Tit for Tat: The Right Strategy for Beating Trump

February 1, 2017

Tit for Tat is a well known, winning strategy for two sides locked in perpetual conflict. Richard Dawkins, in his documentary, “Nice Guys Finish First”, examined this strategy in the light of evolution. Game theorists took his conclusions and tested them, and “tit for tat” came out the clear winner.

Dawkins described 4 conditions of the strategy (from Wikipidia):

1. Unless provoked, the agent will always cooperate.
 2. If provoked, the agent will retaliate.
 3. The agent is quick to forgive.
 4. The agent must have a good chance of competing against the opponent more than once.

The Democratic Party, over the course of the last 10 years, seems to have been woefully ignorant of these principles, or at least it has changed #1 into “the agent will always cooperate”, ignored #2, eagerly implemented #3, and ignored completely #4. But the strategy’s effectiveness depends on the equality of ALL the conditions, not just a couple of them.

As a result, the Republicans have run roughshod over the Democrats. They have depended on the Democrats’ willingness to forgive in the face of the most hostile provocations. By gerrymandering and voter intimidation, they have severely limited the Democrats’ chance of competing.

Retaliation is the starting point. Republicans have spent the last 8 years being the party of no, going so far as to deny a hearing for Obama’s Supreme Court pick. So what does retaliation mean in this context? It means that Democrats must now become the party of NO. They must obstruct the Trump administration in every conceivable but peaceful way. To start,this means:

1) Withhold consent for any new activity that requires unanimous consent from the Senate.
2) Refuse to pass any legislation. They should not even name a Post Office until the ban is lifted!

That means, for example, that examining Supreme Court nominee Gorsuch on the merits is a fruitless exercise. His nomination itself is illegitimate. It means utilizing every possible method to block Trump’s nominees. Resistance = retaliation in kind.

So what about the 3rd point, forgiveness? I don’t believe this means blanket forgiveness. If you have an opponent who has socked you in the face 20 times in a row, and then stops to take a breather, you don’t bend over and say, “OK, all is forgiven.” No, forgiveness should be doled out on a case by case basis. If, for example, Trump were to put Merrit Garland forward as his candidate and the Senate confirmed him (as if that would ever happen!), then the Democrats could adopt a more forgiving, i.e. cooperative, nature on the next Supreme Court nominee.

Note, though, that retaliation comes first, not forgiveness! Without retaliation, forgiveness is meaningless.

It is clear that the “establishment” Democrats are not inclined to act this way. They hold onto their dream of working everything out amicably and hoping Trump will “pivot.” This was the catastrophic mistake made in Germany in 1932. German citizens assumed that once Hitler took power, through the Emergency Decree, he would become “more responsible” and “tone down” his historical anti-semitism. But as Obama rightly pointed out — power usually doesn’t change your personality; it magnifies it.

That doesn’t mean autocrats and dictators don’t respond to Tit for Tat; they definitely do. But if their opposition ignores the rules of Tit for Tat, they take that as blanket permission to continue their destruction of democratic norms.

The adoption of Tit for Tat by our elected representatives will not happen by magic. There is only one thing that will make it happen: widespread, public, peaceful revolt. Every representative who embraces the strategy should be lauded; every representative who continues to capitulate should be voted out of office.

This will require organization on a mass level. Signing petitions will not be enough. A plethora of organizations have arisen on the ashes of Trump’s scorching of democracy: Indivisible, Resist!, MoveOn, and many others.

Our very nation is at stake. We better fight for it with all our heart and soul, or we will bequeath to our children a very dark future indeed.


Looking to do your part? One way to get involved is to read the Indivisible Guide, which is written by former congressional staffers and is loaded with best practices for making Congress listen. Or follow this publication, connect with us on Twitter, and join us on Facebook.

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