The GOP is on a collision course with Robert Mueller. In the two weeks since Mueller indicted Michael Flynn and everyone figured out that Trump is toast, FOX News apparatchiks and their allies in Congress have been eager to smear him and the FBI over the tiniest of breaches. Their efforts to delegitimize the investigation against Trump are transparent, vapid, and possibly effective. Except for one thing: Mueller is the wrong person to play chicken with.
Chicken is a classic puzzle in game theory, but unlike such arcane constructs as the prisoner’s dilemma, everybody understands it. Two idiots get in cars and drive toward each other at high speed. There’s a one-lane bridge between these idiots. If they both continue at their current speed, the idiots will crash and kill each other. But if one or both idiots veers away, they will bypass each other and live to be idiots on another day. This really happens.
Chicken has a bizarre payoff matrix. Obviously, the payoff for both not veering is complete disaster. Both idiots die, and everybody they knew shakes their heads and says, “Of course that happened.” But if either veers, his payoff should be zero. Nothing bad happens. Nothing at all. All he’s done is let someone go by. But the payoff isn’t zero.
The game’s name tells you why it isn’t zero. It comes from an implied rebuke: that whichever idiot decides not to be an idiot is less of a man. (And trust me, it’s always a man.) There is a minor loss payoff to being the only one to veer, and a minor gain to being the only one to drive through, because the veerer is perceived as not even a real man. He’s a callow bird. Who wants to be callow? Just man up and plow your hot rod into another real man. Then, after you beneficently remove yourself from the gene pool, we’ll tell people you weren’t a loser. Honest, we will, Mr. Totally-Not-a-Chicken.
So back to the GOP and Mueller. The GOP is bulleting its car toward Mueller. Should they think he’ll veer? Well, let’s review what Mueller has done.
- First, he indicted Paul Manafort and his flunky Rick Gates with the clear intention of putting them behind bars for years. Prior to that, he night-raided Manafort’s house. This is not kidding around. It’s a clear statement to other conspirators that this could be you.
- Second, he flipped George Papadopolous and kept it secret for three weeks after indicting him. During that time, Papadopolous cooperated with Mueller’s team, likely wearing a wire to catch the malefactors cold.
- Third, he bonded with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to undercut the president’s statement that he could pardon anyone. Not for state crimes, he can’t. Say, what state do Trump and Kushner and his cronies live and work in? Oh, that’s right.
- Fourth, he indicted Flynn—whom he could have gotten on anything from obstruction to kidnapping—on the lesser crime of lying to the FBI, sending a message that he could have thrown the book at Flynn and his dumb kid. He didn’t, because Flynn is ratting on Trump or someone very close to him.
- Fifth, he interviewed everyone except those most endangered by his probe: the president, the vice president, and the attorney general. He has subpoenaed Trump’s bank accounts and likely has his tax records, in defiance of Trump’s demand to stay away from his personal finances.
- Sixth, he left sealed indictments hiding in plain sight, and painted his indictment of Manafort and Gates as “indictment B,” leaving everyone to wonder who is the target of “indictment A.” (Flynn isn’t, as he was indicted in a different court, and Papadopolous wasn’t indicted at all.)
- Finally, he has said almost nothing.
That is a stone-cold assassin right there. If the GOP thinks Mueller will swerve into a ditch to avoid being hit, it is fooling itself. Mueller will continue driving toward the bridge, because his job is to drive toward the bridge. The Mueller investigation is a self-driving car. It’s got a destination, and it’s going to get there as long as it has a mandate to do so. Mueller will take this threat in stride and unseal indictments against higher and higher ranking officials.
Some bright bulbs in the GOP think they’re playing chicken with someone else: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. With his boss Jeff Sessions recusing himself (and likely a target of the investigation), Rosenstein has the responsibility to decide whether Mueller continues. So they hauled him before Congress to grill him about Mueller. Wrong guy here too. He said he saw no reason to change course. Asked whether he was afraid of Trump firing him, Rosenstein laughed, “No, I am not, Congressman.” He has no reason to be, since a Saturday Night Massacre ends the Trump presidency. He’s got more job security than his boss, by an Alabama mile.
Neither of these men are veering. They don’t fear the bridge. So the only question is whether the GOP will turn their car aside. After the results of elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and most importantly Alabama, the GOP has to have the self-awareness to know it’s heading for a catastrophic crash. The words “2018 wave election” are now in the public consciousness. Even Newt Gingrich understands that the party must adapt or be run out of town.
Newt doesn’t want the GOP clown car to crash. I expect most GOP senators and governors don’t either. But the House is filled with idiots hopped up on gerrymandering and brimstone. It feels like they’re driving the car, doesn’t it?
Buckle up, America.
This is the tenth installment of a series of posts on politics and game theory. I’ve now covered impeachment, Russian collusion, white supremacy,abortion, guns, nuclear war, the deficit, the NFL, and sexual harassment. These essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.