January 20, 2017
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Donald Trump and the Prisoner's Dilemma

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Twice in my life that I remember, I was asked not to talk about something at the dinner table. When I was twelve years old, I became strangely obssessed for a few months with the study of optics, and talked endlessly about lenses and spectroscopes. In my thirties, I read some books on the Prisoner's Dilemma, and eventually was asked not to talk about it any more by my wife and step-son.

I suppose the appeal of optics was that light, seen from a Brooklyn street emanating loss and tragedy, was clean and beautiful; but the fascination of the Prisoner's Dilemma is that it is universal;everything is a PD (as I will now abbreviate it). The PD is a game theory exercise which, as Wikipedia ably explains, "shows why two completely 'rational' individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so". In the paradigm, two prisoners are being interrogated about a crime they are suspected of having committed together. "Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to: betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is: If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison;If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa); If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison". In other words, the best outcome is obtained by a prisoner who betrays a companion who does not betray him. This is known in game theory as the "Sucker's Payoff".

PD's occur everywhere you look in the world. The sea anemone and the clownfish which lives safely in its stinging tentacles are playing a cooperation card in a PD much older than human history. The neat little anecdote the contracts professor tells the first day of law school, in which you hold up a can of beans in a crowded grocery and the grocer, behind his counter, nods and adds it to your account, is a PD. When a cashier gives you too much change and you pocket it, you have played a betrayal card. Also when you jump a turnstile in the subway.

All politics is a PD. Bipartisanship and the passage of legislation when control of the government is split between the parties is cooperation. A majority of one party approving a judicial nominee made by a President from the other party is an act of cooperation. A Republican-dominated Senate refusing to even hold a hearing on President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, was an act of betrayal. As a general theme or trend, commentators who have never heard of the PD mostly agree that we are watching the decline of American politics into a spectacle of constant division and mutual demonization--a series of unending iterations of rounds in which both parties play the betrayal card. A fascinating small example occurred in the last 24 hours when the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump had incoherently said in an interview that "I probably have" a good relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Trump retorted that he had said "I'd" not "I". The Journal, a conservative publication owned by Rupert Murdoch--Murdoch!--confidently announced that it had a recording and released it. I heard it just now played on television and Trump is clearly correct; I hear "I'd probably have". The Journal's misreporting, and misplaced confidence in what the tape showed, indicates that journalists, like many of us, including me, have internalized the betrayal card. We despise this President so much that it is not sufficient that he is ascertainably amoral or hateful; we seize on every indication, however poorly supported, that he is also stupid, senile or crazy, as if his obvious and self-admitted defaults were not enough. This is particularly a disturbing moment for the Journal--the Journal!--given the President's constant accusations of "fake news" and the agreement of a disturbingly large segment of the public that the media lies.

Trump has been, his entire life, the king of betrayal. I invented a truism many years ago that there are two kinds of people, those who think they are a higher life form than you, and those who don't. A fun, but more cryptic, variation is that there are two kinds of people, those who think there are two kinds of people, and those who don't. Anyone who believes they are specially entitled to consideration no one else deserves is positioned to play the betrayal card many times a day--cutting lines, demanding outsized amounts of resources or attention, "energy vampiricism" where employees, colleagues and even adversaries spend outsize amounts of time dealing with emergencies generated by the individual. Trump's entire career is a series of iterations of the betrayal card: paying vendors, even small, financially endangered ones, only when he felt like it; filing bankruptcies which, though a legally available remedy, are a betrayal of creditors; predation on the financially strapped and needy customers of Trump University.

I haven't read The Art of the Deal. From its title, it sounded like a primer on negotiation, on finding the middle ground; isn't that what a "deal" is? Today, it seems more like The Art of Betrayal, a primer on how to yell, threaten, bully and otherwise force the world to give you, the higher life form, anything you want. Trump's history of bringing litigation, much of it groundless, is a confirmation. Every law-suit represents the breakdown of a negotiation. While finding the middle ground is an act of cooperation, bringing suit is an act of betrayal. Also, the drama and interest of The Apprentice, of surprise firings, involved a series of betrayals.

