Why is ‘Trumpism’ like crazy ants? Because both require added levels of energy in the system for them to become super pests, so dangerous that they threaten the very integrity of the system they occupy. There’s an important message here for a world buckling under climate disruption while simultaneously battling climate disinformation.
Can’t see the connection? Let me explain.
Yellow crazy ants (Anoplolepis gracilipes) are one of the worst invasive species on the planet. Originally from the moist tropical lowlands of Southeast Asia, they have spread throughout many of the world’s tropical and subtropical regions. Their habit of spraying highly corrosive formic acid on any creature that stumbles near makes them a major threat to other species.
The focus for this story is what happened on Christmas Island, a tropical island in the Indian Ocean (an external territory of Australia). Crazy ants were accidentally introduced there during the first half of the 20th century.
It was explained to me by park rangers from the Island that while crazy ants were initially a nuisance, they weren’t the major threat they are these days. The transition from nuisance to super pest came with the accidental arrival of another non-native pest, the yellow lac scale insect that lives up in the canopy of the Island’s rainforest. The introduced scale insect survives by sucking fluid from leaves. In the process of doing this, the scale insect showers the forest floor with honeydew, a sugary energy drink for the crazy ants. Once this energy-dense food supply became available the crazy ants went super ‘crazy’ and began forming super colonies with up to 1000 ants per square metre. The super colonies now cover hundreds of hectares and support billions of ants.
Their habit of spraying formic acid onto any nearby foe is playing havoc with the Island’s ecosystems. Of particular concern is their impact on the Island’s iconic red crabs, a land crustacean that serves as a keystone species to the Island’s rainforests. The crabs sustain the health of the rainforests by eating their way through tons of leaf litter and returning vital nutrients to the soil.
The aggressive crazy ants are having a real impact on the red ants. Since the late 1990s, the invasive ants have killed tens of millions of land crabs, wiping out entire local populations. And, when crab populations die, the whole island ecosystem suffers. It’s an ecological cascade of horror that is unravelling an important biodiversity hotspot.
So, why are tiny aggressive yellow ants on a remote tropical island analogous to the behaviour of an obese orange political populist in the US?
The empowerment of a super narcissist
In the United States we have a real estate tycoon named Donald Trump who became President from 2016 till 2020. In his time as POTUS, Trump showed little regard for truth or accountability, actively spread disinformation, and is widely regarded as the worst performing President in history.
There’s no space here to document Trumps’ history and presidential performance or to debate the validity of his attempted insurrection in 2020 after denying the election outcome. There’s also no value in going over this ground. It’s been extensively covered elsewhere and anyone with an interest in history and politics has their own views, probably strongly held views, on the legitimacy of Trump’s time.
But I would ask you to consider this. Billionaires generally act as if the rules don’t apply to them but they usually stay out of the limelight and don’t actively divide nations. Their business and their wealth depends on stability and a degree of business certainty. Trump’s ascendency looks like ruining those conditions.
How is it this latter-day tycoon named Trump has so effectively polarised his own country while building a cult of rusted-on followers who will back him regardless of his behaviour, lies, hypocrisy and disinformation? How has this super narcissist been able to galvanise part of the American electorate while alienating most of the institutions that have provided the US and the world enduring stability and prosperity? And why now as opposed to earlier in his career?
We blame Trump for the damage he’s been doing but maybe we should be considering the environment in which he has been operating. I would suggest that his behaviour is empowered by the hyperconnected society that now exists around him, and the existence of a slab of community that no longer believes that society is working from them – the dispossessed (or, as some commentators have labelled them, “the basketful of deplorables”).
Trump is not behaving differently to how he behaved prior to 2016. Information arising from multiple court cases against him is revealing he has always been a liar, a confabulist and a cheat. It’s been a modus operandi that has served him well but combine this with social media’s capacity to connect his every utterance with millions of disaffected Americans and it becomes a recipe for cult popularity and extreme polarisation and division, which he has exploited to increase his own power and influence.
The American poet Robert Penn Warren once wrote “a crazy man is a large-scale menace only in a crazy society”. He was describing some of the events leading up to the American Civil War yet his observation is just as apposite to the rise of Trump and Trumpism.
Trumpism is a form of craziness in which we no longer can discern truth from fiction, we fail to act rationally in the face of multiple looming planetary crises, we place our faith in simplistic populism, and we stop trusting the institutions that have been the bulwark of civilisation. It is characterised by the behaviour of an individual, Mr Trump, but this individual is more the symptom than the cause of this craziness.
Throwing Trump in jail, as many people are demanding, won’t remove the threat. The conditions for Trump’s ascendency are still present and will enable the next ‘crazy man’ to do just as much damage. We need to remediate the craziness and address the gaps in society that let so many people believe the system isn’t working for them. We need stronger, more transparent governance of our key institutions. We need to demonstrate that everyone is accountable, including Trump, and that we can trust the institutions that regulate society and keep us safe. We need to trust the information we are fed and believe our leaders are actually representing us.
Back to the crazy ants
Back on Christmas Island they’ve been attempting to poison and spray the super colonies of crazy yellow ant to control them, but to little avail. Apart from the poisoning being very expensive, the super colonies simply rebuild as soon as the poisoning stops, so the strategy is simply unsustainable.
Acknowledging this, Park managers are now trialling innovative approaches to modify the forest ecosystem. They are introducing a tiny Malaysian micro-wasp that feeds exclusively on the yellow lac scale insect. By controlling the scale insect that aren’t eliminating the yellow crazy ant but they are limiting its capacity to form super colonies by depriving it of one of its main sources of food. In this way they are attempting to restore ecological balance of the rainforests. So far the approach is delivering promising results.
Trumpism feeds on unregulated hyperconnectivity and disaffection. Maybe it’s time we began acknowledging this is where the problem lies and attempt to reduce what fuels his craziness rather than focus on the crazy man himself.
Banner image: Yellow crazy ants harvest a dead cockroach. (Image by Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia, CC BY-SA 4.0)