Trump, Apple, and the Overton Window

Politics is just the latest industry to be transformed by the Internet.

I've a learned some new terms trying to understand how Donald Trump can say what he's been saying about the company I cover—calling for a boycott of Apple over the FBI standoff and threatening to send its CEO's head "spinning all the way back to Silicon Valley."

Aggregation Theory. This is tech analyst Ben Thompson's term for how the Internet cuts out the middleman—in this case the Republican Party—by reducing distribution and transaction costs to zero. Trump has so far been able to take his case directly to the voters through Twitter, Facebook, and the ratings-driven news media that give him so much free TV.

"The most successful politicians in an aggregated world," Thompson wrote last week on Stratechery, "are not those who serve the party but rather those who tell voters what they most want to hear."

Conservation of Attractive Profits. This is the theory by which Clayton Christensen—the author of The Innovator's Dilemma—suggests that value systems are a zero-sum game. Profit (or in this case, political power) shifts to the provider who owns the relationship with the consumer, leaving the incumbent (again, the GOP) gasping for air.

Finally there's the Overton Window, named for Joseph Overton, an analyst at Michigan's Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which describes the range of ideas a politician can express without being considered too extreme for political office. Here's what that looks like:


"Social media is breaking the political ‘Overton Window'—the ability of elites to determine the outside edges of acceptable conversation," NYU professor Clay Shirky wrote in tweetstorm last month. "These limits were enforced by party discipline and mass media whose economics meant political centrism was the best way to make money…Cable [TV] added a new stream of media access. The Web added a torrent."

Donald Trump, having cut out the middleman, emasculated the GOP, and broken the Overton Window, says the unthinkable every day of the week about all sorts of things—not just Apple—and it only seems to further endear him to his supporters.

Whether he can ride that support all the way to the White House is a question I can't begin to answer.

ADDENDUM: Asymco's Horace Dediu, a fellow at the Christensen Institute and my go-to-guy on the theory of disruptive innovation, declined my invitation to characterize Trump's campaign as "disruptive":

I don’t consider a candidate’s election campaign to be 'disruptive' unless that campaign changes the laws of the land. If there is a technology changing how campaigning is done, that technology is available to all. The failure of all but one candidate to adapt their campaign machinery to a medium that has been around for a decade is indicative of poor judgement perhaps. Perhaps it’s due to the age of the participants, perhaps it’s insularity in the last bastion of technological illiteracy. (Washington). I don’t know.

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