I understand Donald Trump. I’m not sure I’m happy or proud about it, and I’m a little ashamed that it took me this long. The entire punditocracy, though, has been preoccupied with explaining his enduring appeal, ever since they stopped assuring us that his candidacy was certain to be temporary. The answer has been obvious, all along.
Mr. Trump is not running for office – he’s negotiating a deal. A big one – Yuge! The biggest, even, but not unlike hundreds of others in his checkered business career. Or so he hopes.
To understand this, we need a short detour through bargaining school. Negotiators come in three species: Competitive, Cooperative and Collaborative. And every negotiation is a mixture of two elements: the thing over which a deal may be struck (a used car, a vacation destination, a casino) and the relationship between the Parties. Sometimes the subject matter predominates, as in the car example, and sometimes it’s all about the relationship – your interest in your Significant Other’s satisfaction with a vacation spot may, ahem, trump your concern for the specific geography.
To continue our short-course, each breed of bargainer has his own approach, goals, tactics, outcomes and implications for the future. It’s important to know with whom you’re dealing, in order to anticipate that person’s next moves. For Competitors, it’s all a game – a chess or tennis match, and a contest distinct from everything else. The goal is to win. Period. Tactics include extreme opening positions, and may** include ongoing aggression, bluster and bluff. They may also include deception, exaggeration and outright lying, because after all, this is just a war game in which all’s fair in pursuit of victory.
And those immediate outcomes? They tend to be very good ones. This is especially true when dealing with a Cooperative negotiator on the other side, as well as in any bargaining where the ‘thing’ predominates (rapport be damned, because doesn’t everybody realize it’s just a game?). The relationship fraction of the deal suffers as trust is lost, a bad outcome is imposed, and rough tactics are filed away for the future.
In a world of unlimited discrete deal opportunities, Competitors do quite well. Over time, or in repeat situations -- not so much. Recognize anybody yet?
Candidate Voldetrump embodies the ultimate Competitor, and that helps to explain his behaviors. Is there lots of chest-thumping in advance – yes. Is this all a game? Indeed, and that approach accounts for why he can say – and even believe – that “when this is all over, you’ll see I’m actually a great unifier.” He clearly sees the campaign as a distinct game from the process of governing, as he promises a different approach than his candidate (or TV – ‘you’re fired’) persona. Of course he does.***
What clinches this model for me, though, is his general approach on policy – the positions he takes on issues. We’ve come to expect that candidates will bring forward specific examples of what they’ll do if elected. We expect those initiatives to fit into a philosophical approach that is sustained over time. Indeed, that’s why Bernie is trusted (and Marco and Hillary may not be) – he’s the same democratic socialist who got arrested for it in the 1960s.
To Candidate Trump, however, policy statements are nothing more than extreme opening positions. He’d like it if they worked as stated, but he’d be quite willing to make concessions for those bellicosities if they are ineffective as originally stated. Thus, he’s been quick to back-away from statements that were simply too extreme to anchor the debate.**** Trumpian policies are not intended to be immutable, or to fit nicely into a governing philosophy. They are simply ‘means’ intended to be effective in helping him achieve the ultimate ‘end’ goal – winning. Remember, that’s all that matters.
The partisan political process, where the currency is supposed to be ideas, is finding this amoral approach to be confounding, because it renders him exceptionally slippery. Think you’ve got him caught in an inconsistency – no matter, he’ll change it – no regrets, no shame, see ya later … Loser.
But here’s the cautionary note for political Competitors – they achieve excellent immediate results, which is nearly all that matters in something like a real estate deal. But Competitors don’t wear well, over time or in repeat deals. The tactics that worked once do not endure, as the Opposition learns, chafes and stiffens its back. Two-or-more can play the Competitor’s game, even if it’s not most people’s first choice (most bargainers are Cooperators by nature, and some learn to be Collaborators). As trust is lost and position changes are revealed to be bluffs exposed, credibility suffers, and that’s important – yuge!
From this vantage, it appears that the plutocrat wing of the GOP is belatedly uniting in opposition, learning to play Mr. Trump’s game, and competing. It seems most likely that they will weaken their opponent, whose margins of support will narrow, but not enough to deny him the nomination.
Basically, they lack any attractive alternatives – they hate Mr. Cruz with nearly equal passion, the anointed Jeb! is gone, Mr. Rubio is exposed as a glib dilettante, and the substantial Gov. Kasich just can’t seem to catch fire. Mitt Romney has recently reminded us of his perpetual availability, but could he ever escape the pungent image of supplicating before The Donald for a 2012 donation? That might leave Mr. 40-hour/week Ryan, as I mentioned in an earlier edition, but does he really have the stomach for this extended fight, and will ‘compromise’ hold the interest of the Trumpophiles?
If Mr. Trump does emerge from Cleveland with the nomination, his game will have been exposed.***** That will make it extremely difficult for him to maintain it through the November elections. An effective Competitor tries to adapt, and take what the game will give him. But he can’t fundamentally change his approach, because bluster got him his supporters, and no one else will believe in a different persona. He can’t pivot to a disbelieving center without losing his base.
Some deals just won't close.
* As reported by NPR, this was the label applied to Mr. Trump by the founders of the late, satiric Spy magazine in New York, believing he epitomized everything that was crass and ascendant in The City of the 1980s. The nickname stuck, and he hated it publicly -- so when you hear the candidate say nobody ever attacked his hands before, well … just remember that Competitors assume and hope for short memories.
** But not always – extremely effective competitors can take you to the cleaners so capably that you actually enjoy the trip. Fortunately for everybody else, they are a rare breed.
*** It’s also true that he has already succeeded in unifying his opposition within the remnants of the once Grand Old Party, but that’s probably not what he had in mind when he spoke.
**** ‘Anchoring’ is an early move in negotiation – it represents seeking the position that is taken seriously by the other side, which will form the basis for further discussions. A position too extreme will not set the anchor, as it’s not credible. But if you can set it close to where you want to end-up, it’s the single most effective move (among many others) in the deal-making process.
***** There is a defense tactic in negotiation called 'naming the game.' When somebody's working you -- hollering, name-calling, or using any others among the myriad of competitive ploys to put you under emotional pressure -- and you realize it, those ploys lose much of their power over you.