Bruce Mehlman on Challenges and Choices in a Low Trust World

Popular movements that drive big changes in America happen every 60 years, says Bruce Mehlman, and we're in the middle of one right now.

This week, Bruce Mehlman of Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas returned to discuss his latest infographic slideshow, Crossroads: Challenges & Choices in a Low-Trust World.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.

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Now on to my conversation with Bruce Mehlman. The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:

Matt: You say that we are at a crossroads. How is that?

Bruce: You know, I was searching for a cliche, and Crossroads seemed to be the right one. As you know, I put out a quarterly analysis; I try to take a look at how the current political trends and policy trends fit into the broader macro, political, societal, technological, cultural trends that are going on… But now, as I think about which way things will go, I realize we're really a knife's edge. It's really hard to predict right now. I mean, if you said to me on COVID, you said, “Hey these vaccines are phenomenal (which they are) we're going to distribute just in time, and we're going to stay in front of these new strains, and that's going to lead to an awesome rally in the markets,” I'd say “I totally can see that.” Or if you said, “You know what? The South African strain and the Brazilian strain are going to prove to be more resistant, and people are going to be nervous about taking the vaccines. And that is going to lead to a disappointment in the markets, which will burst these crazy Tesla Bitcoin bubbles, and all of a sudden things go the other way,” I can see that equally. And whether you think about China, or Congress, or our ability to be more resilient in things like cyber, it's never in my lifetime felt less certain whether we're going to go towards the positive outcome or the negative outcome.

Matt: You write that America's biggest challenge isn't COVID, isn't the economy and it's not even China, what is it?

Bruce: Well, it's a lack of trust. You know, all of these other things are obviously meaningful. If you're sick, there is nothing bigger than COVID. Or if you've lost your job, there's not much bigger than the economy. But the history of America is a history of going through challenging times, and then pulling together and coming together to solve the problem, to beat the Nazis, to you know, to work our way out of the Great Depression, and to go to the Moon. And yet, in all of that time, you generally felt—maybe I'm just reading a happy history, maybe that's not the way it felt at the time—but you think of it as Americans knowing we're all in this together. You know, Pearl Harbor was an attack on America and there weren't people at the time denying Pearl Harbor, and there weren't people saying it’s Roosevelt's war. I mean, all Americans said, “Sign me up.” George HW Bush, John F. Kennedy, both said, “How do I go fight for my country?” It feels these days that we're living in different realities, we have our own facts. You know, one side says Joe Biden's a socialist who wants to ruin the country. The other side says, Donald Trump's a fascist who wants to ruin the country. And we can’t agree on basic facts. That's a big problem. When the only way to get past the huge challenges ahead, are to pull together, work together, and be in it together.

Matt: There's this book, I don't know if you remember this, Bruce, it's called the The Fourth Turning. It came out a while ago, but it got popular again because Steve Bannon apparently was a fan of it. And, you know, it talks about these cycles in history. You point out that popular movements that drive big changes in America happen every 60 years. We're in the middle of one right now. I think that's super interesting. But talk about those different periods. 

Bruce: Like you, I love The Fourth Turning. It was short and seemed brilliant. That book hooks it on the idea that it's every fourth generation, so roughly every 80 years. David Brooks recently wrote about, you know, America's having a moral convulsion, and he was taking a look at what Samuel Huntington a famous historian wrote, which was that roughly every 60 years, there's moral indignation at the state of the country, there's contempt for established power, trust in institutions plummets, and a new generation of leaders rises from formerly outside of the in crowd, and they drive reform. I don't know if that sounds familiar to you, but it sure feels like what's we're going through, and you go back in American history, and you know, 1765 with, that's when the American Revolution really got its juice going (obviously 1776 was the declaration). But if you add 60 years, you get to 1825, which was right around when the Jacksonian Uprising was happening…another populist uprising. And you fast forward 60 years, and you're almost right there again, at the Progressive Era. Once again, new technologies and globalization had led to rising inequality and concerns about too much immigration. And that, again, led to what felt like was an unraveling, but it ended up in reform. We fixed the economy through things like inventing antitrust law. And we improved our democracy by giving women the constitutional right to vote, and direct election of senators. We invested in the future in the Gilded Age, and the Progressive Era with the high school movement. If you fast forward 60 more years, you get to the protest there of the 50s and the 60s. You know, when it became clear that we were not close to living up to our national ideals on areas like civil rights. If you add about 60 years, you get to the modern populist movement today, and you and I could go around the barn about whether you go to the Tea Party and the financial collapse as to the start of that, do you go to, you know, Sarah Palin, is the nominee right before that? Or do you go do to Donald Trump's running or getting elected? It doesn't quite matter with precision. What matters is that about every 60 years, we once again find that people feel fragile, because the institutions, the policies, and the parties of last century, don't make them feel protected against the realities of this century, and they start voting for change.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.