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Making sense of Donald Trump

David Byrne poses in the "Listening Lounge" during the Meltdown Festival launch at Southbank Centre on August 17, 2015, in London, England.
David Byrne poses in the "Listening Lounge" during the Meltdown Festival launch at Southbank Centre on August 17, 2015, in London, England.
Ian Gavan/Getty Images

The current fight for the GOP presidential nomination is mystifying. Observers are focused on what the longevity of Donald Trump's candidacy means for the Republican party and even for American politics more generally.

Being and Nothingness: Trumpety-Trump-Trump

I'm going to say that it doesn't mean anything ... yet. More specifically, the success of "outsiders" (i.e., Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Donald Trump) in this cycle is definitely informative about something, but what isn't yet clear.

This is not a ding on the social scientific understanding of elections or democracy more generally. In fact, I'll argue that the current swirl of ambiguity is completely consistent with our understanding of how groups make decisions.

Where's a good problem when you need one?

The main ingredient of this understanding is the absence of a pressing problem. More generally, it is unclear what the GOP's message is right now. Put another way, what is the number one problem facing America ... and, more pointedly, what is the number one problem that can be solved by reducing the size of government?

Perhaps government is the problem. But, remember, the GOP has already shut down the federal government on multiple occasions. As a party, the GOP controls Congress and completely controls 60 percent of state legislatures. Setting aside any quibbles as dilatory, if there's a problem with "government" right now, it's either 1) the GOP's fault or 2) it rests in the presidency. (And remember, the GOP controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House for four years not so long ago.)

1600 Explanation Avenue

So let's focus on the presidency. What would the Oval Office bring to the GOP? Well, arguably, gaining the presidency would offer the GOP the opportunity to make sense of American politics. That is, the GOP could offer a unified explanation for whatever direction its officials decided to take.

The current fights within the GOP family are a price of this opportunity: The current nomination process represents an attempt to "make sense" of American policy and, more generally, the conservative movement's place in it. What is the "conservative position" on immigration: tall walls or open markets? Is public education an investment or a subsidy? Is income inequality the outcome of a free economy, the result of market distortions, or a threat to democratic processes? Do environmental regulations restrain trade or counter ill-defined property rights, in line with the Coase Theorem? Is public infrastructure a boondoggle, or does it lower transaction costs, in line with the Coase Theorem?

Can I get back to you?

The work of social scientists like Karl Weick indicates that people do not understand what an organization or group is doing until afterward. That is, while people have goals and intentions, these are reinterpreted and "made sense of" upon reflection. Decision-making, especially within groups, is often carried out in a haphazard way, broken up by irregular moments of collective reflection in which the members of the group attempt to rationalize the choices in terms of the outcomes.

In terms of Trump and the other outsiders, the GOP is arguably in the midst of such a haphazard, collective meandering. People are acting with intention but, as of yet, no common goal. Predicting who will win the GOP nomination is sort of pointless right now: Even if one could predict correctly, the prediction would be at most about who will win the nomination, not how that collective choice will be interpreted. That is, not about what the choice will mean as the general election begins.

In a world so seemingly lacking sense right now, the only thing certain is that the moment when "sense will be made" is in the future.

Again, this is not simply standing on the sidelines because we don't know what prediction to make. The "prediction" is that there is no prediction to be made at this point because there is no consensus about either what problem is (or what problems are) most important to solve or — more tellingly — how "the GOP's principles" suggest solving such problems.

In a nutshell, the Trump phenomenon isn't causing an identity crisis in the GOP — it's merely illustrating it. We'll make sense of how it works out later.

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