Thursday, March 09, 2017

Crazy Like a Fox

One possible interpretation of Trump's actions is that he is ignorant, stupid, impulsive and thin skinned. During the campaign the obvious implication, which many drew, was that he had done and would continue doing stupid things that would lose him the nomination or, if he somehow got the nomination, the election.

That did not happen. When your theory confidently predicts something that does not happen, it is worth considering that the theory may be wrong. 

Additional evidence against that theory comes from Trump's earlier history. His finances are not public knowledge and some have argued, for all I know correctly, that he would have done at least as well if he had invested his inherited wealth in a collection of low risk interest bearing assets. But he didn't. He engaged in a long and risky series of entrepreneurial projects. If he was as incompetent as many seem to believe, he would by now have lost all or most of his money. 

That suggests an alternative interpretation, that while Trump may indeed be impulsive and thin skinned he is not stupid, that the apparently stupid things he did were for the most part tactics that were intended to win and did win, that it was not Trump who did not understand what he was doing but his critics. 

Hence the title of this post.

How well does that fit what has happened since the election? 

The initial travel ban made very little sense as a way of preventing Islamic terrorism  but quite a lot as a way of giving Trump the image of doing everything he could to defend America from Islamic terrorism. Seen from that standpoint, even its poor design made sense as a way of provoking noisy and passionate opposition, making his opponents in the Democratic party and the mass media seem to be soft on terrorism. It isn't as if the average voter can be expected to pay attention to the details.

The oddest thing about the response of Trump's critics to his moves is the implicit assumption which they would surely disavow if were made explicit—that Trump's motives are benign. On the assumption that his objective was to make America better, his actions look stupid. But not if his purpose was to promote his own power and status. 

The theory I am offering also explains the accusation that Obama tapped Trump's phone. As best I can tell, there is no evidence that it is literally true. But there is evidence, reported in the New York Times more than a month ago, that federal agents acted under a FISA warrant to tap the communications of some members of Trump's team in the Trump Tower. There is probably no evidence that they did so at Obama's urging or in order to provide information to him, but there probably would be no evidence of that even if it were true.

Obama, the New York Times and the rest of the opposition could have responded to Trump's charge by denying that Obama had tapped Trump while conceding that some around him had been tapped as part of a legal investigation, a fact reported a month or more before Trump made his charge. They could even have suggested that confusing the two claims was evidence of Trump's weak hold on reality. Perhaps some did. But the overall impression of their response as I saw it and, I suspect, as most others saw it, was that it amounted to "That's absurd, Trump must be crazy, nothing of the sort happened."

At which point Trump's supporters could respond that something of the sort, even if not exactly the same thing, had not only happened, it had been reported in the New York Times. That might not convince someone paying close attention to the two claims and the differences between them, but not many voters would be. Making people less willing to trust the mass media, especially when they are criticizing Trump, is a win for Trump.

When I offered arguments along these lines in a Facebook comment thread, the response I got, at least implicitly, was that by denying Trump's incompetence I was defending Trump and that Trump defenders were not worth listening to. My response, that assuming your opponents are stupid when they are not is a very dangerous mistake, fell on deaf ears.


An earlier version of this argument.


Unknown said...

Which New York Times article are you referring to?

David Friedman said...


The one I linked "could respond" to.

Wirkman Virkkala said...

I've suspected this for a long time. I also have written this up on Facebook, as well as on my various blogs and micro blogs.

The Stupid Theory — that is, the theory that Trump is crazy, stupid, or incompetent, and thus a standing threat to America — seems implausible. For the reasons you gave. And most especially for how swiftly Trump has worked to get his agenda in motion. His tweets seem to be feints, fake-outs. And the only stupid people, to me, are those falling for it.

Of course, I could be wrong. And I never supported the man, not even with my measly little vote. So I don't wish to be seen as defending him.

But "know your enemy" is the first rule of war and the second rule of politics.

It seems to me that Trump's opponents are being fooled over manners, style.

Which they would say is a sign of superficiality — in others.

Unknown said...

I think the mystery here is that Trump is drawing attention to a FISA Court warrant against his own team. If a 'tapp' did occur, it was pretty clearly as a result of a warrant, and that warrant was granted in response to probable cause. Does Trump understand the implications if his accusation is proven true? If he's crazy like a fox, wouldn't he have picked a distraction with fewer negative consequences?

bruce said...

'One possible interpretation of Trump's actions is that he is ignorant, stupid, impulsive, and thin-skinned.'

'thin-skinned' can be a sign of weakness, or the predatory touchiness of someone who wants a fight. Or both. It's reasonably clear that Trump enjoys conflict, so I'd go with that, or both.

Douglas Knight said...

I don't think that NYT article is a good example. Like the Flynn wiretaps they might have been from a routine tap of Russian agents. But the BBC claimed (FISA) wiretaps specifically aimed at Trump, and, more weakly, the Guardian.

Also, here is an ex-MP claiming knowledge of FISA wiretaps on the day before the election.

Jim Rose said...

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame has been arguing for a long time that the media seriously underestimate Trump as a strategist and communicator

Hansjörg Walther said...

Trump is not an investor like, say, Warren Buffett who diligently selects a few strategic bets with a long-term view. He is a day-trader who opportunistically tries to exploit short-term trends. Basically, that is gambling, and it is probably no coincidence that Trump used to be in the casino business.

On a moderately efficient market and with so many bets, the law of large numbers will get you. The net effect should be that you earn an average return minus a lot of costs and extreme variation (bankruptcy was never far for him). On a risk-adjusted basis, this is stupid. But if you don't overdo it, it may stay in an acceptable range.

Maybe the "political market" is not as efficient: there are perhaps lots of moves that others have overlooked. If so, creating a lot of noise (Trump's chaotic management style) has its benefits. You learn a lot about the blackbox you send your signals into. Trump was much better at capturing short-term moods than his competitors, he could latch on to surprising turns, and play the fast news cycle.

He could also test his moves over and over again, and build on what worked. Yes, "Hillary's 30,000 emails" or "bad hombres" were in the race as possible talkingpoints, but how would he have known they would work so well? A more cautious politician would have pulled back after the first criticism. But with his high-variance strategy, he could find such opportunities.

There is still the question: Why would Trump take so much risk for so little gain (at least in business)? People who are risk-adverse find that stupid, and it is. But then, it looks like he relishes risk for its own sake. He would implode if he did not have to fight continually and on multiple fronts. He feels alive and powerful when he does that. And like a day-trader he will keep only his winning bets in mind, and forget about his losses.

Anonymous said...


The Lid article you link to quotes a Times article that doesn't say Trump's associates were wire-tapped; it says "American law enforcement and intelligence agencies are examining intercepted communications and financial transactions...", which would be consistent with wire-tapping only Russian diplomats, Russian banks, etc. and catching Trump associates only to the extent that they choose to contact Russian diplomats, Russian banks, etc. I understand that's what happened with Michael Flynn: he wasn't wire-tapped, but Ambassador Kislyak was, including his conversations with Flynn.

Douglass Knight links to a BBC commentary that discusses a FISA warrant dated Oct. 15, but this FISA warrant is nominally directed only at Russian banks, not at anybody on the Trump team; if Trump-team communications were intercepted under the warrant, it would be only their communications with the specific Russian banks in question.

As for Trump's financial competence, I haven't studied it closely, but I get the impression that his greatest business skills are (a) persuading people to invest in his projects, and (b) getting his own money out of a project just before it goes under, leaving his investors to cover the losses. When one of his projects goes well, he and his investors make money. When one of his projects goes badly, he makes money and his investors lose money. That's a good way to make money, but also a good way to lose future partners.

David R. Henderson said...

Excellent analysis. I’m still trying to figure him out too. My failure to predict either his nomination or his election humbled me. I did, however, win a bet that he would outlast Jeb Bush.

Unknown said...

Jim R beat me to it, but I was going to mention Scott Adams as well. He's been writing about Trump since the early debates when he predicted Trump would win the presidency. Before any primaries, just based on this "Master Persuader" skills he saw displayed in the early debates. His initial post "Clown Genius" is the one he predicts Trump will win. In August. Of 2015. And throughout the campaign he wrote almost exclusively about Trump and persuasion.

Nicknames like "Crooked Hillary" and "Lyin Ted" are created to induce confirmation bias. When stuff about Hillary's emails comes out, everyone is already primed with "Crooked Hillary" in their heads. He A/B tests as well. "Build the Wall", "Drain the Swamp" are slogans he would test at his rallies and would continue if they got a good reception. Same with Twitter. Saying he's worth $10 billion creates an anchor. Doesn't matter what it actually is, he has you starting at that big, round number. The list goes on and on.

jdgalt said...

I'm not at all surprised that Facebook has plenty of users with short attention spans and leftist bias. The site is all about immediate sound-bite type news, and is known for expelling or shadowbanning people like Milo who challenge "social justice" orthodoxy.

Indeed, I expect rightists and/or libertarians to create a Facebook substitute soon, just as they have already created to replace Twitter and to replace Wikipedia.

I agree somewhat with your theory of why Trump does what he does. But I also believe he does have a somewhat libertarian agenda (at least to the extent of wanting to fire lots of civil servants) that is so hated in Congress that he has to be sneaky to get any of it accomplished at all. Thus I expect him to get better results than most of his detractors on the right expect, for the same reason that Reagan and your father largely failed to get those results. Reagan began by compromising and got nowhere. Trump has begun by establishing a phony far-right "starting position," which he can then seem to "compromise" by a lot without giving up anything he really wants. This is what an expert negotiator does. Scott Adams understands that. The top Democrats do also, but they would have preferred that knowledge to continue to be exclusively theirs.

Anonymous said...

To make things worse, NYT apparently went into their archives and changed the headline of that story from "wire tapped" to "surveilled"

David Friedman said...


As I understand the law, a FISA warrant has to claim that the target is someone outside the country. But if they are tapping communications between a Trump associate and a Russian bank they are tapping the Trump associate, whether or not the basis for the warrant was the other end of the call

Anonymous said...

But one doesn't normally tap a particular communication, IIUC; one taps "all known communication lines to a particular destination". One usually gets both sides of the conversation, but there's a big difference (substantively, legally, even politically) between collecting all conversations with a particular target, including those with your political opponent, and collecting all conversations between your political opponent and ANYBODY.

Now, it's certainly possible that the intelligence community (with or without Obama's knowledge) compiled a list of known Trump foreign contacts and tried to come up with justifications for wire-tapping many of them, as an "end run" around limitations on directly wire-tapping a U.S. citizen. But I don't know of any evidence that that actually happened: we know that they wire-tapped the Russian ambassador to the U.S. (no surprise at all) and got a FISA warrant to tap two Russian banks.

Eric Rasmusen said...

Someone said, “The press takes Trump literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”

Similarly but not exactly the same, it seems that Trump is often wrong in his specific statements but right in the idea he is communicating, while what the media says is literally true but deliberately misleading.

Academics care a lot about literal correctness, but much less about whether the general idea is correct or not. We narrow the questions so we can get precise answers, but we usually don’t broaden the questions again afterwards so we can see if our precise answer has relevance to the real question of interest. That’s inherent in what we do, but it builds knowledge more than wisdom.

Eric Rasmusen said...

Trump started by using a common ecological strategy. One reason birds travel in a flock is that when a predator attacks, there are so many targets that the predator gets confused and ends up chasing all and getting none of them. Does anybody know the name of that strategy? I'm sure it must have some scientific term. Anyway, Trump threw out an issue a day and the media chased them all and weren't able to use their usual approach of pounding one story repeatedly for 14 days in a row. Thus, rather than the voters ending up thinking that Trump is totally wrong on A and B, they end up thinking that Trump is sure in the news a lot, though I can't remember why because there are too many different things, but it does show that he's accomplishing a lot!

Dick and Maryke Brannin said...

Thanks for expressing an idea and analysis that I have not come too. I basically assume that Trump just shoots his mouth off with little thought to the consequences, and I wish he would stop. But he does impact the ongoing debate and maybe he actually is thoughtful in doing so-- a surprise to me.

Benjamin Cole said...

I think this post is largely correct.

Sure, the bombastic Trump makes errors. Careful and sensitive Jimmy Carter made errors, and once referred to neighborhoods protecting their "ethnic purity."

But Trump won the nomination going away, and nearly won the election (he lost but won in the Electoral College).

The big story is this: Can Trump avoid fantastically expensive foreign entanglements, and can he tighten up US labor markets?

Unknown said...

There is no question that Trump is not stupid people do not become President. (See George W. Bush.)

Nor is he crazy in the normal meaning of unhinged from reality. He has always worked in an environment of immediacy and chaos and is comfortable there. That has continued to work in a political environment of a country, more or less, at peace and economically stable.

We need to ask what will happen when we are faced with a crisis. At that point trying to destabilize and misdirect with wild inaccurate statements will have profoundly negative consequences. What happens if there is a military incident, however unintentional, in the South China Sea? What happens if American and Russian forces collide fighting in Syria? What happens if there is a recession in America?

No one has any idea and that is a very frightening thought.

Tom Mazanec said...

I voted for Trump for precisely one reason.
Right to Life endorsement.
It is as if the two people in the country I least wanted to win were running against each other.
If Trump is Crazy Like a Fox, is this good for the country? Would a selfish president do more or less harm to the nation than a stupid one?
And BTW, I think it should be "Crazy Like a Stoat". Stoats spin, jump, roll over, chase their tails and in every way try to look like they are going in six directions at once.
So a curious rabbit stares at the furry lunatic, and gradually comes closer to get a better look, until...
I leave this part blank to spare the feelings of any innocent children reading this.

Anonymous said...

Some good points on Trump's strategy:

Stephen R. Diamond said...

There are other reasons to think Trump stupid besides apparent political mistakes. Is his impoverished vocabulary and lack of general knowledge part of an act? Seems unlikely. Also, I think he _lookss_ stupid (and the physical appearance of stupidity has a fair correlation with being stupid). My hypothesis is that he suffers from dementia (explaining why he was smarter when he was making his fortune). A test is whether, when younger, his verbiage was more complex.