What Game Theory Tells Us About Donald Trump
Unfortunately for Trump, not all adversaries are as hapless as the Republican presidential hopefuls. Unlike game-theory automatons, humans can identify the tit-for-tat strategy and use the knowledge to manipulate their opponents. That is Trump’s weak spot, a dangerous one if he were to become president. Savvy operators like Putin would soothe Trump with praise while quietly undercutting American interests. Conversely, adversaries who wanted to drag America into diplomatic or military quarrels could provoke Trump’s fury with well-placed barbs.
Hillary Clinton could also exploit Trump’s weakness to defeat him, but she’ll have to be clever about it. She can’t entirely take the high road, as Jeb Bush originally attempted; leaving Trump’s insults unanswered would make her look weak and allow him to define her. On the other hand, she cannot win a tit-for-tat insult war with him. At best, the two of them would fall into what game theorists call a “death spiral,” wherein both players repeatedly counterattack and obliterate each other. Trump, with less gravitas to lose, would come out ahead.
There is another way. Trump’s biggest mistake during the primary was to feud with people who were not running against him. His battle with Fox News host Megyn Kelly alienated women voters and caused him to miss an important debate. His denigration of John McCain’s war record may not have destroyed his candidacy, as some pundits predicted, but it certainly didn’t help. And calling Iowa voters “stupid” after Ben Carson surged in the polls was, itself, stupid.
Clinton can exploit Trump’s propensity to retaliate against anyone who crosses him by deploying surrogates to batter him with a fusillade of insults. If Trump were smart, he would ignore them and focus on Clinton, but his reaction to Elizabeth Warren’s tweets suggests he cannot resist the urge to counterpunch, even when it doesn’t serve his interests. With every over-the-top smackdown, he will distract voters from his message and deflate whatever presidential gravitas he manages to muster.
Under this theory, the most effective Trump provocateurs would be popular public figures — politicians, journalists, even celebrities — who aren’t afraid to hit him hard and draw his fire. Most important is Clinton’s vice presidential choice. She might do well to pick a brawler who is willing to spend the next six months in an ugly slugfest with Trump, ideally a woman or minority who will draw out Trump’s bigotry and provoke him into alienating even more voters. While Trump tangles with Clinton’s surrogates, hurling epithets and lunging in every direction, she could safely fly above the storm, looking presidential and prudent. The more she played him, the less he’d look like a tough guy, and the more he’d look like a dangerous and erratic chauvinist who mistakes flattery for admiration and jumps at shadows while his opponents run circles around him.
Both Clinton’s advantage and disadvantage is that she’s tasked with outwitting the human equivalent of a four-line computer program.
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