Forty-eight years ago, a French mathematician, Rene Thom, developed a novel hypothesis called “the catastrophe theory.” He observed and measured how just one thing can spark a titanic event.
First, Thom used his theory to explain hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes. Was it a shift in the tectonic plates, a lunar eclipse, or simply a drop in temperature that led to cataclysm?
Then it occurred to Thom and his disciples that the “catastrophe theory” could be applied to something far more unpredictable: human behavior.
As we all know, being human has forged the course of history:
— Athens versus Sparta, a battle for sea power that transitioned civilization from monopolies of influence to competitions for power, which turned on one key naval battle.
— The appearance of the Gutenberg press, which inspired world-changing movements of thought and religion.
— The American Revolution, sparked by the tax-creating, colonist-baiting Intolerable Acts.
— The assassination of Franz Ferdinand that ignited World War I and led to World War II.
— Tearing down the Berlin Wall, and with it Cold War-era communism.
— And yes, Cub fans, Steve Bartman’s infamous lunge for that foul ball, ensuring possibly another century of unmitigated pain.
All of which brings us to the here-and-now battle for the presidency. Thom would argue one event, one thing, will ultimately differentiate winning from losing, between building a huuuge Trumpian wall or dismantling an historic gender barrier.
With the dueling conventions behind us, it’s time to ask what might that “one thing” be? Four possibilities:
One. The Great Debates.
The final 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate generated a whopping 61 percent share of television viewing. The Clinton-Trump debates this fall, all three of them, assuming Trump participates, could become political Super Bowls of similar proportion.
If Trump trumps his opponent with jabs to the “rigged system” he abhors—as he did with stunning regularity during the GOP primaries—he could create that lock-in moment for an electorate tired of seeing America losing its edge.
Conversely, if Hillary Clinton commands this stage with experience and verve, it could reinforce her campaign-fueled theme that when that 3 a.m. call of crisis comes into the White House, she’s the one best prepared to answer it.
Two. The Curse of the Unexpected.
A chilling terrorist event, here or abroad, or another round of WikiLeaks, could further unsettle the system’s defenders while emboldening Hillary’s critics. This plays to the Trump narrative.
Conversely, a perceived failure by Brexit boosters in the coming months, or a major p.r. coup by the president in handling a foreign or domestic crisis would, by extension, elevate his former Secretary of State.
Three. A Revelation of Character.
The president commands the bully pulpit, and Americans are looking for a commander-in-chief worthy of the role.
Much has been made about Hillary’s challenge with candor, from lost emails and Benghazi contradictions, to the Clinton Foundation’s fondness for rewarding foreign contributors with American access.
That’s why Trump regularly bests Clinton regarding honesty, and for unabashedly calling it like he sees it. This is sacred screed from his outsider’s playbook, and it appeals to the mood of a public restless for something fresh, different and real.
Yet Trump’s business dealings, and his true financial health, have naysayers raising questions about his business acumen and fitness for potentially serving as the nation’s CEO.
Four. One Statement, One Moment
Four years ago, Mitt Romney came to rue the moment when a smartphone captured his less-than-flattering comment about the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay taxes.
How many times this year have the media—much less opponents right and left—written off Trump? The “Megyn Kelly debate.” The appraisal of John McCain as something less than a war hero. The Muslims-not-welcome refrain. The penchant for controversial Tweets. The Russian factor.
Then again, Hillary Clinton has had her own share of moments. The missing emails, and recent WikiLeak’d ones. The $250,000 speeches for Wall Street and their conveniently “unavailable” transcripts. The suspicious tarmac meeting between hubby and Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Lecturing coal miners their days were numbered, and misleading us with assurances that ISIS’s were as well.
So could we reach a moment that’s a step too far, or a line too radioactive to ignore?
I believe “that moment” may be something far more fundamental—as the courtroom of public opinion has put the American system on trial. Once the verdict’s in, and the jurors/voters decide between guilt and innocence, we’ll have a winner.
Welcome to the laboratory of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Rene Thom would be proud.