In the last year, I’ve funneled my rage into writing a bunch of Medium pieces about game theory and politics, more than a few about President Trump. As someone who studies games and people for a living, I’ve wondered something I never pondered before this year: Is it possible to tank the presidency?
It’s not a crazy concept. Tanking—intentionally losing now to gain later—sure looks like what the president is doing. Consider this annus horribilis.
Let’s break it down.
- His approval ratings have been catastrophic, consistently in the mid-30s. His first three quarters are the three worst first three quarters since there were ratings. At Christmas, he’s the least popular president ever.
- He has avoided anything that could improve his approval ratings, such as being less racist, being less sexist, or being less lazy.
- He hasn’t looked like he likes the job, spending more than 100 days in 2017 at his own properties rather than the White House.
- He has backed losing candidates, even twice picking losers in Alabama’s Senate race, with a full-throated endorsement of an alleged child molester.
- He has attacked members of his own party as much as the opposition.
- He hasn’t filled most of the jobs in his administration, and has had a revolving door on those he has filled.
- Instead of leading with what could’ve been a popular infrastructure bill—because, y’know, he builds things—he started by failing to dismantle Obamacare and then backing a historically unpopular tax bill.
- He’s probably going to have to fire his special prosecutor to keep his son and son-in-law out of prison, which could get him impeached.
This is remarkably unimpressive even for a boorish fool like Trump. It’s unclear that he wants to be president for a full term, despite launching his campaign for a second term immediately upon assuming the office. So why would he want to behave this way? The Hanlon’s razor is that he’s just bad at everything and this is all that we can expect from him. My tendency is to believe that, because I never attribute to malice what I can to incompetence.
But the more I look at it from a game theory viewpoint, the more I think it is malice. I think he’s intentionally not succeeding at being president. Why is unclear. There’s the Russian plant possibility, but that’s too spy-drama for me. Maybe he wants to destroy trust in institutions. Maybe he’s a broken person on the inside. Whatever the reason, his behavior is consistent with tanking.
To understand why, it might help to see what motivates a sports team to tank. When you tank, you intentionally lose games to gain later. One reason to do so is to pick your playoff opponent. In a Olympic game versus Slovakia, the 2006 Swedish hockey team intentionally lost 3–0; at one point, they failed to log a shot on goal in a 5-on-3 with five NHL stars on the ice. In doing so, they avoided facing either of the previous two gold-medal teams and went on to win gold. If you can choose a lesser foe by losing, you have no reason to win.
But for the most part, teams that tank aren’t in danger of making the playoffs. They tank to gain higher draft picks. Drafts are ordered by loss records (maybe altered by ping pong balls), so having a lower win total means gaining better players, at least in theory.
The NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers are this decade’s tanking poster child, securing four consecutive top-3 picks by posting a record of 75–213 over the last four seasons. With those picks, they picked up injured college superstars incapable of playing in the short term, surrounded them with untalented understudies, and successfully failed to succeed for years. Throughout this horrorshow, the Sixers kept saying “Trust the process.” Then the Sixers drafted consecutive #1 picks Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz to go with the healed Joel Embiid and they’re now… slightly below mediocre. I guess that’s good?
Some tank jobs for consecutive top picks are legendary. The NHL’s Quebec Nordiques got #1’s Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan, and Eric Lindros after three straight years of terrible play, and then fled the country. The Washington Nationals were very bad at baseball and were rewarded with Bryce Harper and then Stephen Strasbourg. The Cleveland Browns tanked for the top pick the last two years, which they’ll end Sunday with a staggering record of 1–31. (Not every team with consecutive top picks tanks to get there. The WNBA’s Seattle Storm got Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird back-to-back, but they played to win first. However, they just did the double again, so we’ll see.)
Though the leagues always say they hate it, they’ve enabled a clear reward for intentionally losing, and game theory says that it’s the right thing to do, even if it feels morally bankrupt. A perennially mediocre team has precious little upside; being always-not-quite-in-the-playoffs or always-one-and-done demoralizes a fan base. Better to waste a few years and gamble on signing a transcendent talent, such as a Tim Duncan or a LeBron James. Right?
