Is Trump The Mule? Insights from Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy


Woman standing next to her bomb shelter in her ancestral home, Mekong Delta, Vietnam, 2013

One of the authors that stands as a major inspiration in my writing is Isaac Asimov.  Of the books he’s written, the series that stands pre-eminent  is The Foundation Trilogy.  Asimov himself said he modeled the series after  The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empirewritten by Edward Gibbon, between the years 1776-1788.  I haven’t read the latter, but with recent events, I’m pretty inspired to plough through it.

The plot of the Foundation Trilogy is this:  The Galactic Empire is dying.  One man, Hari Seldon, invents a new field, blending sociology and mathematics, called Psychohistory.  Based on the idea that billions of humans now create an inevitable probabilistic calculus, where  the individual no longer matters, Psychohistory utilizes complex mathematics and statistics to predict the inevitable future, with limited bifurcations that can be directed with limited intervention.

Further, Psychohistory predicts the Empire will collapse.  What will replace it will be 30,000 years of chaos and suffering, if nothing is done, as the collapse is inevitable.  Seldon, using the insights gained from his new discipline, creates The Seldon Plan, which, if followed, will reduce the Interregnum from the psychohistorically predicted 30,000 years down to only 1000.  It involves establishing two Foundations — the First Foundation, dedicated to technology preservation and development, and the Second Foundation, dedicated to continued social development and advancement of the field of psychohistory.  The Theory of Empathetic Evolution that myself and a handful of others are working on owes directly to Asimov’s inspiration.

The books are amazingly prescient. Asimov was a genius of the age, and The Foundation Trilogy has been called some of the best science fiction writing ever.  Asimov predicted the trend of miniaturization, introduced the idea of space travel through hyperspace, and a put forward a host of other insights about centralization of power and its fundamental fragility.  His evolutionary steps for the First Foundation walk up through the Spiral v-Meme levels from Authority-based government, to Legalistic clerics, through Performance v-Meme Traders.  All events were predicted, and ostensibly backdoor-manipulated by a group of telepaths embedded in the Second Foundation,  following the Seldon Plan.

Asimov alludes to the larger concept of emergence through the idea of the Plan working as long as no one believes anyone is manipulating the plan. But he hedges his bets, likely as much by his own level of v-Meme development (he was a biochemistry professor, and likely had a big hunk of Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Meme behavior — big on rule-following, and not so big on things spontaneously happening) as a plot device, with the existence of the Second Foundation — people who operate outside the laws of known physics through the display and use of telepathic abilities.  Much like Manifest Destiny, The Plan marches on through the first book, growing the power of the First Foundation and pointing toward the inevitable closing of the Interregnum to 1000 years, instead of the natural occurrence interval of 30,000 years.

That is, until the middle of the second book, Foundation and Empire.  The first part of the second book is dedicated to the inevitability of the Seldon Plan, where the Foundation meets the Empire in combat, and wins by default.  Internal conflicts inside the Empire assure its collapse before it can attack the First Foundation.

But in the second half, a new character is introduced. The Mule, a mutant, with ‘mentalic’ powers that previously had only existed with certain members of the Second Foundation, arrives on the scene. He disrupts the inevitability of the continued evolution of the First Foundation and potential early ending of the Interregnum.  The Mule, as an individual, could not have been predicted by the Seldon Plan, focused as it was on the statistical movements of vast numbers of peoples and populations across the galaxy. Single-handedly, The Mule, through telepathic manipulation, defeats and takes over the Foundation’s growing empire, which has become increasingly control-oriented and out-of-touch with the outer planets in its rapidly expanding sphere of influence.

Sound familiar?

So, is Trump the Mule?  I know I couldn’t be the one to have that thought for the first time.  I went looking for an idea originator and found this.  Does Donald Trump exist outside the Theory of Empathetic Evolution, or merely outside of Asimov’s Theory of Psychohistory?  Should I just hang up my spurs and concede that Asimov’s mind is greater than the coalition of friends I’ve put together to sort things through?  Or is there some larger set of insights that we can generate that show exactly what Trump really stands for, and how we should respond?

