Americas

Is Donald Trump a Madman Theorist or Just Plain Mad?


If you were to have asked the leading American pollsters and pundits a year ago about the feasibility of Donald Trump being the Republican front-runner, the majority would most certainly have been skeptical. But Trump is now the presumptive nominee, and international observers are taking note. Danish foreign minister Kristian Jensen, doubtless lending voice to what other European leaders must be thinking, just last month stated on the record that “Trump is completely unpredictable. It would be much, much more difficult to work with the U.S. because you’d never know what he will believe tomorrow.”

Unpredictable. This word, along with its synonyms—“unstable,” “vague,” and “wildly inconsistent”—have been deployed to describe The Donald numerous times in a plethora of news outlets.  The mogul even prides himself on such inconsistency, declaring in an interview with Hugh Hewitt, “I don’t want to broadcast my intentions…You want to have a certain amount of…you want to have a little bit of guess work for the enemy.”

Little did he know, but Trump stumbled upon a pithy and unlettered definition of what political scientists have theorized for centuries: that it is easier to arrive at your favored accommodation if your antagonist thinks you unscrupulous enough to attempt virtually anything to gain the upper hand. Machiavelli first aired this stratagem in his Discourses on Livy, writing, “at times it is a very wise thing to simulate madness.”  Nearly half a millennium later, game theorist and Harvard scholar Thomas Schelling further tipped his hat to irrationality while penning his masterful The Strategy of Conflict.  One of his students, journalist Michael Kinsley, wryly explained his former mentor’s views as follows: “Madness can be wickedly rational.  If one of those two folks [chained together] on the cliff can convince the other that he is just a bit nuts, that makes his threat to drag them both off the cliff much more plausible.”  That Schelling advised Stanley Kubrick on the set of Dr. Strangelove should therefore come as no surprise – his views on uncertainty meshed well with a very uncertain decade.

Theory eventually has to be put to practice, and the most notable American practitioner of what was eventually dubbed “madman theory” in the last half century was Richard Nixon.  Elected to the presidency in 1968 on a pledge to bring “peace with honor” to the unrelenting tumult in Vietnam (and, like Trump, not concerning himself with divulging to the voters the nuts and bolts of his “secret plan”), the thirty-seventh president had to find some way to force Hanoi’s hand.  With a long career interacting directly with foreign policy luminaries, Nixon was quick to glean their lessons.  Specifically, he was influenced by John Foster Dulles’ policy of “massive retaliation” as well as Nikita Khrushchev’s penchant for translating his infamously irascible personality into globally felt tremors.

What emerged from this cocktail of theory and experience was what Nixon described to his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman:

I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘For God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button.

While the president never devolved to actually pushing the button, he did adopt many ploys that, for a man who purported to desire an end to hostilities, looked suspiciously like escalation.  From the mining of Haiphong’s harbor and the indiscriminate mass bombing sorties over North Vietnam to Operation Menu and the invasions of Laos and Cambodia, Nixon did everything within his power to make the North Vietnamese believe there was not an end to which he would not stoop.

So the question remains: is Donald Trump a madman theory devotee in the Nixonian mold, or just a plain madman?  In terms of rhetoric, it cannot be denied that he likes to paint an erratic picture, as demonstrated by his recent refusal to disavow using nuclear weapons against Europe.  Statements aimed at ISIS like “We’ll bomb the shit out of them” may not depart too wildly from Ted Cruz’s musings on the phosphorescence of sand, but his promise to target the family members of terrorists – thereby rendering the child guilty for the sins of the father – stands in a league of its own.  So too does his vow to eviscerate the oil wells of northern Iraq in a show of ecocide reminiscent of Saddam’s retreat from Kuwait.  And of course, who could forget his full-throated apologia for waterboarding “and a hell of a lot worse?”

Yet bellicosity for its own sake does not a madman theorist make.  The entire purpose of Nixon’s frenzied lurches from one overtly combative approach to another was to eventually change the calculus of the North Vietnamese leadership and bring them to the negotiating table.  By stomaching a temporary upsurge in reckless tactics, the president was rewarded with concessions from Hanoi in 1973 when Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho negotiated an accord in Paris (though historians disagree on the role China played in bringing Hanoi to heel).

There are some, like Tony Blair’s foreign policy point-man Jonathan Powell, who believe a similar negotiating table can be dusted off in Raqqa, pointing out there was a time when the British adopted the line of never parlaying with religiously-motivated terrorists before proceeding to do exactly that.  However, Michael Collins’ IRA and Gerry Adams’ Sinn Fein are not ISIS.  The former two, in eventually bowing to the necessity of shared-power compromise, proved that smoldering religious zealotry could be subordinated to more practical considerations.  While we should not make ourselves hostages to fortune by claiming a future ISIS leadership is incapable of following this same pattern, the caliphate-minded Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is certainly not there yet, thus making him immune to the appreciation for risk and reward that madman theory necessitates.

Madman theory also requires that the opponent actually believe his chain-buddy is willing, to borrow again from Schelling, to careen off the precipice.  Although the global opprobrium associated with using nuclear weapons in anger made that option untenable for Nixon, the fact that he was willing to court public indignation every time he escalated the conflict probably told the North Vietnamese something about his tenacity.  Contrast this with the fact that Michael Hayden, a career Air Force officer and former CIA director, publicly stated that the military, owing their oaths of loyalty to the Constitution and not to any single commander-in-chief, would be under no obligation to carry out Trumpian ukases that go too far.  Thus, the element of surprise may already be dead and buried before it even lived.


Matthew Pennekamp is a YPFP member and resident junior fellow at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Denison University, where he studied history and political science.

Image: “Richard M. Nixon during a press conference on Vietnam and Cambodia” (credit: National Archives and Records Service/Wikimedia Commons)

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