Give Trump a chance to succeed through ‘smash-mouth’ politics

Published 9:36 am Thursday, May 17, 2018


Contributing columnist

Some folks refuse to allow President Trump to govern even though he won the election. This includes the “Never Trumpers” among establishment conservatives. Their animus toward Trump appears to be consuming.  The “resistance” movement rose immediately upon his election and the intensity of the activists was unusual; they invested more hate in their denunciations than I have ever seen.  Seeking to impeach Trump as soon as he takes office is an abuse of the impeachment process and the constitution. Due process requires political opponents must defeat him at the polls.    

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I understand the distaste. Trump is sometimes over the top. But that is exactly the point — it’s taste, it does not make him or his supporters evil if we disagree with them. We are obliged to respect the office, not necessarily the man/woman’s policies in office. Most of us who endured the last eight years of the Obama administration followed that obligation. I criticized his policies, not the man personally.

Refusing to be governed by duly elected officials is insulting to their supporters as well as the politician. This is particularly dangerous if those supporters are a habitually marginalized majority of legitimate voters. I am reminded of what Admiral Yamamoto said after he bombed Pearl Harbor: “I fear all we have done today is to awaken a great, sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” It was a prophetic statement.

The optimal strategy in response to an opponent’s opening “smash-mouth” political game is “tit for tat,” meaning you adopt the same extreme strategy as your opponent. Hence, you can expect conservatives to adopt an all-out opposition to the next Democrat elected president. It’s like a trade war, once you set it in motion, each party follows the opposition by raising their tariffs until all trade is choked off and every nation’s economy suffers.

The only way to stop this process is for one nation/party to signal they want to renegotiate the exchange by moderating their response to the last round; then the optimal “tit for tat” response is to respond with a moderate response. This is the game President Trump is playing with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Kim started the game by taking a very aggressive nuclear stand expecting Trump to respond the way all previous presidents responded. Instead, Trump met him with an even more aggressive vocal response from a much more powerful factual position. Kim’s optimal response was to drop the bluff and signal a more moderate position. Hence, Trump’s best strategy is to adopt a moderate position and enter negotiations. We are now in the second phase of this nuclear Kabuki dance.  

We have just started the same dance with the Iranians. The critical next event is how Iran responds to our withdrawal from the Obama nuclear agreement. I am not optimistic; it seems they are likely to be very aggressive, even to the point of military adventures. The number of balls in the air right now makes me nervous.      

On the other hand, we are in the first phase of this season’s smash-mouth political game. Neither side has yet offered an olive branch and they seem to be doubling down on the scorched-earth policies. Anyone who argues about who started it still hopes to carry the day with a complete victory over the other side. Flash news: not going to happen! If this continues, it ends with maximum damage to the body politic.

The future belongs to the party that recognizes the middle class’ legitimate concerns that were sacrificed on the globalization alter during the last four or five decades. Like it or not, they are “woke,” as progressives might say. They are U.S. citizens and their sons and daughters were called upon to fight all our wars for the last two decades. They are due some respect.    

Bob Martin is Emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College.