There are two critical insights that need to be made about whether Trump is actually part of our own larger Seldon Plan, or if he is actually an anomaly, like Asimov’s Mule, that could not have been predicted.  These are thoughts and strategies contained in our own Theory of Empathetic Evolution that were not contained in the Foundation Trilogy.

The first is the concept of empathetic evolution and devolution of societies and organizations. One of the largest gaps in my early thinking, that I attribute to being an American, is the notion that things will only get better and better — societies — or at least American society– only evolves.  This led to my deeper understanding that societal evolution will track along the lines of more people, forming more and diverse relationships with each other.  By extension, leaders of societies engaging in evolution, would, as also established by Don Beck, likely be at or one level higher in social evolution than the people they lead. They would therefore use their higher level of v-Meme development to create relationships more in number, and greater in diversity.

Asimov (and initially myself,) gave only cursory thought in the trilogy to how devolution of societies would take place.  He spent a lot of time in the novels alluding to Psychohistory and the collapse of the Galactic Empire, while writing a little florid prose on its corruption. But he didn’t talk about how, other than sophisticated mathematics would be involved.  Devolution was happening to the Galactic Empire, of course, and its events mapped to Asimov’s inspirational texts by Gibbon. But other than its disintegration, Asimov gave it short shrift.

That’s fine.  The Foundation Trilogy is a work of fiction, after all.  No one said that its a requirement that the author of a piece of science fiction has to fill out all the details of a piece of technology to write about it.  That would defeat the purpose.

The second major failure of Asimov’s imagination in devising a Theory of Psychohistory is that while he posited the existence of mathematics, aggregated with probability theory, he failed to account for the individual.  Asimov’s psychohistory is only applicable when population sizes become large (whatever large means in the context of the Galactic Empire!) and he clearly states in the first book, large means billions.  Thus, he missed one of the most important parts of our own Theory of Empathetic Evolution — the fundamental self-similar nature of sentience.  It starts from the structure of our own neural pathways, up through individuals with the Principle of Reinforcement, and extends beyond to societies and how they create information in aggregate.  Asimov guessed at chaos and complex systems theory.  But for the framework of Psychohistory, he settled for statistical thermodynamics.

Regarding the first point — though devolution is not covered specifically in Asimov’s psychohistory, devolution is addressed in the Theory of Empathetic Evolution.  By direct extension, if a leader of a society that is evolving can be at or one v-Meme level above the society they are leading, and creating more and diverse relationships, the reverse is true for a devolving society.  A leader will be at or one v-Meme level below.  And instead of creating more and more diverse relationships between members, such a leader would destroy relationships, and work toward aggregating and creating grouped relational boundaries where before there were none.  We already have a name for relational disruptors — the empathy disordered.  I wrote a long piece here about Trump, the narcissistic authoritarian here.

What’s fascinating about Asimov’s Mule is that he possesses many of the attributes of the anti-empathetic that I’ve already written about here.  I’ve stated that narcissists have a super-radar that allows them to use their empathy to mirror others’ behavior precisely, creating a seductive image of themself to their target who they’re attempting to manipulate.  Asimov’s Mule has the added advantage of a magical device that amplifies his power for manipulating others mind — the Visi-Sonor.  Yet fundamentally, what Asimov is describing is a narcissistic psychopath — someone who can inspire fear and/or adoration through manipulation.  In our Theory of Empathetic Evolution, even the Mule isn’t the Mule.  The positive use of his telepathy would really be another evolved form of empathy.  Outside the reach of our evolutionary understanding, it would appear as magic.  But as described by Asimov, in the more negative sense, it’s just the same old anti-empathetic razzle-dazzle.

