A zero-sum culture believes that in order for it to win, some other culture or persons must lose. Its inherent view of the world is that of a strict binary of predator and prey. If you are not predator, then you must be prey. There is no middle-ground in this world-view. Thus, it is preferable to be predator at all times, lest you be mistaken for prey by another predator. This is the central idea behind Trumpism. Cobra-Kai! Never show any weakness! Sweep the leg!
We know this view to be wrong through the lessons of World War 1 and World War 2 combined. But certain cultures will never let go of this idea. Trumpism seems to have captured the hearts and minds of those cultures under its political umbrella.
The domino effect1 theory of the cold war was seduced by this zero-sum idea of the free world versus the communist world2. It was a failure as a guiding political theory. Its predictive nature was nil, and its damage to America was considerable.
The greatest historical lesson from both World War 2 and the Cold War is that a culture that believes in the zero-sum game is doomed to lose to the cultures that help each other as allies in a positive-sum game. The success of the positive-sum game cannot be more stark than the difference between post-WW1 Germany and post-WW2 Germany.
Post-WW1 Germany was a zero-sum culture. But 1930s Germans had every reason to see it this way since the Treaty of Versailles punished them by saddling Germany with the costs of WW1 which directly “stole” from Germany and enriched the Allies during the post-war economy.
And this alienation of Germany after WW1 of course led to the humiliated and economically isolated Germany that ultimately gave rise to Hitler and Naziism.
Contrast that with post-WW2 Germany which is an economically and politically thriving leader in European affairs with over a half-century of peace, growth, and prosperity. That’s because true economic prosperity is not a zero-sum game; it is a positive-sum game. And post-WW2 Pax Americana is a direct consequence of that positive-sum game. If we want to make America great again, all we have to do is to dive back into that positive-sum game and lead it again.
Even during WW2, the positive-sum game of allies working together was the winning strategy over the predatory strategies of fascism and nationalistic expansionism.
And post-WW2, the allies working freely together during the cold war out-competed the communist-bloc allies who were forged artificially as a defense unit, but not as true cooperative allies. In 1989, as soon as the USSR allowed the freedom of the communist bloc countries to leave the coalition, they did so quickly with little hesitation because the USSR was predatory in their relationship with them.
And since WW2, global economies have become even more integrated and more efficient. So if it was clear that the world had become a positive-sum game during and after WW2, then it should be exponentially clear by now, in 2020, that modern national strength derives from greater interconnectedness and not from isolationism and brutal winner-take-all competitiveness.
Yet, that archaic attitude of vicious competitiveness is at the heart of Trumpism, which in itself is a relic of an imperialistic nation prior to WW2.
Trumpism is that ancient virtue of selfishness at the expense of others. It is outdated and wrong. It is a loser ideology. Nazi Germany tried it, and failed. Soviet USSR tried it and failed. America tried it in Vietnam and Korea, and failed.
But there is something still ingrained in our hunter-warrior cultures that exalts the zero-sum conqueror as a glorious hero. Winning in sports and war has only one winner and one loser, by the rules of the game. That’s why Trump’s favorite insult is “loser” because in his binary world, if the other is the loser, then he alone remains the winner by default. Winning and conquering is glory, and America is addicted to that feeling both in its sports and its war.
America is a fiercely competitive culture— in its love of sports and war. When you see the world only through the lens of winning and losing, then any third alternative such as “cooperation”, by virtue of it not being “winning”, is interpreted automatically as “losing” to you.
This is how to view the world through Trumpism. Everything is simplified down to the point-mass diagram of winning or losing on a single dimension. Anything and everything that is too complicated can be reduced to this single line and placed on the “losing” side of the ledger. There is nothing in the world that cannot be simplified to this single-dimensional explanation.
Trump, and by extension his supporters, cannot grasp the concept of a positive-sum world in which everyone can be winners. Such a multi-axis world is too confusing, so they simplify it down to the single axis of winning-losing.
This is why universal health care or climate change accords are so strange of a concept to them. Their thinking is that if they accede to any demands, then they are losing ground to someone, and thus are losing the war on their one-dimensional axis.
There is no way to explain the multi-dimensional aspects of complex topics to them that clarify how everyone can win in a net-positive-sum game. They will tend to reduce your argument down to the single dimensional axis of winner-loser because that’s what they’re comfortable with in their worldview.
In such a zero-sum worldview, they cannot comprehend the simple facts of a net-positive-sum economy such as that winning against a pandemic as a team not only saves lives but also will improve the economy faster.
