The Republicans who had been abandoning him in droves slunk back into the fold at the possibility of carpet-bombing brown people. The president loves competitive games: golf, football, board games with his face on them. Now he could tee up for the best competitive game of all: war. It could have been quite the boost and then…
When James Alex Fields drove his Challenger into a crowd of anti-fascist protesters, it ended all that rah-rah. Politicians across the spectrum chose to condemn the neo-Nazi violence by its name, white supremacist terrorism. Orrin Hatch. Chuck Schumer. John McCain. Bill Clinton. Marco Rubio. Nancy Pelosi. Terry McAuliffe. Ted Cruz. Bernie Sanders. Ivanka Trump.
The president? Eh, not so much. He was sad about the loss of life—activist Heather Heyer assassinated by Fields, and police officers H. Jay Cullen and Berke M.M. Bates killed in a copter crash—but said there were “many sides” to the violence. Hard to find the multiplicity of sides in the photo above. There’s one side in the car, and one side with its shoes flying everywhere.
This equivocation when faced with actual Nazis killing Americans met with a fiery reaction from every quarter. Republicans and Democrats called upon Trump to denounce white supremacism for once in his overly charmed life.
Well, wait, not every quarter.
At left—though I presume they’d prefer at alt-right—is the Daily Stormer, the neo-Nazi website used as an organizer for this year’s “Summer of Hate.” You don’t want to click that link. It claims that promoting violence is not allowed, but every comment there is about promoting violence. It’s about as bad a group of people as you can imagine.
One of these White Power boys just killed an innocent woman, and predictably, the Stormers are victim-shaming her. And so President Fire-and-Fury would be justified in turning on the neo-Nazi movement and making it his enemy. As I mentioned, Trump loves competitive games, and this is a game he can win. Like with North Korea and Venezuela, there’s no real danger to him for standing up to this enemy. He’d be like Nixon to China—call it “Trump to Charlottesville.”
But he had two opportunities to do so, and he didn’t take the shot. So I will presume he’s not going to. Here’s why: For him—and for almost no other politician—the game he’s playing with white supremacists isn’t competitive. It’s cooperative, and co-op games are very different from competitive ones. Since I’ve designed a lot of co-op games, I’ll spell out how they work.
Co-op games are games where everybody works towards a common goal. We win together or lose together. Hacky sack is a co-op game. So is Diablo. So is running a company. We all use our skills to help each other succeed.
In Trump’s case, he’s cooperating with white supremacists, and that cooperation helped get him elected. This game works for him, so he would be loath to cut the supremacists out of his already minuscule base. He’s got no real upside for turning away the white supremacist vote, because those who dislike him really dislike him, so he’s unlikely to gain ground. He’ll drop in popularity even if he does the right thing. Poor Donnie.
What Trump doesn’t understand about cooperation would fill a library, so I’ll just focus on two big problems of co-op games to explain why he’s flailing. The first is well known among gamers: the so-called Pandemic problem, named for the classic board game which didn’t actually invent the problem. In a co-op game, since everyone is on one side, one alpha-gamer can direct the whole game, taking everyone’s turns for them. The other players then disengage from boredom or frustration. It’s kind of awful.
Modern co-op games solve this problem by undermining the alpha-gamer, by introducing traitors or encouraging self-interest or destabilizing the value of experience. (Disclaimer: Those are all my games.) This is generally perceived as a good thing. But—and hey, stop me if you saw this coming—Trump is the ultimate alpha-gamer. Trump wants to take everyone’s turns: the Congress, the courts, the press, the FBI. Everybody should do what he wants. They don’t, because the system is designed like a modern co-op game. It undermines the alpha-gamer in favor of… well, many sides.
The second problem of co-op games is more subtle, but it’s really what could collapse the Trump/neo-Nazi coalition. When everyone playing is on the same team, the thing you depend on to hold the game together—a mutual desire to enforce the rules—suddenly disappears. In a competitive game, one side can call the other out for cheating, and the referees or other players will step in to set things right. In a co-op game, there’s no other side, so there’s no reason for the rules to be enforced other than social stigma and desire for fairness. “We start with just five cards each? Naw, let’s make it ten. And wait, we lose if we run out of cards? Screw it. How about we just win then.” Sure, you could do that. But the game might not function if you do.
I’m not privy to the rules that Trump and his racist fanboys are playing by. I’ll guess one rule was “We should not mow people down in muscle cars.” Now that rule has been broken. We’ll find out if Trump thinks that’s out of bounds. He could flip the table, threatening every one of these Nazi punks with bunker-busters and the electric chair. He could fire their dog-whistling leaders—Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, Stephen Miller, et al.—from the White House. He could join the game the rest of us are playing.
My guess is he’ll keep playing the game he’s playing now, because he thinks his team is winning. If he does, we’ll all lose together.
[Editor’s update: Donald Trump eventually fired Steve Bannon on 18 August 2017, and Sebastian Gorka left the White House on August 25, 2017.]
This was the third of a series of posts about politics and game theory. For the first post about Trump’s impeachment go here and for the second post about Trump and Russia go here. These essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.