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Trump’s High-Stakes Game of Chicken

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 17:   (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

NEW YORK, NY – FEBRUARY 17: (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In games of “chicken”—canonically, two teen boys drive their cars toward one another at breakneck speed, the one who swerves is “chicken” (and if neither swerves, then both lose and it’s small consolation to either that neither is “chicken”)—there are two ways to make the other guy swerve. One is a commitment mechanism: Tie down the steering wheel so it won’t swerve, jam the accelerator full down with a broom stick, and jump into the back seat. The second is to have the reputation of being crazy, as in being crazy enough not to swerve.

Acting crazy gets less respect than it should as a winning strategy in politics and other areas. North Korean dictators are given a wide berth in international affairs because the international community thinks they’re crazy. Overseas, George W. Bush was widely decried as a crazy belligerent. I often wondered whether he invited the reputation intentionally. After all, you steer clear of the crazy fellah, making sure you don’t provoke him. I wondered whether that might have been Bush’s strategy to maximize the projection of American influence and power across the world. If so, he was crazy like a fox.

That said, acting crazy is really a commitment to acting crazy. You can’t wink and let others in on the fact that you’re merely acting. Before playing chicken, one boy can go around yelling “I’m crazy enough not to swerve; I’m really crazy enough,” all he wants. But if others see a wink, then the threat is not credible. The other driver won’t swerve because he believes the first driver, tacitly reasonable, will. If you play crazy as a strategy, then you have to play it all in. (Consequently, there is a thinner line than people often think between acting crazy and being crazy.)

Donald Trump wants to change the national political equilibrium that has existed since World War II. And lots of Trump’s supporters support him because they want him to change, to disrupt, the national political equilibrium.

The post-World War II political equilibrium is predicated on Republicans, at least good Republicans, being reasonable. That is, good Republicans are amenable to compromise and are amenable to being problem-solvers. That was the game: Republicans compromise with what the Democrats want, and they receive praise as good Republicans—that is, praise for being reasonable problem-solvers.

Problem is, the problem-solver in a game of chicken is the one who loses. The reasonable guy is the one who swerves, giving the other guy what he wants. So Republican candidates ran against Washington, year after year after year. And then they went to Washington and played nicely with others. Republican victories were understood as reducing the rate of growth in the national government, in spending and regulation. Problem is, if Democrats advocate policies that would increase the size of the national government by 10 percent, and Republicans “win” by compromising for a five percent increase, then the national government still keeps getting bigger and bigger. It gets bigger and bigger despite the ostensible GOP victories. Indeed, it gets bigger because of the ostensible GOP victories. Compromise always and only meant government got bigger, but a little slower than the Democrats wanted it to.

Republican elites, along with the media, were in on the wink. Candidates ran as small-government conservatives in the home district, then went to Washington and compromised. They “swerved” as good Republicans were expected to swerve given the regnant national political equilibrium. The media did not report that they were hypocrites and promise-breakers. The media praised them for being reasonable and for being problem-solvers.

The first President Bush ran on the promise, “No New Taxes.” I’ve heard him explain numerous times since he lost the 1992 election that he took the reasonable course in compromising with the Democrats in Congress on that tax promise. I believe entirely his good faith judgment that it would have been crazy to reject the Democrats’ compromise. He just wasn’t crazy enough to try to change the national political equilibrium. He was fine with continuing to work within that framework.

But that’s what a good portion of his base wanted him to do. They wanted the Democrats to be the ones being reasonable and compromising; they wanted the Democrats to be the ones who swerved for Bush’s “No New Taxes.” So when Bush swerved after all, they rejected him. Crazy Ross Perot picked up a good number of those supporters in the next election.

This is what it means for Donald Trump to be a “disruptor”: He seeks actually to overturn the reigning national political equilibrium. That’s why many of his supporters supported him. Indeed, many Republicans who voted for other primary candidates, later came to support Trump (and even some “Never Trump” holdouts did so as well). Many want to see the post-1945 political equilibrium fundamentally disrupted. To be sure, many of these later supporters wanted someone a little less, um, well, crazy to be the one doing the disrupting. Others are on board with the disruption, but they aspired to a new national political equilibrium that differed significantly from the one Trump aims to create.

This is also why Trump won’t grow in office by becoming more reasonable. He can’t if he wants to change Washington. There’s no winking. The whole narrative about expecting, or wanting, Trump to “mature” as a candidate or as President is an attempt to make Trump fit into the Republicans’ role since 1945. But this role is for losers. Trump’s candidacy was predicated on exploding that narrative. The core of his base wants him to do it, and it’s what most of the Republican late comers decided they don’t mind him trying to do.

Trump isn’t winking and that’s what has the Democrats, the mainstream media, and (some) of the Never Trumpers freaking out. The stakes of the game couldn’t be higher for the Democrats and their media fellow travelers.

So we see a discussion among the Democrats. One group sees Trump as crazy enough not to swerve. So they counsel compromising with Trump in certain areas. They’re basically saying the Democrats should take the Republicans’ former role: being reasonable, and being problem-solvers.

The other Democrats recognize that this means they’re the losers. They want to continue to play the hand that’s been winning for them for 70 years. They realize this is a high-stakes game with the possibility of fundamentally redefining the national political landscape. They are scared that they might be recast as the chickens in the new political equilibrium. That’s why this set of Democrats are all in against Trump.

Of course, in the literal game of “chicken,” if neither person swerves, two people get hurt. For better or for worse, that is not the case in this game of political chicken. The outcome of this game will affect us all, whether it’s a new national political equilibrium, the maintenance of the old one, or the head-on crash of the two sides.

And it’s this last point that is the greater threat no matter what side one is on. In the canonical game of chicken, there are two equilibria in which the chance of a crash between the two drivers is zero. Those equilibria require that one driver play chicken. If, however, each driver is intent on getting the other driver to swerve, and if both drivers just might be crazy enough not to swerve, or desperate enough to avoid being seen as chicken, then there’s a chance that neither swerves and they both get more disruption than either wants. In the high-stakes political game of chicken being played today, the effects of a crash won’t be limited to injuring the contestants, but would extend to us all.

Reader Discussion

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on February 24, 2017 at 13:19:30 pm

Prof. Rogers:

Great piece>

Here is a somewhat more detailed exegesis on the matter although the essayist does not go so far as to posit a "crash".

https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2017/02/james-burnhams-managerial-elite/

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gabe
on February 24, 2017 at 14:10:30 pm

Oops, forgot to say that the linked essay is well worth the long read.
In fact: Everybody.really would enjoy it as it shows how playing the chicken has come to enable some to partake of the benefits of the "non-ckicken". Now nobody.really can't argue with that. (Hint, Hint - you will enjoy it)!

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gabe
on February 24, 2017 at 17:57:52 pm

Great post. One question. How does Reagan fit into this analysis?

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Michael Rappaport
on February 24, 2017 at 18:34:04 pm

That was the game: Republicans compromise with what the Democrats want, and they receive praise as good Republicans—that is, praise for being reasonable problem-solvers.

Problem is, if Democrats advocate policies that would increase the size of the national government by 10 percent, and Republicans “win” by compromising for a five percent increase, then the national government still keeps getting bigger and bigger. It gets bigger and bigger despite the ostensible GOP victories. Indeed, it gets bigger because of the ostensible GOP victories. Compromise always and only meant government got bigger, but a little slower than the Democrats wanted it to.

1. Why are “good Republicans” the only party being recognized as reasonable problem-solvers? Democrats want 10 percent growth, but settle for 5 percent less than they want. So each side has surrendered 5%. Why are not both sides regarded as reasonable problem-solvers? The premise seems to be that the Democrats are insincere in their desires, whereas the Republicans are the only sincere parties. What basis is there for such an opinion?

So here we see the REAL problem: People like Rogers give no credence to people who hold views that differ from their own, and give no weight to their sacrifices. Rogers values NO growth, a maximalist position, and regards everything that exceeds that as a loss. He lacks the capacity to understand that Democrats might also adopt maximalist positions and regard all compromises as a loss.

Abolitionists long remonstrated at those who would support the Missouri Compromise and other such pieces of legislation for simply limiting the expansion of slavery rather than ending the institution. In retrospect, who would dismiss their perspective? Still, compromise did have the effect of limiting the spread of slavery. It was not everything, but neither was it nothing—the maximalist perspective notwithstanding.

Nixon proposed a form of national health insurance. Maximalist Democrats rejected the offer as insufficient. History has not been kind to that perspective.

So why should we privilege a maximalist perspective today?

2. Why don’t we observe more people playing chicken? Because, for all the strategic advantages of acting crazy, this is a strategy that works for people who don’t need other people’s cooperation. So if you’re a lone driver in a car against one other lone driver, it might work for you. If you command the military that will obey orders, it might work for you. But if you need other people’s cooperation—say, in getting investors for a business, or a mutual aid relationship in NATO—then having a reputation for being crazy will pretty much torpedo your efforts.

