as he cleared the field of the best both parties could offer. This does not mean he is the leader we need; but leaders must acknowledge there is indeed a need that must be addressed. To paraphrase President Obama, he “didn’t build that, (government did).” True, but it is an energy he has captured and directed for destabilizing purpose.
One could make a parallel argument with bin Laden for recognizing and leveraging the rising grievances within Sunni populations grown increasingly frustrated with autocratic governance possessing an impunity enhanced by excessive Western influence. The primary causal source of political instability is invariably governance failing to meet the evolving needs and expectations of empowered populations. The historic tendency of governments, however, is to shift blame to the populations in question; to the leaders who emerge to exploit the conditions created by others; or to the narratives they employ to energize and direct that grievance for purpose. When done legally, such movements are democracy in action. When done illegally, this is revolution – an exercise in illegal democracy. When grievance of this nature is left unaddressed; or when legal mechanisms are denied or become distrusted; or if those who dare to complain are simply suppressed by a greater application of state power? That is when violent tactics are apt to emerge.
When one misdiagnoses these situations and attempts to “defeat” a problematic symptom at all costs, it invariably makes root problems worse for the effort. President Biden is correct, America is indeed “at an inflection point in history,” both in our polices abroad and our governance at home. But to get to better answers we must first ask better questions. The question to ask is not, “How do I stop the leader of this parade.” The question to ask is, “Why is there a parade to begin with”?
There is a simple genius in the mechanisms created by our founders for preventing such parades from forming, and for giving them the legal mechanisms to march. Let this inform our pursuit of a new playbook to guide this inflection. From the Constitution to Washington’s farewell address, the guides for success in this tumultuous era are there. Now is not the time to rewrite or mute their meanings; now is the time to restore and refresh them for modern purposes.
Robert Jones is a retired Army Special Forces Colonel who has served for the past eleven years as a senior strategist at United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). His has been a focus on understanding the nature of the strategic environment, the impact on the character of conflict, and the implications for our Special Operations Forces. A Cold War and Gulf War vet, he stepped away for a bit to gain experiences as both an emergency manager and a deputy district attorney prior to returning to the Special Operations community post-9/11 to serve from Zamboanga to Kandahar, and places in between.