The international butterfly effect of a chaotic U.S. President

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U.S. President painted on a cockroach as part of a collection by artist Cristiam Ramos in protest of discrimination and violence in America (Screenshot via YouTube).

If a butterfly in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas, the disorder Trump will cause is not a matter of “if” but “when”, writes Kim Sawyer.

MOST ARE FAMILIAR with the principle of chaos theory called the butterfly effect, the idea that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil may cause a tornado in Texas. 

The butterfly effect is a metaphor to show that the seemingly disconnected are connected and that the small can create the large. 

Chaos theory is a theory of unpredictability applied mostly to physical systems but can be applied, albeit metaphorically, to politics. While there may be 195 sovereign nations, we are all connected. We are connected in our thinking and in our survival. What happens if there is a butterfly in the Oval Office too unpredictable for most of us?

A few months ago, I was leaving a supermarket when I saw someone wearing a shirt with 'Hillary' emblazoned on it. I was about to remark I wished she had won when I saw the rest… 'lock her up'. The supermarket was not in Brooklyn or Arlington — it was in Melbourne, 10,000 miles from the Oval Office. More Australians are watching late night U.S. comedians and political shows than ever before. He is challenging the order in all of us, even here in the antipodes. He is creating disorder out of order.

We know his name. It is on the top of buildings, on the cover of magazines, on a University that closed. There is no need to name him. To name him is to defer to him. He has implanted the philosophy of dictatorship on democracy. It is a philosophy of ignorance, governed by the last conversation rather than the aggregate; by the spontaneous rather than the measured; by knowing less rather than knowing more. Ironically, there was once a Know-Nothing Party in the United States, known for its secrecy rather than its ignorance. The Know-Nothings first entered politics in 1849 but did not last long. 

It was Abraham Lincoln who best viewed them:

“I am not a Know-Nothing, that is certain. How could I be? ... When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

How prescient.

He is not a dictator but in his mind, he is. He disrespects everyone except himself, yet expects unqualified respect in return. The asymmetry defines narcissism. Disrespect punctuates his presidency — disrespect for others, disrespect for institutions, disrespect for the rule of law. The problem is that many identify with it. Disrespect is a signature of our age, on social media and in general discourse. Many respect only those who disrespect them. It is his signature.

In the Descent of ManCharles Darwin posited that while a high standard of morality for any individual may offer no advantage to that individual, an increase in the morality of all of us is to the advantage all of us. There is a dividend to collective morality.

The President has a unique authority to underwrite collective morality, not just in the United States but in every nation. An immoralist in the White House debases us all. His immorality is not just the immorality of non-disclosure agreements. It is the immorality of knowing less and promising more, of breaking deals when there is no other deal, and of imposing immorality on the collective morality.

He purports to be a dealmaker, but the art of his dealing is the art of deception. His greatest deal is with his base, such a big deal that he leverages them all the time. But can he leverage his base in the deals ahead? The deals ahead are not property deals in midtown Manhattan, where extracting the rents of others is the priority. The deals ahead involve diplomacy rather than deception. There will be no nondisclosure agreements protecting them.

He is a deal breaker rather than a deal maker. When he breaks a deal, whether a nuclear deal or climate agreement, it generates risk for everyone. The risk may not yet be priced, but it will be. For those outside the United States, the problem is that we too are stakeholders, but stakeholders without a vote. It is the problem of a connected planet, the problem when a butterfly with enough power tweets his wings.

Dr Kim Sawyer is a senior fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. His principal research interests are in whistleblowing, regulation, finance and philosophy.

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