Dear Republicans: You are being disrupted. Not by the protesters who keep showing up at Donald Trump rallies, but by Trump himself.

Trump is like a product that comes on the market and gets gobbled up by customers who the established companies took for granted. He plays by new rules and he’s not weighed down by tradition. He can build his customer base while his competitors are spending all their energy trying to hold on to what they have.

He has a chance to not only beat the competition but also fundamentally change the way presidential elections are run. In the end, political parties’ role as the place where coalitions are formed will never be the same.

That’s one reading of the Trump phenomenon if you apply the concept of disruptive innovation introduced by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen in his 1997 book “The Innovator’s Dilemma.”

Established companies fail, Christensen said, not because they make the wrong choices but because they continue to do the things that please the customers they already have. That creates an opportunity for upstarts that serve the customers who don’t want a high-end product like a mainframe computer or mechanical Swiss watch. Once in a while one of these new products will take off, surpass the establishment and take over the industry. Think Toyota. Think Apple. Think Craigslist.

Take it from someone who has spent the last couple of decades in the newspaper business: Disruption hurts.

Once upon a time, newspapers were solid businesses that rewarded their owners with predictable annual profit margins.

They had a near monopoly on the conversations between retail businesses and their customers, generating enough revenue to pay for news operations. If you wanted to compete with a newspaper, you would have to buy a printing press.

Then the Internet came along and lowered the cost of competition to nearly nothing. We not only had competition from other information sources, but we also lost advertisers, who found cost-effective ways to reach their customers without us.

Craigslist, the free online classified ad site, sucked $5 billion out of the industry between 2000 and 2007, and newsroom budgets shrunk.

And newspapers are not the only institution that has seen this kind of change. The same is true for any organization involved in the transfer of information, including universities, television networks and mainline churches,.

And now it’s happening to the Republican Party.

Political parties have been in decline for a long time, but they retained a few ways to control the process.

One was money – it takes a lot of it to run for president, and there are a finite number of people willing to contribute. The second is what to do with the money once you’ve gotten it, and the parties maintain relationships with a loose network of professionals who run campaigns.

Imagine you are Jeb Bush. You’ve raised the most money and hired the best talent. You have pollsters and speechwriters. You have policy experts working on position papers. You have media consultants putting together ads. Your research tells you who your voters are and you have a plan to get them to the polls

And then down the escalator comes Donald Trump.

He doesn’t need to raise money, partly because he has a lot of it and partly because he doesn’t need to spend much.

He relies on public polls and he improvises his speeches. He doesn’t have policy papers. He runs very few ads.

What he does is appeal to the passions of people who don’t feel represented by the system and don’t usually vote. He openly appeals to bigotry, encourages violence and attacks anyone in his way.

Some people find it exhilarating, some find it terrifying, but few can look away, so he dominates the news.

Next time around, who will the candidates try to emulate? Trump or Bush?

The better Trump does, the worse for the Republican Party. The bigwigs who are trying to stop him look weak, which is only going to lower their status. If they eventually line up behind him as their nominee, they would be even more diminished.

Harvard’s Christensen argues that established companies can avoid disruption by thinking like innovators, but history has not been kind to the old guard. And innovation does not always make things better.

If around-the-clock attention-grabbing becomes the way people reach the White House, we may find that we miss some of these disrupted institutions, like political parties and newspapers.


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