Solutionism and 2016


Solutionism is one reason why Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for US President in 2016. I don’t like Trump as a person but I do think that if we step back, we can see a very interesting reality at work. Take a few moments with me to delve into solutionism.

I’ll define solutionism as the opinion, principle, value, and belief seen in the act of solving. More than solving by itself, solutionism is knowing that a solution can be developed, used, and done with an outcome matching an expectation. Solutionism is the view of the world that orbits around faith in solving.

Donald Trump is the spokesperson of solutionism. Buildings are built–in so doing, he leads a team that makes plans, encounters problems, and develops solutions along the path to completion. Businesses are run–in so doing, he leads a team that launches the enterprise, encounters problems in the marketplace, employs solutions to adjust or not, and then either flourishes or fails in the end. Projects are implemented–in so doing, he leads a team that hits benchmarks and timelines, encounters problems that threaten delay, applies solutions to remove the obstacles, and celebrates the completion of the declared goal. Trump’s supporters will point to all of these things are partial proof of his rightness and fitness at this moment in the American Experience. They’ll point to other things as well, such as politically incorrect rhetoric, America First, and his outsider labeling. Don’t overlook, however, the power of solutionism at this moment.

Trump is openly disinterested in ideas and philosophies. He’ll accept some aspects of conservatism and of Republican Party tactics and techniques but cares not at all to be consistently conservative or Republican; he’s spent more time post-Cleveland courting supporters of Bernie Sanders than he has followers of the conservative movement. His nomination acceptance speech didn’t outline a philosophy. Instead, he shouted a list of problems and threats, each of which has, he says, a solution that only he can execute. Two key words there–“he” and “solution.” If Donald Trump is Donald Trump’s favorite campaign strategy and focal point, then solutions are a not-that-distant second on his list.

Solutionism isn’t an idea or a philosophy. It doesn’t have components that fit together to make a coherent body of thought. Each solution is separate; they fit one with another only by chance, randomly. A problem arises, a solution emerges and is put to work, and that’s enough. Solutionism’s leader is happy to jump from solution to solution. There is no lurching from solution to solution because lurching implies an unpleasant breaking away from one object and an equally unpleasant reattaching to the next. Only the objects matter by themselves, not as they relate to each other. The leader gets things done on a building, on a business, on a project by using solutions, not philosophies.

Solutionism also has the potential to encompass a vast number of participants. No one participant is excluded on the basis of un-shared ideas. The only thing that matters is the solution and as long as you are willing to use the solution that has been crafted, then you’re in. You’re only out if you don’t like the solution. Again, a Sanders supporter is as welcome as a Tea Party supporter because they’ve signed on to a solution, not a set of ideas. Next problem, next solution, and no one cares if you’ve been with us before or not.

This presidential campaign didn’t create solutionism. Americans have always had a pragmatic strain that you can detect in large quantities in solutionism. In previous generations the strain has taken shape as “can-do”, “fix-it”, “roll-up-the-sleeves”, “tinkering”, “get-it-done”, and dozens of similar words and phrases. As Americans, we “tackle problems” or “find answers.” It’s an age-old trait that runs as far back as Benjamin Franklin, through Thomas Edison, and up to John F. Kennedy’s bold declaration of putting a man on the moon in ten years. Neil Armstrong’s descent from the ladder at Tranquility Base was yet one more display of the American ascent up the wall of a challenge and over the top to success. Thomas Jefferson’s draft Declaration of Independence mentioned “pursuit of happiness” and Barack Obama’s revised governmental healthcare website required improvements by the best technology companies. What’s the link between the two? The written draft hinted at the action of solutions while the digital portal depended on the reality of solutions.

Solutionism has no shortage of critics and they too have a rich past. European commentators in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries emphasized American impatience with, and lack of interest in, philosophy and social theory. They have derided American quests for wealth, material gain, and monetized social status. Often, these criticisms will be paired with denunciations of a comparative lack of American art, leisure, and life’s “finer things.” Americans, European observers have noted, place more stock in inventors and investors than in intellectuals, more in people of action than people of the mind. Trump’s critics, especially in the conservative movement, are recent examples of a longstanding grievance with American preferences for solutions over philosophy. Thus we saw Trump’s sly and off-script remark in his Cleveland speech about his particular satisfaction in defeating “those people.”

Whatever else you start thinking about when you see or hear Donald Trump, remember to call up our time together in this essay on solutionism.