Watching Donald Trump play politics is alarming for many. They worry about the wild things that he says and fear that he may do something truly terrible.
Some think that he is just bonkers, and to a certain extent I think they are right. The Donald does have an ego problem. He needs to be the center of attention. And he can’t help saying and doing stuff to keep himself there — even if it gets him into hot water. In other words, his behavior is compulsive rather than methodical.
At the same time, there are some strategic concepts that can help us predict how Trump will act. Here they are
- he knows that he can’t succeed without being the center of attention. So he picks fights over trivial issues and such nonsense solely to keep the cameras trained at him You might call this “GENERATING FOCUS“. This may appear to be foolish, but it has value to Trump as a testing tool. I elaborate a bit more on that below.
- He believes that entertainment is everything. If he can entertain, he can sustain keeping your attention, which he needs to do. If he gets in trouble by being too outrageous, he will say “I was just joking”. You might call this “PLAYING THE CROWD“- Of course, he can always blame others for failures.
- part of the entertainment is creating situations where you — and all other people that may be affected by what he says and does — don’t know what he will do next. He creates unknowns and that keeps people mesmerized by the spectacle. It matters less whether the uncertainty leads anywhere.. You might call this “USING THE MACGUFFIN“
- he uses the “mad man” gaming theory to create movement. That theory goes like this – suggest that you are considering doing something that scares the other side. You don’t have to actually do it. If the other side gets scared enough, they may offer you something not to do it. You might call this “PLAYING THE VILLAIN“
- he doesn’t really care what you think about him. He is much more interested in congratulating himself for how well he can manipulate people and getting the game to move so that he doesn’t get bored.You might call this “OBSESSIVE GAMING“.
Think of the above as a “conflict management” strategy. In conflict there is a certain amount of heat that makes people uncomfortable. That heat may be a direct threat or just the unknown. The more heat, the more the discomfort. The more discomfort, the more people take steps to reduce the discomfort.
Trump likes to turn up the heat to see how people will react. He shouts out “build the wall” or “ban Muslims! not so much to reflect any deeply held idea. To Donald, it is just having some fun, and it is helpful to learn what motivates people. This is how he stumbled onto the idea that a significant segment of the voting population believe Washington is systemically corrupted (drain the swamp). He then played that theme to electoral victory. It mattered not that his own propensity for shady deals (like Trump University) would suggest he will be part of the problem, because he was the only one offering that extreme message.
Is this nasty? Yes. And part of the game is to desensitize folks to this nasty quality. To advance the proposition that being nasty is necessary in a dangerous world. Among the nastiest scenarios are those where Trump threatens to “destroy the thing you love“. So Trump is testing China this way on trade. He thinks “You, Chinese leaders are basking in your high export growth. What if I strangle it?” Putting this idea in play forces the Chinese to react. Trump hopes they will react with an offer for a deal. Trump’s controversial telephone conversation with the president of Taivan is another aspect of the same game.
Equally nasty may be the way Trump deals with decision makers in great need of something. They may be rolled. So Trump knows that Mr. Putin needs sanctions lifted. While many speculate that Trump has been playing nice with Putin because he is in Putin’s pocket, it is also possible that Trump is seeing if he can play Putin – suggest great things can happen and see what Putin offers him
to stop being a pain in world affairs to claim victory for America. BTW, this second scenario does not rule out the first. Both games may be at work. Trump already floated the idea of lifting sanctions for a nuclear arms deal. He may come back to that idea or try something different. Meanwhile, this has the added advantage (in Trump’s mind) of frightening Europeans who might decide to contribute more to European defense.
These are “bargaining” tactics — Finding the leverage in a situation and using it. Will they work? Bargaining can get people to act and even can produce agreements in situations. But bargaining like this does not build relationships. Why not?`It destroys trust. Worse still, it risks creating conflict that may get out of control and may have long term negative consequences when trust is lost. The bottom line – one should not be fooled into thinking that Trump’s tactics are genius. He has some strategic ideas, but he is also playing with fire. If the fire gets out of control, we are the ones who get burned. He talks about the strategic value of “playing with other people’s money”. He is playing with other people’s futures. Again, nasty? Yes.
So that is Trump the strategist deconstructed. I predict that just about everything he does will fit into the above model. Let’s see if I am right. Meanwhile, keep in mind that he is an actor on the stage. He knows as well as you do that this is all theater. It is not real. That is why those who call Trump a con man are 100% right.
Sp where will this likely come apart? It is too early in this game to tell. Opponents so far are focused on attacking Trump directly. This is understandable. At the same time, these folks should understand the limits of this strategy – it does not build their own credibility. Victims of cons often retain their emotional connection to the con man even after they learn what is really going on. You might say that they have “drunk the kool aid”. That is what Trump hopes for here. If he can “spread the blame” for failures — which are certain to come — he may retain the affection of his core supporters. Opponents would be wise not just to attack Trump’s credibility but also to help those folks see something better than Trump. Then the con will not look so attractive.
Folks watching from the outside might reflect as well that Trump’s gaming approach to politics might encourage local actors to mimic it. It would be a mistake to think that this an “America only” concern. These things do tend to snowball.