To see how Trump’s success can be explained by how he is leveraging the Spiral, we need to look at some of the dominant memes in American political culture: Red, Blue, Orange, and Green.
The Red meme is egocentric. Historically, it emerged during hunter-gatherer times, when tribes came into conflict or needed to bind together in order to survive and were united by strong, powerful leaders who instilled fear, garnered respect, and got people to do their bidding. Red seeks control through the exercise of power, often through force or intimidation. It is what comes out when we get into a fight with our partner and say things we later regret or “didn’t mean”; it is the raw expression of anger, frustration at “not getting my way.” In disputes, Red seeks not just to win–to be on top–but to conquer–to put others down. When wronged, it seeks not justice, but revenge. In fact, Red does not think there is any justice in the world; people are inherently self interested, and social order is maintained only through the fear of punishment. Red sees the world as dog eat dog, “red in tooth and claw”; the only way to get ahead in life is through force and fraud. Only suckers play by the rules.
Key values are control, strength, power.
Examples: the terrible twos, the schoolyard bully, Achilles, prima donna athletes, Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature, horrible bosses, the Joker, most of the characters on Game of Thrones, and of course, Donald Trump.
The world is divided into the strong and the weak.
Blue is ethnocentric. It sees the social world as a hierarchy of clearly prescribed roles governed by rigid rules. Here, the individual’s identity is determined by his or her social role and membership in the community. This is a corrective to Red: the dangerous desires of the individual must be checked and harnessed for social good; a classic example is the medieval knight of courtly romance, whose destructive potential must be sublimated in the service of society. For Blue, the cosmos is regarded as the ordered plan of a personal God who determines good and evil. Blues tend to see the world in black and white, us vs. them, absolutistic terms. Blue is the platform for patriotism and nationalism; “protecting the homeland” is Blue language, and it is no accident it became prevalent after 9-11, when Red Islamic Terrorism struck at the heart of the country.
Key values are loyalty, humility, sacrifice, and a strong emphasis on law and order.
Examples: the military, the police, social conservatives, the Catholic church.
The world is divided into saints and sinners.
Orange is world-centric and holds a cosmopolitan outlook. People find their identity as free and equal human beings, first and foremost, regardless of religion, ethnicity, sex, ability or nationality. Orange tends to see the world as a free market of individuals using their talents and labor to compete and engage in exchange for mutual benefit to attain the most optimal distribution of resources. When Margaret Thatcher said “There is no such thing as society, there are only individuals,” she was speaking Orange. Where Blue is aristocratic–social rank is determined by birth, tradition, and rules of inheritance–Orange is meritocratic. Orange tends to prefer limited government: the sole job of the government is to protect individuals rights, particularly their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as defined by the individual–not the State, the Church, or any other external authority. Orange tends to be materialistic rather than moralistic: it does not place as much emphasis on character formation as Blue; what matters is that one shouldn’t physically harm others. Orange is thus the father of classical liberalism, the political DNA of modern societies. Likewise, Orange is the home of empiricism and the scientific method, basing knowledge on experience, not tradition; it is thus skeptical of religious authorities. It cares about what works. It prioritizes progress, particularly scientific and technological progress. Orange “thinks for itself.”
Key values are freedom, independence, adaptability, innovation, experimentation, conscientiousness.
Examples: businessmen, scientists, Ayn Rand, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and of course, Donald Trump.
The world is divided into winners and losers.
The Green sensibility came on the scene in the countercultural revolutions of the 1960s and 70s. Green has a deep distrust of any kind of centralized authority, institutional hierarchy, or mainstream establishment. It tends to see these as power structures created to oppress people, e.g., “the Man” Mindful that history is often written by the winners, Green rejects “Master Narratives” in favor of “Slave Narratives”; one example is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which overturns the Founding Fathers-as-demigods story and points out how the country was built on the slaughter of native Americas. In general, Greens tend to be highly critical of the United States, particularly the military and big business. It seeks community as a reaction to the alienation brought on by Orange individualism, and has a deep yearning for existential meaning as a reaction to Orange materialism. The phrase “identity politics” is a Green phenomenon: it means that individuals see themselves first as members of a particular group–women, gays, Christians–rather than as individual citizens. Green sees modernity as an artificial environment that has removed us from–and despoiled–Mother Nature. It wants to go back to the land and live organically: When Joni Mitchell sings, “They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot,” that is a Green lyric. Green prioritizes cultural sensitivity and the inclusion of marginalized groups: gays, racial minorities, Muslims, etc. It also goes beyond Orange in extending the circle of moral concern to nonhuman animals and the environment. It thinks from a global and ecological perspective, tending to focus on what is wrong with the world, and prefers international over national solutions to global problems. “Think globally, act locally” is a Green slogan.
Key values are tolerance, inclusivity, equality, sensitivity.
Examples: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry David Thoreau, hippies, environmentalists, New Agers, Occupy Wall Street.
The world is divided into oppressors and oppressed.
So how do these memes help us understand the culture wars, presidential politics and, ultimately, Trump’s success?
The Spiral in the Culture Wars
The three dominant memes in American political culture today are Blue, Orange, and Green. Republicans tend to be Blue-Orange, and Democrats tend to be Orange-Green. As I explain in Part Four, one important reason Trump is shaking up the race is because he is channeling Red at a time when many people are, as the saying goes, “mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore.”
When we talk about the “base” of the GOP–the moral majority, social conservatives, values voters, evangelicals, the Bible belt, the people that Bill Maher likes to mock, etc.–that is referring to Blue.
When we talk about the “business” side of the GOP–Wall Street Republicans, moderate Republicans, fiscal conservatives, libertarians, people who love Ayn Rand novels and identify as secular or atheist, etc.–as well as centrist Democrats–that is referring to Orange.
When we talk about liberals and progressives–MSNBC, environmentalists, critics of capitalism, social justice warriors, proponents of racial and gender equality, people who shop at Whole Foods, do yoga, and identify as “spiritual but not religious”–that is referring to Green.
These distinctions are an elegant way to make sense of the culture wars. When the Green liberal journalist Thomas Frank wrote a book called “What’s the Matter with Kansas?,” what he was really asking was why do Blue Kansans keep on voting against their own economic self-interest by electing Orange politicians who are clearly pandering to them with moral and religious rhetoric? The answer is that those voters do not primarily care about economic self-interest–they are motivated by a different set of values, which the politicians know how to exploit.
For example, one of the reasons Obama was able to win the presidency was that despite being an Orange-Green pol, he knew how to connect with Blues. In addition to being a true family man, when he was invited to Rick Warren’s church for an interview and was asked about sexual issues, he described the importance of teaching young people that “sexuality is sacred.” That is a deft threading of a difficult needle: he phrased it in such a way that it appealed to Blue concerns yet avoiding the kind of moral absolutist language that repulses Greens. I will talk more about Obama’s Spiral wizardry in a future post, but for now, it’s enough to note that, as with Trump, when politicians are able to gain the support of a diverse array of groups and their success bewilders the media, that is probably because they are working the Spiral better than their opponents.
The lesson is that politicians who are not adept at surfing the Spiral are bound to wipeout. To hear why Trump is winning and the other candidates are wiping out, check out Part 4.
For a (somewhat hokey) color-coded animation of the evolution of the Spiral from hunter-gatherer times to today: