All of human history can be distilled down to the competition between two all-embracing ideas: Nomadism and Sedentarism. These are fractal-like imperatives. They compete at every level; in our countries, in our workplaces, in our families and in our own personal judgments.
Nomadism is about exploration. It’s what drove early humans to migrate out to the most remote parts of the planet. It’s what drives scientific exploration, multinational business, military expansion and global charities. It’s what drove Genghis Khan, the Crusades and Columbus. It’s what leads us to travel, to learn new things, to connect – or perhaps, to conquer – across boundaries.
Sedentarism is about exploiting what we have, and making the best and most efficient use of our resources. It’s what drove people to learn to grow crops, to domesticate animals, to build villages and towns. It’s architecture, engineering, schools, nuclear family, feudal orders, nation-states. It’s what drives us to settle down, to remain comfortable – or, perhaps, trapped – while growing in familiar environments.
These are not value judgments. Neither Nomadism nor Sedentarism is inherently good or inherently bad.
On the world stage today, Nomadism is best represented by the movements that cut across national borders. These include free trade, global Jihad, multinational alliances, military entanglements, the European Union and immigration.
Sedentarism today is best represented by the forces that keep things local. These include natural resources, agriculture, industry, nationalism, traditional values, protectionism and strong borders.
Nomadism has been the dominant force in international affairs since the end of the Cold War (it had already been enshrined in the West decades prior to that). Where ugly manifestations of Sedentarism have materialized – ethnic nationalism in former Yugoslavia, for example – the international community promptly put these down. And, in tandem, Nomadism has also driven the domestic policies of major countries around the world. The creation and maintenance of integrated global capital markets is a project that, for the past two and a half decades, has cut across both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S., across both Labour and Conservatives in the U.K., and, like a warm knife through butter, through Communist dogma in China. It’s the closest thing we’ve seen to a global consensus. Countries that don’t participate have been labeled pariahs. Parties and personas that want something different for their own countries have been called dangerous.
The thing about Nomadism and Sedentarism is that we, as humans, need both forces in our lives. Even if they’re in conflict. That’s why there’s a constant, though oftentimes imperceptible, pendulum swing between them. It happens in our own psyches, just as it happens in our communities, our politics and in international affairs.
HRC was the candidate of Nomadism, and followed closely in the footsteps of Bush I, Clinton I, Bush II, and Obama. HRC was nominated (or, more precisely, coronated) as the Democratic candidate at precisely the exact moment the pendulum was swinging back across a critical threshold towards Sedentarism. Nomadism had suddenly become scary to very large constituencies. It meant global terrorism. It meant manufacturing jobs going abroad, and heralded a new economy requiring skills that few possessed. It meant unchecked immigration and demographic change. It hollowed out communities in the heartland. It challenged traditional values. It evoked secretive bankers who commoditized mortgages, mismanaged risk, foreclosed on people’s homes and livelihoods, tanked the economy, and ultimately proved too-big-to-fail-or-jail. To these constituencies, the fact that HRC was handed millions of dollars by banks and private interests wasn’t a scandal, per se. Rather, it was emblematic of exactly who she was and what she stood for. Similarly, the Clinton Foundation, whether or not it engaged in positive charitable activities around the world, was seen as the ultimate Nomadist organization.
These constituencies weren’t just conservatives. After all, HRC likely lost because the Midwestern working class who had overwhelmingly voted for Obama abandoned her for Trump. Whoever they were and whatever they believed, Nomadism was no longer working for them. It probably hadn’t been working for them for a long time.
These constituencies – similar to the situation with Brexit in the U.K. – were largely invisible to polls and pundits, and therefore to people like me. Not because I live in a liberal bubble (even if I do) but because I’m trapped in a Nomadist bubble. I work for a major multinational corporation. I travel. I understand technology and how it drives value. I read Nomadist news, devour Nomadist media. My brain has been stuck in Nomadism, and it therefore became difficult – nearly impossible – to see anything else.
Donald Trump is the personification of Sedentarism. He’s a builder. He talks about skyscrapers, golf courses, bridges and roads, communities, and, of course, walls. He connects with things that are tangible rather than squishy. Jobs, not the economy. Fairness, not values. Law and order, not race relations. He says “America First” in a way that’s believable, if not quite specific. In retrospect, the appeal was obvious.
Nomadism and Sedentarism don’t explain away or at all make legitimate Trump’s clear tolerance for race-baiting and misogyny, his unquestioning support for authoritarian regimes abroad, his petty narcissism and his clear lack of experience. But it does explain his appeal to large constituencies when he’s on the ballot against HRC. For just enough voters, he was seen as the lesser of two evils. (I, too, voted for who I thought to be the lesser of two evils, so I am, in fact, able to sympathize.)
We could have hoped for something different. That there could have been a candidate in the general election who saw the shift towards Sedentarism, who understood what that meant and what grievances were at play, who had real solutions and was a respectable, stalwart individual, to boot. I do believe there was a person like that who competed in the primaries but who was steamrolled by a Clinton-dominated DNC and a Nomadist media who worked in tandem to undercut his competitiveness. When the DNC misunderstood the appeal of Bernie Sanders it was a tragedy; when HRC misunderstood the electorate the result became a Trumpian farce.
Understanding this historical context puts me a bit more at ease. It makes me realize that a victory for Trump (or Brexit for that matter) isn’t necessarily a choice for national suicide. In some ways Trump had been inevitable, given the clear mistakes of our political elites in the run-up to this general election. The pendulum is swinging back, as it always does.
Joshua Bellin, Facebook post (10 November 2016) [https://www.facebook.com/joshua.bellin.9/posts/10100695626121841]