“If the Wall should ever fall, all the fires will go out.”– Qhorin Halfhand in book two of “A Song of Ice and Fire”
At OrcaCon this weekend, I had to confess to a nerd-cred-killing admission: I haven’t read George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire or watched Game of Thrones. While I enjoy Martin’s writings, I don’t like unrelenting displays of misery and brutality, especially ones that don’t look like they’re going to end on any sort of schedule. When challenged to put these concerns aside and give the epic property a chance, I was inflexible. The Thronies just had to accept that I was not, and would not be, one of them.
Besides, I already watch an unrelenting display of misery and brutality: the Trump administration. Because while I don’t like it one bit, it is fascinating, and while I don’t know how or when it’s going to end, I do expect the end to be satisfying. I feel that we are watching a regime at a crux: It’s either going to get a lot better in Season Two, or it’s going to get cancelled sooner than anyone involved with it expects. My money to date has been on the latter.
No issue defines this crux more than immigration, Trump’s signature soapbox. Here, his dog whistles are dragon shrieks. He doesn’t even hide his racism, with last week dominated by his reputed depiction of Haiti, El Salvador, and the nations of Africa as “shithole countries.” It’s a shame, because that crisis overwrote a fascinating one-hour open session of Trump and Congressional leaders negotiating over immigration. That session was the happiest I’ve been with Trump. Sure, one day later it was all on fire, but for a shining moment, the “Great Negotiator” was in view. It was weird. And cool. And probably a sham. But on a game theory level, we should look at what happened here, and suss out who in this room was likely to come out of it with what they wanted. It all comes down to the value proposition of flexibility, the willingness to change strategies and goals when faced with new realities. Let’s take a look.
After we see seven rich white men express concern, then a rich white woman express concern, and — oh hey, it turns out there aren’t very many non-rich, non-white people in this room. What a shockingly nonrandom… oh, forget it. I can’t even feign surprise. These are the people who stand between hundreds of thousands of Dreamers and deportation. Lord help them.
Anyway, I think it’s a good idea to look closely at what’s happening. Trump sure looks like he’s being flexible. He lets everyone talk, fails to hold onto a single opinion for more than a minute, and states his intent to sign whatever Congress passes. This is one of the (many) knocks on Trump: he is perceived to not have a central set of beliefs, wisping on whatever wind blows his way. Whether he does or doesn’t believe anything after “everyone must love me,” he has been remarkably consistent in his post-election selection of positions. His position is almost uniformly “the least humane thing I can do at this very minute.” (Click all of those links if you want to be angry for a full hour.) Let’s not forget: The only reason these people are here is that the Department of Justice terminated the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, likely the most inhumane move of Trump’s presidency.¹ This is a negotiation at gunpoint. Yet here, he comes off as the reasonable one.
Flexibility in game theory has both positive and negative ramifications. There’s a game called Hawks and Doves, where hawks always fight and doves never fight. There’s food at stake. Two hawks will always fight each other; one will always take the food while the other will always be injured. Two doves will have a non-violent displaying contest which one will win, but neither will ever be injured. A hawk that goes up against a dove will always take the food, but the dove will always leave before it can be injured.
Hawks are hawks and doves are doves: They can’t change who they are. Hawks get bloodied up a lot; doves never get hurt. It’s nice to never get hurt. But a dove needs at least one other dove out there to display against, or it will never eat. If all contests are vs. hawks, a solitary dove will lose every time and die of malnutrition. That’s not a strategy that’ll work.
So Trump is displaying like a dove—he wants a “bill of love,” he says—but he’s in a room full of hawks. The Congresspeople say they have bipartisan agreement on many issues, and just disagree on tactics. They are lying. The Democrats need to act on DACA before a March 5 armageddon sends a bunch of innocent kids back to places they don’t want to go. They cannot give up on the children, but they also will not give away basic immigration policies like chain migration and the visa lottery. Sen. Dianne Feinstein wants a clean DACA bill now; she intones “March is coming” like it’s “Winter Is Coming.” Meanwhile, the Republicans are mostly feigning concern for the children; what they need is border security and a limit to the size of families who can come in under one admission. Everyone here except Trump is, for the most part, inflexible. Watch Rep. Steny Hoyer call some of Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s proposed policies “controversial” (a.k.a., D.O.A.); watch Rep. Kevin McCarthy tell Trump that Feinstein’s clean DACA bill means no security agreement. These are hawks in dove clothing, when they bother to dress up at all.
