The failure of a final doomed attempt to prevent Donald Trump from securing the nomination at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland has brought to a close the first stage of the presidential race: a campaign defined above all by how bad humans are at recognizing and dealing with obvious problems right in front of them.
Many of Trump’s foes within the GOP have complained that Donald Trump is a RINO (Republican in Name Only), who does not hew to conservative principles. That may be true, but he’s not just a RINO. He’s a classic example of what I call a gray rhino: a big, obvious threat that we are all too likely to neglect or outright ignore until it’s too late.
The Republican presidential candidate’s inflammatory statements and encouragement of bullying have left many Americans terrified over what’s happening to our democracy. World leaders have compared him to Hitler and Mussolini and called him everything from an idiot to a demagogue to a threat to peace.
Some pundits have described the loose-tongued business mogul’s initial popularity as an outlier black swan event, referring to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s 2007 book about the unpredictable events that can sideswipe us. But once enough people recognize that something can happen, by definition it is no longer a black swan.
Unlike the highly improbable black swan seen only in hindsight, gray rhinos are obvious risks that all too often are poorly (if at all) addressed until they are charging straight at you. Unlike the elephant in the room, gray rhinos move fast. Crucially, they give us a choice: act or get trampled.
Trump’s campaign has tapped into an entire crash (the zoologically correct term, appropriately enough) of gray rhinos: a polarized, paralyzed government; a breakdown in democracy and civil discourse; dramatic changes in the labor market; the increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few; and, as might be expected, rising social and political unrest. Both white working-class voters and minority populations feel neglected and disrespected.
Basic civility, compromise and constructive engagement have fallen to the wayside, replaced by bullying, insults, race-baiting, and candidates comparing the size of their you-know-whats. Too many Americans feel that they lack the power to change things for the better. Some have dropped out of the political process altogether. Others are drawn, like moths to a flame, to strong-arm leadership and revolution, reminiscent of Latin American caudillismo, with no evidence of concrete plans to keep their promises.
Trump’s takeover of the GOP is a classic example of how the five stages of a gray rhino unfold, from denial to muddling to diagnosing to panic to action. Understanding these stages can help to understand how to face a threat staring us in the face.
Early denial of the idea that Trump could become the GOP presidential nominee was more than understandable in the summer of 2015. But as he gained momentum over the fall, denial quickly ceded to muddling: recognition that the problem existed, but failure to diagnose the problem or present a solution, much less act decisively.
By Fall 2015, Republican campaign strategists were worried enough that they drew up a “ProtectUSA” plan to stop him. But no donors took them up on it. In February, Republican governors met to talk about how to prevent the increasingly real possibility of a Trump nomination. In March, they laid out a 100-day plan to derail his campaign. In April, Ted Cruz and John Kasich announced a plan to cooperate against Trump. But it was all too little, too late.
When his last rival dropped out and Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, the political establishment entered the fourth stage of a Gray Rhino crisis: full blown panic. Panic ought to create the impulse to action. In this case, the action the party chose was to let itself be trampled.
We’re at a new inflection point, for both the GOP and the general public.
The GOP will have to decide if the party can be rebuilt. Trump’s GOP does not seem to be ready to deal seriously with the issues that created his fan base, nor with cross-cutting fault lines within it: between those who believe the party can only survive if it is more inclusive and those who want to bring it back to the 1950s but without the optimism; and between those who believe in more trickle-down policy for the one percent and those who are sincere in their believe in growth and entrepreneurialism.
By choosing a smaller tent and utterly refusing to act presidential, Trump may be his own gray rhino.
For its part, the Democratic Party has a choice of how to deal with Trump between now and November. To stop Trump, it must face head on the obvious but neglected issues that helped to create him.
The first challenge is to avoid the GOP’s first pitfall: denial. Surely America could not possibly elect as president a bully who insults Muslims, Mexicans, women, and disabled people; who has dragged the campaign rhetoric to a high school level; and who has told so many flat-out lies and half-truths that Politifact has called his accumulated statements its 2015 Lie of the Year?
Yet millions of voters across the United States have supported him. The website Five Thirty Eight puts the odds of a Trump win at about one in three. Recall that the odds of a Brexit were just 17 percent only months before 52 percent of British voters chose to leave the European Union. A Trump win is not impossible.
Hillary Clinton is hardly muddling or complacent in the face of Trump, out-fundraising him and making it hard to ignore his less attractive traits. The Democratic Party’s full strategy will become more apparent at its upcoming national convention.
Trump may come with a silver (or is it faux gold?) lining by giving America the shake-up that it needs. Indeed, his candidacy itself has sparked a sense of urgency and soul-searching, if not yet full-blown panic, that suggests the Democrats are more likely than the GOP to act successfully than capitulate.
But even if there were no Trump, America’s underlying gray rhinos would still be there. Unless Americans succeed in addressing those issues, we will be flattened, whether by Trump or otherwise.