Many political observers have coalesced around a prevailing theory that they say explains Donald Trump's early struggles. Put simply, they say he's too dumb to be president.
These are judgment calls made by policy experts, politicians, journalists, and pundits. However, there is also an emerging branch of theoretical physics and mathematics that suggests—in cold, analytical, nonpartisan terms—that these pundits are exactly right.
The hypothesis is not that Trump is stupid, it's that human society has become too complex for any president to be effective, according to Yaneer Bar-Yam, the president of the New England Complex Systems Institute, which partners with MIT and Harvard. By leaving hundreds of key advising positions in the State Department, Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the broader executive branch unfilled, Trump in particular has reduced the number of people advising him on difficult policy decisions, putting more strain on an already broken system.
Trump's promises of easy solutions to complex problems—Build a wall, healthcare for all, ban Muslims, Make America Great Again—is why he was so appealing to people who have become disillusioned with government. But now that he's part of the system, he's getting destroyed by it.
"People believing Trump can be a solution to the problems we're facing is a serious issue because they have expectations that are not consistent with the structural issues we're facing," Bar-Yam said.
Bar-Yam's area of study is to literally explain why the world works the way it does, and he has repeatedly hit the nail right on the head with his hypotheses and explanations, which use big data sets and supercomputers to separate the signal from the noise. For instance, he used global food price indexes to warn the US intelligence community that the Arab Spring would happen several days before it did. He then went back and explained that several relatively esoteric and seemingly unconnected American regulations led to the spikes that caused the initial riots.
I explained Bar-Yam's hypothesis about governance and the math behind it in depth shortly before the election, but the gist is that society has reached a point of complexity that his research suggests is too complicated for the representative democracy we've set up. Power is concentrated in a small number of individuals who do not have the cognitive capabilities or information available to make well-considered decisions with any sort of reliability.
With that framework in mind, he says that any president would be likely to fail in our current system. But Trump has made the US government fundamentally less distributed and is therefore putting more stress on American institutions that have evolved to be more complex alongside society.
"The basic challenge is we still have to learn what the impacts of our decisions are actually going to be"
For example, Trump's hiring freeze has left thousands of policy expert jobs across the executive branch unfilled. Disconcertingly, the administration has left nearly 200 top jobs open at the State Department, which would normally be filled with policy experts who understand geopolitical machinations. This means that decisions about domestic and global policy are being made by Trump and his closest advisors, as opposed to a more lateral system of experts advising them. Reports suggest that Trump also makes decisions on-the-fly, dispensing with the advice and plans of some of his closest advisors.
"To the extent that decision making is limited to a few individuals, the complexity of the possible actions taken is limited to the complexity of that team," Bar-Yam told me. "The need to distribute decision making across government is a key part of more effective decision making."
Trump's assaults on the sovereignty of the courts and Congress's hesitance to put pressure on Trump further undermine the complexity of the Constitutional system that was set up by the founding fathers, pushing us toward a more rudimentary form of government that's less prepared to meet the challenges of a globally connected society.
"Checks and balances in government are a key part of the system that create more complexity, and shared decision making is what checks and balances are about," he said. "To the extent that checks and balances are not being actively used, it's a simplification of the decision making. Generically, dictatorships are better than disorder, but democracies are better than dictatorship. What we'd want to replace this system with is a more effective system, not a less effective one."
Trump himself has acknowledged that he's not prepared for the complexity of governing the United States in 2017: In April, he told Reuters that he "thought would be easier." In February, he said "nobody knew that health care could be so complicated."
"That's a classic statement of misunderstanding the nature of complexity," Bar-Yam said. With health care, he says politicians are discussing solutions—single payer or a market-driven system—without understanding the nature of healthcare itself, which is a result of many inputs and policies across every sector of American government. "The fundamental problems with health care have to do with the fact that it is a complex system and these problems cannot be addressed with simple choices—one has to restructure the system entirely to have individual solutions for people that are specific to them."
"In the environment in which we live, the complexity progressively becomes higher and higher and it's basically like we're making random choices"
Talking to Bar-Yam is both comforting and disconcerting—his assertion that current systems of governance around the world simply don't work because the world is too complicated for a couple people to make smart policy makes as much sense as any other explanation out there. But it's also a hypothesis that doesn't have an easy solution—if he's right, we can't simply impeach or elect our way out of this mess, we would literally have to write a new Constitution that allows for more teams of policy experts to make decisions for the country without devolving into authoritarian rule or utter chaos.
Throughout the years we've created band-aid solutions to this lack of complexity within the current system—it's why under President Obama and previous administrations there have been so many policymaking task forces, commissions, and panels. But Bar-Yam says that while those sorts of teams have the ability to make government work better within the existing system, the ultimate decision-making power still filters up into a few individuals. Ideally, the teams he imagines would have the power to enact policy themselves.
"It's important to understand violent revolution is regressive rather than progressive—you cannot create a complex structure quickly," Bar-Yam said. He also suggests that the left-right divide in the United States and around the world is kind of a red herring; the real problem is that we often don't even know what the outcomes of policy decisions will actually be.
We are quickly moving toward a world that is so complex that politicians can't be expected to anticipate the outcomes of their decisions, which means that there's less of a divide between right and left than you might think: "In the environment in which we live, the complexity progressively becomes higher and higher and it's basically like we're making random choices. The imperative to share decision making becomes greater and greater over time. The difference between even an adult and a child making decisions is shrinking," he said.
"People can have different values and seek different things, but if the decision about what you want to do creates policies that don't actually achieve what you were intending, it doesn't matter what your values or ideologies are—you're just ineffective," he said. "The basic challenge is we still have to learn what the impacts of our decisions are actually going to be."