By the end, Love-Dove Trump is losing badly. But he holds out all the way up to the point where he’s ready to send the press off to write more “Fake News.” I don’t think he grasps how far apart everyone is, but he commits to the peace and love approach. He knows he’ll take a ton of heat (“I like heat,” he fluffs). He sure does take it: While being interviewed by professional ogre Lou Dobbs, professional troll Ann Coulter describes the meeting as the lowest day of the Trump presidency. She says it confirms all the claims in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: “He doesn’t listen. He has no command of the facts. He agrees with the last person who speaks to him.” This is from someone who supports him. (Yes, I watched Ann Coulter so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.)
But wait… you have to watch the end of this remarkable meeting. As Trump is dismissing the press, one intrepid newshound spurts out, “Mr. President, is there any agreement without the Wall?” The Wall, of course, is the always capitalized—sometimes ALL-capitalized—principle that America will be made great again once we put a barrier between us and Mexico. Because, you see, a Wall stops the bad guys. (To go back to Game of Thrones, the good guys in Westeros feared the White Walkers on the northern side of their Wall. That’s where we are. Hold on, Hans, are we the baddies?)
It’s not clear Trump believes a Wall will work. Throughout the meeting, he undercuts the idea that a Wall needs to be 2,000 miles of three-story concrete. Mountains and rivers will take up part of it. Fencing is fine in some places. Need for it is declining since Trump’s tough talk scares away border-crossers. It’s clear that not one of these Congresspeople—not one Democrat, not one Republican—is buying that it will ever stop determined illegals. After all,
“The Wall can stop an army, but not a man alone.”– Mance Rayder in book three of “A Song of Ice and Fire”
But when the reporter asks Trump if there can be a deal without the Wall, he says, “No, there wouldn’t be. You need it. I’d love not to build the Wall, but you need the Wall.” Let that sink in for a minute. “I’d love not to build the Wall,” he says. This is a man whose job is to build things. He should love the idea of building a Wall. He doesn’t love it. He has to build it.
He has gambled everything on the Wall; building it (and getting Mexico to pay for it!) was the heart of his racist campaign platform, and the #MAGA folks won’t ever let him forget it. He thinks they will drop him like a stone if he gives it up. Coulter’s reaction says he’s almost certainly right. So there will be no DACA deal without a Wall. He is suddenly, resolutely inflexible.
What Trump does at the end there is turn into a hawk. He’s latched onto a strategy called evolving. In an evolutionary game, a competitor can adopt different strategies when new information presents itself. In Hawks and Doves, such a competitor can be either a hawk or a dove when he needs to be. This is a lot easier if no one knows what the player wants to be, and for the first time, Trump’s inability to hold a consistent position is an advantage. Everybody thought they had him pegged; he’s now someone else, and they must adapt their strategies to a new reality. Maybe it’ll work on immigration.
But in the long term, it probably won’t. I mentioned that flexibility can be a bad thing. People might say they like doves, but they elect hawks. People who have strong opinions elect leaders who will represent their opinions fiercely; the compromise they want is from the other side. “No Dream, No Deal” isn’t a slogan you compromise on, and the Democrats aren’t doing it. Trump put the Dreamers’ lives into play; the Democrats will hold the line for them, because they can smell blood. Trump will learn that if you have no real positions, politicians with real positions will take voters who believe in those positions away from you. Flexibility can kill you.
So no Wall equals no Trump. The Democrats’ goal is to get a clean DACA bill and tear down the Wall. It’s not going to be easy to get, since the President has veto power. Even though he said he’d sign anything the people in that room came up with, he’d be a fool to do so. It’s possible he was going to do that anyway, but on Thursday something happened between 10 am and noon that turned him from a dove to a total hawk. Sen. Lindsey Graham said Trump got really bad advice from his staff, because several Congressional hawks seemed to turn into doves toward the end of the negotiations. And yet the hawks inside the White House won, and Trump lost. Good luck with that, pal.
Still, I just spent 1,700 words saying relatively nice things about someone I despise, so I guess Season Two of this unrelenting display of misery and brutality might have some interesting moments after all. If Trump can turn the narrative away from his racist outburst, we’ll see if he can get something done. We’ll see if the Democrats destroy him if he doesn’t.
“On the Wall, a man gets only what he earns.” — Benjen Stark in book one of “A Song of Ice and Fire”
This is the fourteenth installment of a series of posts on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, the debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller investigation, taxes, Trump’s first year, and the Clinton Foundation. These essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.
¹ Though man, the horse-soring thing sure gives DACA a run for its money on the unbelievable-inhumanity-of-Trump leaderboard.