Well, there are some problems with this strategy. First, while ownership and general managers might be able to trust the process, coaches and players know their jobs are on the line, and they don’t want to be replaced. So they do something their tanking-enamored fans hate: they try very hard not to lose. Second, if they do win, the fans start to like it again: Witness this year’s previously 0–9 San Francisco 49ers, who just crippled their draft by joyously ripping off four straight wins behind new superstar QB Jimmy Garoppolo. But even if it does work and you lose a lot, you still have to draft well: If you’re the Cleveland Browns and you whiff on successive #1 picks Tim Couch and Courtney Brown, you’re still the Browns.
It turns out that sports analytics suggests you don’t win by losing. Of the NBA teams with 25 or fewer wins, just 10 percent got to 54 or more wins within five years; of the teams that had between 34 and 49 wins, 20 percent got to 54 or more wins within five years. In all sports, losers trend toward losing, and average teams have a better chance of being better than average. Finding one of those transcendent talents atop the draft is possible—a Peyton Manning, say—but there are a lot more non-Peyton Mannings up there. Game theorists acknowledge that winning by tanking is theoretically viable, but practically nearly impossible, especially for bad organizations who can’t stop being bad at sports. So it’s worth abolishing at almost any cost.
That’s how tanking works in sports. Can it be done anywhere else? There aren’t many places where being intentionally, unironically bad at something gets you rewarded. But politics might be an exception. There’s no standard for what constitutes success in politics, except re-election.
Iowa Rep. Steve King is patently a white supremacist; dude kept a Confederate flag on his desk even though Iowa was part of the Union. And King has now been re-elected seven times. It doesn’t matter to his supporters that he’s undermining America, so it doesn’t matter to him. That’s what success looks like in Iowa’s 4th District.
Even with all the racists who vote like Steve King behind him, Trump is probably not getting re-elected with a 35 percent approval rating. But unlike a Congressperson, he’s got a four-year job. It’s got an arc. One aspect of that arc is that the incumbent party does poorly in the midterm election after a president assumes office. Everyone knows that. Even Trump knows that.
And Trump is a mean-spirited opportunist, one of the best ever. So it’s not impossible that Trump’s goal is to maximize Republican carnage in November. He’s checked off the boxes that give his tank job the best chance of success. People in the executive branch like to do their jobs—EPA people protecting the environment, State Department people working for peace, and so on—and so not filling all those jobs means fewer barriers to getting less done. People want to like the president, so picking insane fights with war widows and popular sports leagues keeps his approval ratings down. And nothing needs to be said about “draft strategy” when you have Betsy DeVos running Education, Rick Perry running Energy, and Scott Pruitt running the EPA.
A 2018 Democratic wave election tied to an unpopular and impeachable president amps the carnage. In that scenario, Ryan and McConnell likely retire, Democrats take over, and, facing liberal challenges from within, the Pelosi-Schumer bloc figures out it has to do something to stay in charge. While they’re working that out, with Democrats not quite in possession of the 2/3 majority needed to evict him from office, maybe then Trump pivots.
After a GOP collapse in Congress, Trump now deals with a Democratic majority who wants him to play ball or GTFO. So maybe he plays ball. Maybe he starts becoming more and more popular when he’s the only game in town for Republicans. Maybe his true centrist, what’s-in-it-for-me nature takes over. And then, with a 48 percent approval rating and a what-are-you-gonna-do shrug, he runs in 2020. Essentially, he’s tanking to pick his opponent, and it’s his own party establishment. Maybe he wins. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
I’m just speculating here. Hanlon’s razor says he’s just an idiot who can’t krazy-glue his yap shut. But my gut says he wants to destroy the presidency. If he gets to destroy the mainstream Republican Party too, so much the richer. Then he, Bannon, and FOX News have laid the path for the fascist party of their dreams. It might work. In his mind, tanking to win forever could be the only way he comes out on top.
What’s the Democratic Party to do if this is his plan? Play to win, that’s what. When they get a majority in one or both chambers, they impeach him at once. They impeach Mike Pence too. They leave the Trump White House in ruins. And they win in 2020. Because let’s be real, cats: The 76ers aren’t going to become a dynasty by tanking, and neither is Trump. You don’t win by losing.
To win, you have to be a winner.
This is the twelfth installment of a series of posts on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, the national debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller investigation, and taxes. These essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.