Chess and Donald Trump

If you want to understand American politics, play chess.

The fundamental rule of chess is that as soon as your king can’t deal with a threat, the game is over. “Check” is just a fancy way of saying the king is threatened; “checkmate”, a fancy way of saying the king has no escape.

There are lots of ways to deal with check. You can capture whatever enemy piece is presenting a threat. You can interpose another piece between the king and the threat to shield the king. You can move the king out of the way. The best way to escape check is to capture, but this isn’t always possible: you might not have any pieces in place to effect the capture. The next-best is to shield the king, which might give you just enough time to bring up other pieces to enact a capture.

The worst is to move the king away from the threat. At that point the king is on the run, and when kings run they usually die tired.

Finally, note what isn’t important — namely, capturing the king. Crippling the king is enough; there’s no need to remove the king from play.

You now know enough about chess to play the game without embarrassing yourself. Everything else, from how bishops move to pawn en passant captures, are just the rules by which the objective is pursued. If you know all the rules but lose sight of the objective, you’ll lose in a hurry. If you have to look them up but keep your focus on what’s important, no matter how quickly you lose you’ll have presented an honorable game.

Now let’s talk about President Trump. What does chess teach us about how to engage him?

First, it is completely unnecessary to remove him from office. Impeachment followed by conviction, the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, and voluntary resignation are all nice outcomes. They’re also unnecessary. The goal isn’t to remove Trump; the goal is to cripple him.

Attorneys will tell you that quite often you have more strength as a potential litigant than as an actual party to a lawsuit. So long as the other side is afraid you might file suit, it’s in their best interest to be conciliatory in the hopes of preventing the suit. But once that summons is delivered, alea iacta est and let slip the dogs of war: no more Mr. Nice Guy and no more negotiations.

The same applies to removing Mr. Trump from office. Removing him is not only unnecessary but counterproductive. The moment a threat to his Presidency becomes credible, every Republican on Capitol Hill is going to play a very hard balancing act: caught between needing to act like a loyal Republican to avoid primary challenges, and needing to turn on Trump in order to survive a general election, they’ll find themselves largely neutralized and unable to mount any sort of effective political front. That’s exactly what you want: a President who is under threat, and a Congress afraid to come to his aid. If the king’s survival against check involves moving pieces around, make his pieces afraid to move.

But the moment that threat moves from “credible” to “actual”, Republicans will rally around Trump regardless of how they feel about him. For a historical precedent look at President Clinton’s impeachment trial, where Democrats lined up to stand in the well of the Senate and denounce the President right before saying, “but I vote to acquit.” The moment you overplay your hand you embolden the enemy. Instead of making them afraid to move you’ll inspire them to do so sua sponte.

Point blank: the idea you’ll get 66 votes to convict in the Senate is deranged fantasy. You won’t, you can’t, get those numbers. If you’re pinning your hopes on impeachment and conviction, you’re going to be disappointed and you’re also going to damage your own cause.

But the credible threat of impeachment… now, that one has some serious potential.

Consider this: what pieces can the President marshal to his defense? He has a strong ally in Attorney General Sessions. As Attorney General, he has a tremendous ability to facilitate or impair investigations. How can you drive a wedge between the President and his Attorney General? Look for that wedge, find it, drive it hard.

He has strong allies in the Senate. Senate President Mike Pence (yes, the Vice-President of the Executive Branch is the President of the Senate) is thoroughly in his camp. The good news is that the Constitution gives the President of the Senate very little authority; far more is wielded by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

You know what’s guaranteed to not drive a wedge between Senator McConnell and the President? Calling him “Yertle the Turtle”, mocking his style of speech, or how he manages to lose fistfights against exercise equipment. When you mock him, you drive him to the President. Don’t do that. It’s silly and counterproductive. Instead, appeal to his own self-interest and point out how his own legacy would be burnished by standing up to the President.

Nobody remembers who the seniormost Republican senator was in 1973, because Senator Hugh Scott never stood up to Nixon until the day before Nixon’s resignation. Senator McConnell is at risk of being remembered as another Hugh Scott: so instead of mocking him to your like-minded friends, why not talk about how he has the opportunity to be remembered as a Republican lion?

Other strong allies: Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. The more heat that’s kept on them, the less they’ll be able to twist arms to keep Republicans in line. So write your Congressional delegation and demand investigations into the Kushners, into their business dealings, into whether they’ve improperly used their White House ties for business ends… there’s so much potential here: you can legitimately strangle them with the intestines of their own ambitions.

And keep up the heat on the President. The more he’s afraid of special counsels, of Congressional committees, of blowback from his Twitter outbursts, the more fenced-in he’ll be and the less he’ll be able to effect any kind of change.

Remember: the point is not to capture the king, it is to cripple the king. And crippling Trump will hurt him on levels you really can’t imagine. To a narcissist, helplessness is unbelievable torture.

Torture the bastard.


Right after Trump’s election there was a very fashionable sort of despondency among the Left, a whole lot of end-of-the-worldism and woe that the Apocalypse was nigh. Right after the election David Gerrold wrote, “Obamacare will be repealed … [w]e might see the end of the free press … [t]he coup is complete. America is over.”

What I said was, “The darkness is coming. But I don’t know how I’m supposed to be scared of it. I just don’t. It’s going to be unpleasant. It’s going to involve some losses. Those losses will hurt. But when I look at the people around me, how can I be afraid? When I look at the people who are with me, how can I keep from singing?”

This is me, singing. Our free press is vibrantly and vigorously engaging the President — clumsily, often inaccurately, but freely. The American Health Care Act is a dead letter: although it passed the House, the Senate has indicated they’re going to throw it out and start from scratch. And instead of a coup, we’re instead talking about impeachable offenses.

Breathe deeply. Relax. Things are so much better than you think.

And sing. May I suggest Leonard Cohen’s Democracy?

“It’s coming to America first — 
The cradle of the best and of the worst.
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst
It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way — 
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.!”