In the short run, people who have felt frustrated and impotent in the current economy will take pride in seeing people give Trump a wide berth and deference. But when Trump starts trade wars and other nations put up tariffs against US ag exports, Trump’s base may discover that they can’t feed their kids on pride. Then they will learn that having a reputation for being a reasonable problem-solver is useful, too.

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nobody.really
on February 24, 2017 at 19:22:39 pm

"So here we see the REAL problem: People like Rogers give no credence to people who hold views that differ from their own, and give no weight to their sacrifices. Rogers values NO growth, a maximalist position, and regards everything that exceeds that as a loss. He lacks the capacity to understand that Democrats might also adopt maximalist positions and regard all compromises as a loss."

Surely, this is a rhetorical flourish on your part. You don;t actually believe that Rogers gives no credence to other viewpoints. It does serve as a good intro to the remainder of your argument; however, that argument while seemingly plausible fails to account for the repeated refusal of the Democrat Party to act "reasonably". i.e., compromise. Yep, the Abolitionists could have settled for a half-loaf, as it were, and things would have been marginally better ---BUT perhaps, they saw the contradiction in the follow-on to the Compromise, i.e., Kansas-Nebraska Act. I don;t know. What I do know is that the refusal of Democrats to compromise is more likely to be the result of their belief that they did NOT need the other Party AND, I would add, that such refusal was somewhat less highly motivated than was the concern of the Abolitionists over the continued existence of this horrid practice.

the Repubs are not without fault, I grant you. But, in case you missed my allusions above:

" Now nobody.really can’t argue with that. (Hint, Hint – you will enjoy it)! "

Go to the link:

https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2017/02/james-burnhams-managerial-elite/

You will appreciate it as it provides a somewhat more *nuanced* view of this game of chicken and one which I think will not disappoint your inquiring mind (or is that Enquiring??? - just kiddin" brudda)

Hope you like it.

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gabe
on February 28, 2017 at 04:13:39 am

Yeah, good question Michael. Painting with the same very-broad brush as the post, I'd suggest Reagan was perceived as "crazier" in the international sphere than he was in the domestic sphere. Hence his (arguably) greater, and more-permanent, success in changing the game in the international arena than he was in the domestic arena.

Of course, presidents have a freer hand in the international sphere than they do in the domestic sphere. Much of the focus in the post regarding "reasonable" Republicans in the past was more on the congressional party than the presidential party.

And regarding one of the other comments: The idea that when Republicans compromise for a five percent increase in the size of government (again simplifying greatly) relative to a Democratically-proposed increase of ten percent, that both sides have "given up" five percent, so this is a fair compromise, norms zero as the starting point for Republican compromise.

But what many Republicans advocated n the home district was actually *decreasing* the size of the national government. Say a Republican proposed a *reduction* in the size of the national government by ten percent. In light of Democratic proposals to increase governmental size by ten percent, then the split-the-difference compromise is zero growth, not a five percent increase. But any Republican who seriously pushed an actual decrease in the size of government in Washington was criticized for not being a reasonable problem solver.

The norming of zero-percent growth in the size of government as the bottom limit to Republican reasonability necessarily meant that any "compromise" on the growth of government results in positive rather than zero or negative growth. This outcome, I think, became a significant source of frustrations for Republican voters who thought they were electing legislators actually to decrease the size of the national government, not simply to increase it at a slower rate than the Democrats proposed.

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James R. Rogers
on February 28, 2017 at 10:14:30 am

Reagan was perceived as “crazier” in the international sphere than he was in the domestic sphere. Hence his (arguably) greater, and more-permanent, success in changing the game in the international arena than he was in the domestic arena.

Really? Reagan’s domestic achievements were enormous. He expanded the military. He broke the backs of unions. He revised the tax code, cut taxes, and exploded the deficit—turning the Republican from a party of deficit hawks to a party of deficit hawk hypocrites. He adopted myriad policies that exploded income inequality, as documented by Piketty. He got rid of Volker and appointed Milton Friedman to the Fed, sowing the seeds for the Great Recession. Reaganism has dominated the GOP until Trump.

In contrast, what were Reagan’s international accomplishments? He established the Reagan doctrine that the US would respond aggressively to threats from the Mideast—and got 305 people blown up at a Marine barracks in Beirut. He sold arms to Iran to fund Contras illegally. He gave military training and weapons to the Mujahideen to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and promptly abandoned them—thereby creating a political vacuum for bin Laden. He invaded Granada.