With regards to the second point, as I said above, Asimov did not have access to the mathematical concept of fractals and the associated ideas of self similarity that we have today. Further, he was likely culturally influenced by his adopted country — the U.S. — since he immigrated when he was only three years old, with the Performance/Goal-Based v-Meme of the role of the individual to transcend the system.  Asimov created the Mule as someone outside his system, and seemingly impervious to the laws of psychohistory.  By doing so, Asimov indirectly did us a favor with developing our own Theory of Empathetic Evolution.  While statistical approaches might indeed be part of our own mathematics in predicting larger societal phase changes, in the end our own efforts are saved by self-similarity.  Neither the Mule, nor Trump, are outside the system.

Other things that Asimov got right, however, are interesting in their own right.  The Mule was created in part by trauma.  He was tormented as a child because of his appearance, and if we scroll back to our understanding of the nature vs. nurture aspect of creation of the anti-empathetic, it is likely this mix of genetics and environment that caused the expression of the megalomania of the Mule.  In the books, the Mule is also set up as an sort of philosopher king.  Yet even after the intervention by the Second Foundation, that stops the Mule’s relentless advance across the galaxy, Asimov implicitly creates bounds on the Mule’s effect.  He is named the Mule because he is sterile, and as with all philosopher kings, there can be no larger continuity with an Authoritarian form of government.  Sooner or later, empires based on genetics, instead of larger forms of government based on memetics, are doomed to fail.  Biology is not enough to assure transfer of information to completely run a large and successful collective.

Which brings us back to the question, “Is Trump the Mule?” The answer is both yes, according to Asimov’s Psychohistory, and no, according to our Theory of Empathetic Evolution.  Donald Trump may have existed outside the contemporary system of American politics, with its odd mix of legalistic democracy and performance-based guiding principles embodied in the Constitution. But in the larger Theory of Empathetic Evolution scheme of things,he’s just another relational disruptor inside a system declining for other reasons.  In fact, if we understand our own Theory of Empathetic Evolution, not only is he predictable, Donald Trump is inevitable.

How is that so?  Let’s review these more recent posts (here and here) on how social systems devolve.  All social systems, as created artifacts of aggregated and structured information, are subject to the general laws of thermodynamics.  What that means is that they have to boil down to matters of temporal and spatial scale (time and distance of expanse) as well as energetics (easily thought of as money). When money across the majority of society declines, as our tax and education policies have pretty much demanded and created, you reach a level of depressed energetics ripe for a disruptor to come to power.  That disruptor is going to use manipulation of mental models to appeal to certain members of the larger constituency that they are being treated unfairly.

And that larger constituency is going to be composed of a variety of groups, each with their own evolutionary and devolutionary potentials.  In the case of Donald Trump, it’s no surprise that smaller racist groups, like the KKK, and individuals flock to Trump’s devolutionary message.  Because to them, it’s aspirational AND evolutionary.  Heck — it’s a recruitment tool.  Those groups are down there wallowing in the Tribal/Magical – Authoritarian grouping anyway, and Trump is, as a Performance-based Authoritarian, v-Meme speaking, sending them a message that they can interpret as spot-on, or even move up.  It offers them greater connection and mainstreaming of their viewpoint.  Political analysts call this type of messaging ‘dog whistles’ — sounds that normal folks can’t hear, and only dogs, with their specialized hearing can detect.  In this case, these messages are resonant, and those that have moved past them don’t respond to them.  Especially if they’re perceived in the culture as derogatory.

Meanwhile, the larger mainstreamed part of Trump’s constituency can’t really see it.  They’re supporting Trump because to them, he’s an outsider, and because they’re economically/energetically aggrieved.  It’s not that those darker messages aren’t in there somewhere.  But they’re not drivers.  As an example, I come from a particularly backward part of the country — central Appalachia.  I grew up in a pretty racist environment, and there’s no question that old messages of racist hate are buried.

