In the Age of Disruption, President Trump is Disruptor-in-Chief

Donald and Melania Trump leave the White House last night en route to France. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Donald and Melania Trump leave the White House last night en route to France. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

THE BIG IDEA: With the Russia scandal and self-inflicted wounds paralyzing his White House, it’s easy to lose sight of the tectonic forces that powered President Trump’s victory last year. But they continue to exist, and they’re a major reason why he remains remarkably popular among Republicans.

Republican lobbyist Bruce Mehlman, who has long represented technology companies, sees parallels between the cycle of disruption that’s churned through Silicon Valley and what’s now wreaking havoc on Washington.

“The forces that set the stage for Donald Trump’s election are long-term, structural and global,” Mehlman told me yesterday. “Much like Uber, Trump perceived the opportunity to reach directly to the public to disrupt a dysfunctional marketplace that lacked innovation and failed to satisfy consumers. Also much like Uber, he flouted conventions and tested the limits of traditional rules, fighting the entrenched establishment while seeking its acceptance … Disruption is hard and, well, disruptive. It usually leaves observers feeling exhausted, uncertain and ultimately either angry or exhilarated.”

In a new PowerPoint presentation for his clients, Mehlman notes that voters sought change in five of the past six elections. Exit polls last November showed that a candidate’s ability to “bring change” mattered far more to voters than whether they had the “right experience” or “good judgment.”

— How did we get here? Mehlman diagnoses seven long-term trends that are both symptomatic of and drivers of disruption:

1) Substantial social change. The United States is a very different place than it was 50 years ago. In 1967, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans controlled 27 percent of the wealth. Now they have 42 percent. Fewer than one in 10 kids were born out of wedlock; now it’s four in 10. Foreign-born people make up three times the share of the U.S. population (15 percent) as they did then. There are vastly more women in the workforce, vastly fewer whites with no college degree and one-third of 18- to 34-year-olds now live with their parents.

2) Accelerating technological change. It used to take 387,923 workers to manufacture $1 billion in goods. Now it takes 26,785. It took 75 years for the telephone to reach 100 million homes after it was invented. It took just a few months for Candy Crush to reach that milestone.

3) Weakened anchor institutions. Seven in 10 adults were married in 1967. Now it’s 50 percent. Three in 10 workers were members of labor unions then. Now it’s 11 percent. Two-thirds of Americans trusted government. It’s never been close to that since Vietnam and Watergate. The latest studies show only about 20 percent of the country trusts the feds to do the right thing.

4) The loss of honest brokers. Trust in media has been on a steady decline among not just Republicans but also Democrats and independents since Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America in 1972.

5) Leaders over-promised and under-delivered. Mehlman cites four examples: Barack Obama told people they could keep their doctors if they liked them under Obamacare. Dick Cheney said Americans would be “greeted as liberators” in Iraq. Bill Clinton said he did not have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. George H.W. Bush told the country to read his lips as he promised no new taxes.

6) Politicians deferred hard choices. Entitlement spending has eaten up a bigger and bigger share of the federal budget, and Washington has lacked the political will to make tough choices. Mandatory spending rose from 53 percent of the budget in 1976 to 69 percent in 2016.

7) The parties have lost their primacy. Outside groups, which tend to be more ideological and focused on single issues, have made the Republican and Democratic Party apparatuses less relevant since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. This has empowered plutocrats.

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