Black Swan Politics

This post is not about taking a side on a political issue or for a particular candidate, or drawing a line between what’s right or wrong. Before this could be twisted by others, let me say I do not condone the messages being used in the campaigns in question below. Yet, as a longtime observer of presidential elections (and as someone who worked both for and in/around government, as well as for a startup that tried to play into the 2012 election), I find this season’s chapter of national politics truly remarkable in that I believe we are seeing unprecedented change.

“The Rise of Trump” seems to be such a black swan event, many people are trying to make sense of it. Scott Adams, the outspoken creator of the Dilbert comics, has been writing about the Trump phenomenon on his blog for many months now; earlier this year, well-respected media critic Clay Shirky wrote this tweetstorm about how social media has helped reshape what a political party looks like in America; Stratechery’s Ben Thompson wrote a detailed analysis sharply titled “The Voters Decide“; and one of the sharpest minds in the world of startups, Naval Ravikant, took to his blog in a piece title “American Spring” to link the rise of bipartisan populism and the rise of both Trump (on the right) and Bernie Sanders (on the left) to social media’s disintermediation and re-intermediation of our political reality.

For me, this only came together recently as I was listening to Keith Rabois talk about the rise of Trump using language of how we talk about startups that become black swans. I talked to Keith today and asked if it was OK for me to quickly transcribe his talk with @Jason. As usual, Keith has a truly unique way to explain things and tie them back to how startups form, operate, and scale. To be clear below, I quickly transcribed this tonight, and Keith explicitly says he doesn’t want Trump to win (original source video, skip to 32-minute mark to hear this part of their conversation).

@Jason Calcanis: What are the chances Trump could get the nomination?

Rabois: Higher than I would like…it’s not the case Republicans fielded a bad set of candidates, it’s just that voters aren’t voting for them. If you look at the resumes of the 13 people who ran for the Republican nomination, they’re incredibly impressive people…you’re talking about the governors or former governors of Florida, Texas, Wisconsin, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, etc….but none of the voters [want to vote for them]. It’s like shipping a good product on paper with a really good executive team that has a great LinkedIn profile, but none of the consumers (the users) are downloading the app, that’s basically the problem… It’s not necessarily obvious what to do when the people are just rejecting the traditional candidates, it’s a little bit like building a startup. Basically, someone is coming out of left field with a completely different model and, in some ways, is defying all the rules that people took for granted and is having success. That’s what most of us do for a living… I don’t want [Trump] to [win]. I don’t think it’s impossible — for him to win either the nomination or the Presidency. I think the percentage chance [of a Trump Presidency] is higher than people think because he’s shown this disruptive ability — translating this back to entrepreneurial pursuits — he’s clearly defying all of the rules in a way that’s resonating with real people, and when you see that, and you see that starting to scale, ignore that with a lot of peril, just like incumbents ignore these startups all the time.

The media narrative and intra-party opposition to Trump has placed focus on his dangerous use of language, but we haven’t yet heard of his rise in the language of startups — in an era where traditional lines of morality continually erode, we are now seeing a disruptive force in national politics (like we did eight years ago), defying and rewriting many of the rules political insiders, parties, and voters have taken for granted for decades. And with each passing milestone, each passing attempt to curb its rise, it seems to get stronger as it scales. In the language we all understand, we are trying form and/or fund the best teams with the right backgrounds and abilities to unlock markets, but even with all the planning and know-how in the world, the next thing usually is explicable only in hindsight.

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2018 Semil Shah.

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