But more on the surface and far stronger is the idea of working for a living, and seeing the decay and collapse of their community. If you read the basic population dynamics of my hometown, Portsmouth, Ohio, you’ll see a community that existed at a population high of 40,000, with its own NFL team in the 1940s, to now around 20,000 people, and a collapsed industrial base and a rampant prescription drug and illegal heroin problem. I know the people of Portsmouth, and if there’s a barometer of individual racism, it’s interracial marriage.  Among my classmates, predominantly white, no one would whisper a peep if one of their kids brought home someone they were dating from a different race or ethnicity — as long as they had a job.  That’s Performance-based Authoritarian v-Memes for you — exactly what Trump is.

I’d argue that you could look at the economic winners, and see the same positive evolutionary drivers are pre-eminent in areas that voted for Clinton.  The areas/states that supported the Democrats this last election in the presidential election, in great majority, are not experiencing the energetic catastrophe that most of the country is facing.  Population is flocking to those areas, expanding temporal and spatial empathetic scales.  An influx of new residents means a diversity of ideas and perspectives, and that has to grow empathy through exchange. When it comes to money, to visit Seattle now, with Amazon doubling its workforce downtown from some 25,000 to 50,000, is to tap into a wild energy that’s pretty incomprehensible.

Yet it’s only available to a certain global elite –educated citizens, as well as immigrants with H1 visas and trained in data science and related areas.  The people from my hometown couldn’t tap into that if they wanted.  They are already demographically in the losing Out-Group, and not surprisingly, looking for a champion.

So along comes a classic, narcissistic relational disruptor — Donald Trump.  He seems to embody the powers of the Mule — the ability to create an image in the minds of his constituency that has little relevance to his physical reality.  As a narcissist, he has no integral worldview outside his own fragmented self-image.

But he can mirror behavior.  Before the primary season, back in 2014, if you methodically reviewed his policy positions, Trump might have been considered a centrist Democrat.  Before the election, a reasonably objective reviewer of his topical statements would conclude that he’s a conservative Republican.  Yet already, only one week after the election, he’s shifting again.  No on dismantling Obamacare.  Waffling on building a wall with Mexico.  And so on.

What’s the reality?  As a classic impulsive narcissist, the only consistent theme that will dictate his continued policy direction is generating narcissistic supply for himself, and retaliation toward constituencies that tap into his wrath.  And he’ll surround himself by people that pretty much look like him.  Not surprisingly, the solidified In-Group that dominates his transition team is not the evangelical wing of the Republican Party, nor the Tea Party Republicans that voted for him.  Instead, it’s Wall Street and Goldman Sachs, and K-Street lobbyists.  They’re conservative globalists — not inveterate nationalists and cornpone Bible-thumping politicians from the Heartland.

And not surprisingly, he’s placed a number of family members on his transition team.  That’s classic Authoritarian behavior.  Loyalty is paramount.  Trump’s not stupid.  He knows that all those people he stomped on in the Republican Party, on his way to the nomination as their candidate, and his eventual election, are going to want blood.  If they don’t, they’re positively craven and can’t be trusted anyway. Trump’s got his version of the Mule’s Visi-Sonor — Twitter.  True to his narcissistic impulses, he’s still attacking the New York Times after the election.

What to do about Trump?  One of the first rules of defusing a High Conflict personality is to not feed the beast. How to do that is the subject of my next post.  Be glad of one thing — we’ve moved past Psychohistory.  And the answer, of course, is more empathetic evolution.  But who has to do what means that the progressive movement is going to have to confront its own demons.




3 thoughts on “Is Trump The Mule? Insights from Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy

  1. Indeed Asimov was a genious. I’m going to attempt to do this without spoiling too much of the Foundation Trilogy… Not only did he master the authoritarian-legalistic-performance transitions, but towards the end of the final book, The Second Foundation, he portrays an agrarian community that has mastered trade, public transit, social communication and understanding, all coupled with modesty — sounds fantastically communitarian to me!


    1. One more way to look at this as an Asimov triumph: Not only did he accurately predict where our society would run into decay, as described by the 1st foundation struggling to get past the performance meme and getting taken over, he knew that it was the empathetic connections of the 2nd foundation that were necessary to make it fully to the communitarian meme.


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