Oh, and OPEC collapsed, triggering the decline in oil prices and the end of stagflation. This also had the effect of depressing the economies of oil-exporting nations—including the USSR, which then collapsed. These events had widespread consequences, but it strains credulity to suggest that these events would not have occurred but for Reagan.

The idea that when Republicans compromise for a five percent increase in the size of government (again simplifying greatly) relative to a Democratically-proposed increase of ten percent, that both sides have “given up” five percent, so this is a fair compromise, norms zero as the starting point for Republican compromise.

But what many Republicans advocated n the home district was actually *decreasing* the size of the national government….

The norming of zero-percent growth in the size of government as the bottom limit to Republican reasonability necessarily meant that any “compromise” on the growth of government results in positive rather than zero or negative growth. This outcome, I think, became a significant source of frustrations for Republican voters who thought they were electing legislators actually to decrease the size of the national government, not simply to increase it at a slower rate than the Democrats proposed.

Great. And what many Democrats advocate is European-style single-payer healthcare and free college education, and a de facto end to various forms of discrimination, not just de jure . They and their constituents have been compromising since forever.

And as health care and college have gotten ever more expensive, the burdens of this compromise have grown ever larger for Democrats. This outcome, I think, became a significant source of frustrations for Sanders-type voters who thought they were electing legislators actually to achieve these outcomes, not merely to slow the growth in the gap between affordability and average incomes.

In short, I can find no substance to this “I’ve had to compromise more than you!” argument. As far as I can tell, it’s an arbitrary exercise in picking reference points. I don’t mean to disparage acknowledging that people actually think this way. I merely mean to emphasize that people on either end of the political spectrum can, and do, make the same arguments, while ignoring the equally valid (or equally invalid) arguments of their counterparts.

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nobody.really
on February 28, 2017 at 14:22:28 pm

He adopted myriad policies that exploded income inequality, as documented by Piketty.

This just in from Piketty: tWhat has happened to the bottom 50% of adults in China, France, and the US since 1978 (the eve of the Reagan Administration)?

China: Real per capital income up 401%. (Share of national earnings fell 27.5% to 15.0%.)

France: Real per capital income up 39%. (Share of national income held steady at 22.5%.)

US: Real per capita income down 1%. (Share of national income fell from 20% to 12.5%.)

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nobody.really
on February 28, 2017 at 14:58:58 pm

Yep - but it does make a difference if you look at what happened DURING the Reagan years and NOT add in another 30 years which have seen two major market meltdowns, the spread of global trading / markets, and the *growth* inducing policies of Barrack Hussein Obama. (OK, throw in W's waste of national treasure pursuing the folly of Progressive "nation building" efforts in the Mid East).

As for China, quite easy to raise income by 401% when you start with a an income level that was (AND STILL IS FOR MOST CHINESE) considered well below poverty level.

France is an interesting one as there national growth had seemed to stall for many years. How much of that is the result of government mandated enhancements to wages and benefits? Hmmm! don;t know.

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gabe
on February 28, 2017 at 15:02:01 pm

"As far as I can tell, it’s an arbitrary exercise in picking reference points"

yeah BUT government expenditures REALLY tell the story, don;t they. If this were but a mere partisan argument, one would suppose that the budgetary facts / data would indicate that the arguments were indeed arbitrary.
Yet, the government has grown considerably AND the Democrat Party has consistently decried as *cuts* the smaller increases that the GOP has agreed to.

Ain;t nothing arbitrary about.

Nice try - but the narrative has reemerged, hasn't it?

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gabe
on March 02, 2017 at 11:11:59 am

So here is an update on nobody's claim that France is doing well. (From Am spectator on 3/2/17)

"Economically speaking, France is hardly a poor country. In terms of nominal GDP, France has the world’s tenth-largest economy. Yet some of the most obvious manifestations of France’s problems are economic.

Unemployment, for instance, has hovered between 9.5 and 10.5 percent since 2012. During that same period, youth unemployment has gone from 23 to 26 percent, labor costs have steadily increased, and annual GDP growth averaged a mere 1 percent or so. Since 2013, the ratio of government debt to GDP has surpassed 90 percent. This is the ratio, many economists argue, at which government debt starts to negatively impact growth. State expenditures, incidentally, have consumed over 56 percent of annual GDP since 2009."

Yep, ole France is really a dynamo!

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gabe

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