Trump and Amazon: Are We Losing With All Our “Winning?”

Like many of you, I have been trying to make sense of candidate Trump. But dismissing him as “not serious,” or merely describing the “what” in colorful language (megalomaniac, narcissist), fails to explain the “why.”

Why such an unseemly candidate is so popular right now is baffling to me as it is to many. If it’s just “anger at Washington,” or, as the Wall Street Journal suggested, “attitude,” logic would favor a Cruz or maybe a Christie. But Trump?

In a recent column Maureen Dowd quotes Trump as saying: “I am a man of great achievement. I win, Maureen, I always win…It’s what I do. I beat people. I win.”

When interpreted through the “money equals success” cultural narrative lens that has overtaken our nation of late, his “I’m a winner” self-assessment makes some sense, even if the delivery makes one cringe. His talents include a remarkable ability to manipulate us and gain our attention, aided and abetted by an obliging, ratings obsessed (“money equals success”) media . A political organization to support a serious Trump run can be organized with money; we dismiss him at our peril.

So we must ask: Why Trump? Why now?

The chilling New York Times cover article on the hypercompetitive, win-at-all-cost culture at Amazon provides one clue. Whether the Times critique is entirely fair or not, it requires that we reflect on the humanistic dark side of the Amazon culture (as represented) of “winning” (at all cost); the reality of the technology industry with its ruthless commitment to creative destruction; the advantages in modern technology business models of extreme-scale driving the land grab mentality; Amazon’s commitment to objective, metrics-driven decision making; and an extreme and unquestioned commitment to “excellence” at great sacrifice to the many human values most people hold dear. And noticeably missing was any reference to the importance of relationships and trust, remarkably similar to the erosion of our Wall Street culture. (Bezos, entrepreneurial vision aside, came out of the quant intensive part of Wall Street).

With this unquestioned commitment, Amazonians believe they can “invent the future,” and be “successful,” in our money-equals-success culture that predates the arrival of Trump on the scene. It is worth noting that the stock market value of Amazon has recently surpassed Walmart’s, and Bezos is worth an estimated $50 billion. Stunning for a company that has barely if ever earned a profit on its core business. Trump is a chump by comparison (sorry). Hard to argue with “success,” right?

But let’s instead explore the heart of the matter. What does “winning” really mean, and can the Trump phenomenon (and perhaps even Amazon, despite its clear “success” on many levels) be better understood – ironic as this may seem – as warning signs, mere symptoms of the cultural decline we intuit in our bones but struggle to understand much less articulate?

My colleague shared a recent TED talk in which Margaret Heffernan explains how an MIT study had identified three characteristics of high achieving groups: empathy, no stars but everyone contributing, and more women. On the other hand, groups that are dominated by super stars – AKA “winners” – tend to break down and fail. The study concluded that social capital is the key to building resilient teams, and it takes trust and time to build them. Extreme pay for performance, up or out culling, and the rivalry these practices engender (a central critique in the Amazon expose and descriptive of Wall Street culture as well) breaks down social capital and is catastrophic to long-term resiliency/survivability. This has all been supported by research. (Note: Wall Street, with all its “stars,” did suffer catastrophic failure, but for a government bailout).

These conclusions are remarkably aligned with the research of preeminent Harvard evolutionary biologist E.O.Wilson. In reading his latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence, I was fascinated to learn that in the insect world (Wilson is considered the world’s leading expert on ants), there is a very clear conclusion to draw from contrasting super star (competitive) societies and social (cooperative) societies. “The twenty thousand or so known species of social insects (ants, termites, social bees, and wasps combined) make up only two percent of the approximately one million known species of insects, but three-fourths (emphasis added) of the insect biomass.” In other words, social (cooperative, empathetic, inclusive) societies win big time. They always win. That’s what they do.

The conclusion from the MIT study on human teams, and the more evolutionary outcome that we can deduce from studying insects is that “winners” – like Trump and perhaps even Amazon – win within their groups, BUT, their groups lose to more social/cooperative groups over time. Since modern civilization is so dominated by the institutions of big business and short-term driven finance, their shift to extreme competition at the expense of social/cooperative behavior has profound ramifications for modern society, and indeed our ability to thrive well into the future.

Of course excellence matters and needs to be in service of the team, not the star, as all great coaches teach. But could the almost deification of our culture of stars and “winning” be the source of our collective feeling of losing that Trump himself is exploiting?

The crescendo of complex, interconnected social, political, economic, financial, and ecological crises now upon us may be the direct result of our hyper-competitive, “winners and losers” driven narrative. And Donald Trump’s appearance on center stage, now even with the possibility of placing his finger on the proverbial button, is our cultural canary in the coal mine. Tweet tweet!