Trump and the Strategy of Irrationality

I wrote this piece in November 2016 and sat on it for a while, unsure whether or not I wanted to publish it. Since then, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe have had great pieces making similar points to the one I made here: that Donald Trump’s unpredictability may, in certain situations, give him leverage in negotiations. The world has changed a lot in these two short months but many points I make here still stand. So please, enjoy.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Donald Trump is not just the most controversial President-Elect in recent American history — he is also the most unpredictable. His lack of political experience, inconsistent views, and tendency towards outbursts leave even his most ardent supporters unsure of what a President Trump might do in a given situation. Yet counterintuitively, his unpredictability may help him in the international arena.

The reason is a basic tenet of game theory. In a conflict, a person’s bargaining power depends on their perceived willingness to go through with a threat, even at a cost to themselves. If an opponent sees a threatener as irrational, they will also see them as more willing to go through with a costly threat, either because they do not know or do not care about the consequences. Thus, the opponent is more likely to yield.

This is where the irrationality of Trump shines.

For example, he may have an advantage over traditional politicians in renegotiating foreign trade deals because he is viewed as unstable enough to scrap them, even if it would hurt the American economy. A politician who has shown more nuanced views of America’s trade relations and economic interests would not have this same leverage.

Thomas Schelling. Source: Harvard Gazette

This strategy of irrationality is not new. It was popularized in 1960 by the Nobel Prize winning economist Thomas Schelling in his book Strategy of Conflict. It was used in the Cold War by both American presidents and Russian secretaries. Even Voltaire said, “Be sure that your madness corresponds with the turn and temper of your age…and forget not to be excessively opinionated and obstinate.”

Of all the US presidents, Richard Nixon put the most faith in what he called the “madman strategy.” He tried to appear “mad” enough to use nuclear weapons in order to bring North Vietnam to the negotiation table. In a private conversation, Nixon told his Chief of Staff the following:

I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button.”

After four years, Nixon’s “madman strategy” failed to end the war. He could only apply it intermittently; his “madness” for flying planes strapped with nuclear weapons over Northern Vietnam was tempered by his sanity in negotiations with Russia and China. Additionally, the repercussions of using nuclear weapons were so drastic that it was difficult to convince anyone he was willing to use them, especially after Russia achieved nuclear parity with the US.

President Richard Nixon. Source: Flickr

President Trump may have more success in applying the “madman strategy” because many people already see him as mad. Unlike Nixon, who tried to shift his perception from sane to insane, Trump has cultivated his unstable persona over almost a year and a half of campaigning and decades in the public eye. His perceived lack of knowledge regarding everything political may also cause opponents to see him as incapable of making rational decisions.

The strategy of irrationality is contingent on a number of assumptions. It assumes a somewhat rational opponent and a centralized decision making authority, neither of which apply to America’s most virulent enemy, ISIS. It also assumes a medium of communication to send threats over, which may be more difficult in dealings with countries with whom the US lacks diplomatic relations, like Iran and North Korea.

The utility of the strategy of irrationality is further complicated by the fact that most relationships the United States has with other countries are simultaneously oppositional and collaborative. For example, President Trump may consider France an opponent in environmental and NATO negotiations but an ally in trading. His perceived instability could give him leverage in negotiations but harm mutually beneficial relations with France.

The strategy also depends on whether President Trump is as unpredictable as candidate Trump. President-Elect Trump has already backed off from some of his more outlandish campaign trail promises. Global views of Trump are constantly shifting, especially as news comes out about his cabinet, and a method to his madness may become apparent as he makes more executive decisions.

The unpredictability of Donald Trump has brought about sleepless nights for many Americans. His perceived irrationality may damage allegiances within and without the country, but it may also give him leverage in future international conflicts. Donald Trump has always said he is a dealmaker and he might just be crazy enough to be right.