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  • Max Stearns

Finding Trump’s Core

Leading media outlets increasingly recognize that Donald Trump lacks what game theorists refer to as a core. See here and here. An empty core is a technical term that implies a game lacking a dominant outcome or set of outcomes. A core generally corresponds to what is called a pure-Nash equilibrium, after John Nash, who won the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics in large part for recognizing the concept. See here; for the book version, see here; or for the movie version, see here. Some games have a pure-Nash equilibrium (or more than one), and thus a core; others do not, thus lacking a core. The pure-Nash outcome in a prisoners’ dilemma is mutual defection, even though each player would do better if both cooperated; in the driving game, it is all driving right (the US rule) or all driving left (the UK rule); and in the battle of the sexes, it is joining together in one activity, even though each has a different preference over the choice of activities, rather than each going separately alone. In other games, like musical chairs, the players go round and round seemingly endlessly, that is, unless and until the music stops, at which point, someone is forced to leave the game. (Thanks to my old friend, David Skeel, for the illustration, see here (p.35)).

Empty core games lack a stable center of gravity. For any possible outcome, another is available that makes most players better off. In a three-person game in which one wins big, one wins small, and one loses outright, the loser can regroup with the lesser winner, forging a new coalition, and making the past round winner the new loser. Now the second-place winner takes first place and the loser takes second place. The new loser and second place winner can forge yet another new coalition, with the second-place winner ousting the top player, the loser superseding second place winner, subject, again, to the new loser starting yet another round.

These games are typically presented, as above, with multiple players. We also play them in our minds. These games aren’t mere metaphors for our cognitive or emotional states. See here, and here. Humans are deeply complex, and one sign of that complexity is our capacity—indeed our tendency—to cycle. As fully developed beings, humans are non-linear. We eschew framings that disallow nuance, subtlety, emotional tensions, and moral ambiguity. Our intellectual or rational selves interweave with our emotional states, and with our sense of empathy, accounting also for the emotional states of others. The combination sometimes risks an internal disequilibrium, or cognitive dissonance. For thoughtful people, this is a fundamental aspect of the human condition. We simultaneously embrace ideas in tension. When we look back over such experiences, we realize that it was at those very moments that we developed: from younger child to older child to adolescent to young adult to more thoughtful adult to even more thoughtful and wiser adult, and on and on it goes. For most of us.

As a child, you might have loved an actor, a musician, an artist, or even an historical figure. You went to the movies, concerts, shows, or read books. You were a devoted fan. But then you were told that this person had engaged in some terrible act, maybe a crime, perhaps a sexual assault or other act of predation, perhaps tax fraud or something else entirely. At first you viscerally reject the claim. This person you love could never have done that! But the evidence mounts, and you begin to accept that it might just be true. Even so, the movies, albums (yes, I’m getting old), paintings, or listed historical accomplishments haven’t changed. You love the art, but no longer the artist. Until that moment, the art and artist were intertwined. You had forged in your mind a comfortable story: only a wonderful person creates beautiful things, things worthy of your deep affection. And now, you instead face the reality of beautiful things created by a seemingly despicable person. Cognitive dissonance sets in. What do you do?

Here are three possibilities. Option 1: Decide to hate the art, thereby reconciling your earlier schema in which only good people create things worth loving. Option 2: Insistently reject the mounting evidence and the unkind personal accounts. This too reconciles; by forcibly defining the bad person as good, you continue to hold onto the idea that only good people create beautiful things. Option 3: You grow. You come to realize that bad people sometimes create beautiful things. This also implies that good people might also sometimes do bad, even terrible, things. For a child, or even an adolescent, this is one of life’s most profound lessons. It explodes the myth that separates children’s literature, where good characters enjoy happy endings, from adult literature, where fairy tale endings are just that. Not everyone learns this, or similar, life lessons. Some instead embrace either of the remaining options, disallowing them to reconcile the harsh reality of moral ambiguity. Enter Donald Trump.

Trump’s campaign was routinely characterized by gross inconsistencies, often premised on profound misinformation. Politicians are certainly known occasionally to embrace positions in conflict, but Trump took it to new levels. He was constantly bombarded with his own demonstrable misstatements of fact and shifts in policy positions based on the audiences to whom he was then speaking, or based on the advisor who had most recently bent his ear. As a candidate assembling a coalition, the lack of a core, or such base inconsistency, isn’t necessarily fatal. If nothing else, Trump proved that. Those joining his, or any other, coalition take a bet that the chosen candidate is more likely to (1) win, and (2) upon doing so, make good on enough commitments, as compared with rival candidates, to make support seem worthwhile. Enough people bought into this account to elect Trump. (Yes, Trump got three million fewer votes than Clinton, but as in the World Series, we count games not runs, see here (stats on 1960 World Series in which the Pittsburg Pirates won 4-3, despite New York Yankees having earned 55 runs to Pittsburgh’s 27).

This all changes when governing. Choices must be made. You can tweet contradictions with (or condemnations of) cabinet officials or others; statements that insult or express rage; or whatever in that deep, dark moment makes you feel good. But at the end of the day, you must make the choice to sign or not sign executive orders, to push or not push legislative proposals, or to retain or to ditch international commitments. Governing is simply harder, all the more so for someone lacking a core. You can’t just express inconsistencies, hoping folks will take the bet and that no one will call you on it. You must make decisions, hard ones with real consequences, ones that will invariably offend. If you have no defining set principles—no core to guide you—what do you do?

You hurry up and develop something that at least appears to correlate with having had a core, even if it really isn’t one. For Trump, the easiest way to do that was to define himself as the anti-Obama. Despite the one “pleasant” meeting following which Trump declared how much Obama liked him, see here, whatever Trump’s appointees and supporters might think of Obama personally, they intensely disliked what Obama stood for politically. And so, for Trump, the most accessible seeming core—the least painful means of avoiding cognitive dissonance—was not to say that some of what Obama accomplished was good for America, or that although Obama was a good person, he enacted several policies with which Trump disagreed. No, for Trump it was essential to define both the music and the musician as bad, thereby continuing to embrace childlike intuition that good people do good things, and bad people do bad things. In Trump’s world, a bad man, Obama, enacted bad policies, the prior eight years' worth, because that’s what bad people do. And since Trump, the most wonderful person imaginable by his lights, wants to do something, whatever he chooses to do is, by definition, good. Since Trump has no core principles to draw from, the easiest go to, a suddenly available set of reference points, is that good outcomes are the opposite of whatever Obama accomplished. With that, Trump avoids cognitive dissonance and embraces something that, to him, feels like having developed a core. So here we are.

To me if there’s something surprising in all of this, it is that it surprises. Trump is incapable of living with moral ambiguity. We know that he defines as good those who possess a singular trait: loyalty to Trump. And the most loyal Trump supporters of all are his base voters. That base, like those with whom Trump has surrounded himself, dislike Obama policies, even if they fail to understand them or might be harmed by their repeal. To Trump, none of that matters. Trump is entirely incapable of subtlety or nuance. Trump’s “problem” is not alternate facts. Alternate facts are symptomatic of his real problem: he is a developmentally stunted child in the body of a full-grown man, and a man with more power than any of us ever should hold. So now, all “facts” must be reconciled with the idea that Obama was a bad man who did bad things. To be sure, Obama's record was mixed. That is the point. Despite that, any contraindication to universal badness, including what most people call facts, must be defined as false. Otherwise the president might get a headache.

I welcome your comments.

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