The same concept is true of global climate change. We all win as a team if we maintain the environmental conditions that are best suitable for human industry and agriculture as we currently understand it. To do otherwise is simply making everything more difficult and more costly for every person as a whole.
When we’re all on the same team, we all win together. There isn’t even an enemy, except for ourselves and our inability to work together as a team. The zero-sum mentality prevents this crucial understanding about how the modern economy works. This mentality is what thwarts the pandemic response and will thwart the upcoming climate crisis response.
Rejecting immigration is also a foolish artifact of zero-sum culture. It is only looking at one side of the ledger to see what someone takes away from you. But it’s not looking at the full ledger of what immigrants contribute to America as a whole.
Considering that America has always been founded on the strength of its generous immigration, it’s naive and foolish to reject the tremendous boon that immigration offers to America. It should be obvious and clear by many objective measures that immigrants by far add a net positive contribution to America in many ways, both historically and currently.
However, to the zero-sum cultures under Trumpism, this everybody is a winner concept is alien and unnerving and unconvincing because they cannot tangibly feel it in their every day lives. And that’s because America is so viciously predatory in its capitalism that it’s impossible to feel anything other than paranoia that predators are out to get you.
In that environment, indeed, you would prefer to be the predator rather than the prey. And this is the feeling of strength that Trumpism affords these people, even if it’s an illusionary strength. It’s an illusion they can comprehend and tangibly and viscerally feel in their day-to-day economic interactions with American capitalism.
They are not wrong. American capitalism does indeed prey upon them. And it is precisely this feeling which makes them believe whole-heartedly in the zero-sum game of predator and prey. Viewed in that vein, can you really blame them?
Fundamentally, at the higher level view, the modern interconnected world is a net-positive-sum game. But on a smaller, individual level, American capitalism is predatory to such a point that it feels like a zero-sum game to individuals. Although some small amount of socialism could be the antidote to predatory capitalism, the populace have been made so paranoid of socialism that it regards it as yet another predator hungering for their paycheck.
It’s going to be very difficult to convince zero-sum mentality people that they’re not being preyed upon. Their unease about pandemic response, climate change response, and healthcare reform are all attributable to their rightful paranoia of being preyed upon by American capitalist interests in their current lives.
Ironically, they voted for a man who blatantly and openly preys upon them in Trump himself who is literally funneling their campaign contributions into his own interests!
That they should fall for such a blatant charlatan and con-artist is an indication of how deeply wounded these people are by predatory capitalism in America.
So how do we lift these people out of these grievous injuries to their psyche? For post-WW1 Germany, they turned to fascism to assuage their wounded psyches. We must not let that happen here.
Traditionally, government has been the foil to curb the excesses of capitalism. But corporate interests and government have been in alliance against the people for too long that the people can trust neither government nor corporations. The liberal Left is deeply suspicious of corporations and the conservative Right is deeply suspicious of government. Both have well-founded reasons to be suspicious!
The government needs to make a bold statement against the corporate control over American government in order to win back the people’s trust in the government. I don’t know if that’s even possible. But that’s the route away from fascism, difficult as it may be.
Corporatism is too strong of a force to be countered organically by the people. Only a government that is dedicated to curbing its excesses stands a chance of providing shelter for the people against predatory capitalism.
If people are hell-bent on framing the world as a simple zero-sum dichotomy, then I’ll present this one— either strengthen the government to curb predatory capitalism or else suffer the consequences of an angry fascist mob!
It’s important to understand how American culture is accustomed to view conflict in terms of a villain and a hero. Right now, we need to portray the government as the hero against predatory capitalism. What Trumpism has done is to portray a zero-sum world with fascist white supremacy as the hero and the net-positive-sum game of cooperation as the villain. We cannot allow this incorrect view to stand unchallenged.
- The entire cold war hallucination of the domino effect is a zero-sum culture belief— If a country could only be either capitalist or communist, then a communist country would infect its neighbors, and capitalist countries would have one fewer ally in the world.
- This world view is terribly naive in so many ways. Capitalist and freedom are not automatically synonymous, as we can plainly see in modern China. Furthermore, there is the false dichotomy of either capitalism xor communism without regard to any third option— decolonization of countries that wanted freedom from British, French, or other European imperialism. This was the true reason for the spread of communism— it was the automatic choice if you wanted an anti-imperialist ideology that automatically came with other anti-imperialist allies.