Donald Trump, Twitter, and the OODA Loops

Donald Trump’s second place finish in Iowa last night could damage his brand as a winner, but he has the tools to come back.

Last summer, he used speed, confusion, and a clearly defined brand to dominate his presidential primary opponents on social media.

How did he do it? It all starts with some military strategy.

Get OODA Here

In the U.S. Marine Corps maneuver warfare manual, there’s a fair amount of attention devoted to a concept called OODA loops. Trump himself may or may not know about OODA loops as a formal concept, but he certainly takes full advantage of it.

Here’s how OODA loops work: When military commanders direct their forces on a battlefield, they all go through the same mental process:

  1. Observe: First, they take stock of the conditions they face.
  2. Orient: Second, they orient themselves and their forces within those conditions.
  3. Decide: Third, they make a decision about what to do.
  4. Act: Fourth, they do it.

O-O-D-A. Once the commander has acted, it’s time to observe the consequences, and the cycle begins anew. Thus, a loop.

Fancy graphics notwithstanding, it’s pretty simple, and it’s actually something all humans do. Most of it even happens at a subconscious level.

The advantage of being able to break it down like this, though, is that if you can disrupt your opponent’s loops, you can utterly dominate him.

There are two primary ways to disrupt your opponent’s OODA loops:

  1. Speed: If you can get through your loops faster than your opponent, you can act while he’s still orienting or deciding. He has to re-observe, and he never gets to act.
  2. Ambiguity: If you can confuse your opponent, his Orient and Decide phases will take longer, and you get the advantage again

Donald Trump does both of these extremely well using little more than his Twitter account, and he’s able to do it because he’s so well grounded in his own brand. What’s his brand made of?

The Trump Brand

Like any brand, Trump’s political brand is based in a set of values. Sometimes a brand’s values get muddled, which leads to confusion and poor performance — but not in Trump’s case. His values are simple and clear:

  1. Strength
  2. Winning
  3. Racism

Since these values are so clearly defined, Trump doesn’t have to spend as much time as his opponents on the Orient and Decide phases of his OODA loops. Once he observes a situation, he has only to orient himself according to these three criteria.

Compare that to an opponent like Jeb! Bush. Other than omitting his last name from his campaign logo and thereby distancing himself from the Bush family brand, what values does he stand for?

Whatever Jeb!’s values are, they’re more complicated than Trump’s, and that means it’s more complicated for Bush to Orient himself to changing conditions. He has to bring in more consultants and advisors to help him. And that slows him down compared to Trump.

Case Study: Trump’s Anchor Babies Trap

Last August, Trump drove a lot of news coverage based on his use of the term “anchor babies.” The term refers to pregnant non-American women who come to the United States to deliver their babies so that the children will be U.S. citizens and help “anchor” the family in this country. It’s not the kind of term you would typically use out of empathy.

Because of the media environment created by Trump, on August 19th, Jeb! felt compelled to use the term himself. But oh was it awkward and stiff. It fit Trump’s brand better than his, and in any event, he couldn’t take the heat.

By August 24th, Jeb! tried to walk it back. Unfortunately, his version of “walking it back” was trying to claim he was referring to Asian-Americans, not Hispanic-Americans like everyone assumed! So, A+ to Jeb! for missing the point.

But that’s when Trump swung into action.

That night, Trump tweeted out an attack on Jeb! for not using his last name in his logo. The message: Jeb! isn’t a strong winner like me.

The next morning, right before reporters on the East Coast were reporting for work and figuring out what to write about, Trump changed direction. He hit Jeb! with a couple of tweets on the anchor babies flap and how Jeb! had offended Asian-Americans.

Different attack, same message: Jeb! isn’t a strong winner like me. On top of that, this story drove massive amounts of news coverage.

And how did Jeb! respond? Well…wait a minute, barely two hours later, Trump is switching it up again, attacking Jeb! for misunderstanding the difference between a fence and a wall. (No one who’s a strong winner would make that mistake.)

Then the next day, Trump gave a speech in Iowa where he mocked stereotypical Asian-American speech patterns. That obviously contradicted his stand against Jeb! offending Asian-Americans, but remember that racism is a core brand value. And he did it with so much confidence, how could he not be a strong winner?

Then the day after that, he attacked Jeb! over an endorsement from a defeated former Republican congressman. Defeated congressmen are definitely not winners.

All that bouncing around may have made it seem like Trump was distracted, but it was actually vitally important. It completely broke the script for politics.

That’s because in politics, everyone knows the drill: if you find an attack that sticks, you flog it until it stops sticking. If you’re the one being attacked, you come up with talking points to counter the attack and pivot the discussion to friendlier ground. Eventually everyone moves on and the tug-of-war to control the debate starts anew.

But by shifting attacks so quickly — and by giving up on attacks even though they were working and gaining traction — Trump never let Jeb! get to the Act phase. Jeb! never got to pivot.

Trump’s Brand Goes Up, Jeb!’s Goes Down

In this episode, as in several others, Trump moved fast, and Jeb! couldn’t keep up. Jeb! didn’t know where Trump would hit him next. He didn’t know his own brand as well as Trump knew his. He tried to rush through his Orient phase, and he made major slip-ups.

Throughout the ensuing autumn, Jeb! took a nose dive in the polls. Meanwhile, Trump looked strong. He looked like a winner. After all, he had just vanquished a credible contender for the leader of the free world. And last but not least, he got to use some racism, which is apparently what he’s going for.

As long as Trump comes out of his Iowa loss without looking like a loser, he can live to do this another day. And he’s already started the brand repair work.