If you think about the subtext of the rather trite phrase "President of all the people", it suggests that politics could theoretically involve an all-cooperation strategy in an ongoing series of rounds of the PD. The British concept of "loyal opposition" forms part of this same world-view, as does Tip O'Neill's skill at working with President Reagan to find common goals and outcomes. The betrayal-virus that is decimating American politics has flared up repeatedly since independence. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams' vice president, played a major betrayal card secretly hiring yellow journalists to distribute false news about Adams and ensuring he would be a one term President. Adams lost, but avoided the Suckers' Payoff by betraying Jefferson in turn, with his own yellow journalists and the prosecution of Jeffersonians under the Alien and Sedition Acts. The age of Jackson, the time of the Know-Nothings, Congress' abandonment of Reconstruction, the age of Populism and William Jennings Bryan, Roosevelt breaking with the Republican Party to run as an independent and hand the election to Wilson, are all case studies of betrayals in American politics. In our century, the biggest betrayal move in our political PD, before now, occurred in the McCarthy era, when many innocent, trusting and cooperative people, for example the China Hands, were libeled and driven from government.

Donald Trump's political method is an all-betrayal strategy. This helped him win the nomination, by nonstop slander of his Republican adversaries. He repeatedly established he would stop at absolutely nothing, as when he accused Ted Cruz's father of being involved in the Kennedy assassination. Trump's "birtherism", exemplified by his confident but completely false statement that he had investigators in Hawaii and one could not “believe what they’re finding", was an adroit, newsworthy betrayal.

Trump's behavior towards the Dreamers is a very disturbing but fascinating case study in the all-betrayal strategy. He evidently wants to deport all the Dreamers to the countries most of them don't remember (and in many cases, do not even speak the language). To accomplish this, he has, using Hitler's (yes, sorry, there it is), "Big Lie" approach, engaged in apparent acts of cooperation that were actually betrayals, speaking of how much he "loves" the Dreamers and wants a good outcome, while reversing the Obama order which created their status. He claimed that he was not trying to harm them, just pushing Congress to adjust their status, while using these extremely vulnerable humans as bargaining chips to obtain concessions on his border wall. He then, apparently purely for show, ran an hour long bipartisan meeting at which he again called for a solution of "love" and promised to sign any compromise the Congress brought him. Within a day or two after, when Senators from both parties came to the Oval Office to discuss a compromise they reached, they found Republican Senators unalterably opposed to the Dreamers unexpectedly waiting, and Trump (as he acknowledged later in the day in phone calls to friends) played to his base by complaining about immigrants from "shithole" countries, and then blaming the Democrats for not finding a solution.

Historically, the worst betrayals of all are false acts of cooperation, like inviting an enemy to a parley and then killing him. Some betrayals are overt and truthful violence, but the lowest kind of all involve fraud. Trump is a con man: Trump University was a classic "long con". He specializes in the fraudulent act of apparent cooperation, and his whole strategy regarding the Dreamers has been to destroy them while appearing to wish (vaguely) to help them and then blaming their destruction on someone else. Hitler, though generally more truthful than Trump about violence and hate, also engaged in a lot of fraud in the early years, offering negotiations, then claiming a betrayal by the other side, thus justifying his own act of betrayal. The Reichstag fire was a move in a PD.

THe saddest thing of all about the all-betrayal strategy is that historically, it is never successful. I don't believe there is a coherent example of a constant series of betrayals leading to a stable regime that lasted one thousand years. Full disclosure, I am not totally sure about the Byzantine empire, which I haven't studied closely enough, but I suspect I would find that there had to be more cooperation than betrayal for a polity to last that long. Internal betrayals in Athens led to its fall to Philip and Alexander within a century or two. Mutual betrayal in the Roman Repubic at and after the primacy and assassination of Julius Caesar created a constantly unstable regime that fell to the barbarians four centuries later. In modern times, with "improvement" of travel times and destructiveness of armament, All-Betrayers such as Napoleon and Hitler have tended to go down in flames in their own lifetimes. If you take a long view of history--which we routinely do with the Greeks and Romans, just not ourselves--the act of trusting a betrayer whose attentions are focused on someone else is almost always a mistake. Since politics is actually a many-to-many endeavor, and the PD too reductive in modeling it as a game with only three players (two prisoners and a cop), it is easy to miss the fact that there are usually people cooperating with a betrayer who think of themselves as colleagues, not victims--people more or less willingly collaborating in the betrayal who do not stop to think that someone who would betray the victim is capable of one day betraying them. Ernst Röhm of the S.A. "was a close friend and early ally of Adolf Hitler and a co-founder of the Sturmabteilung (SA, 'Storm Battalion'), the Nazi Party's militia, and later was its commander. By 1934, the German Army feared the SA's influence and Hitler had come to see Röhm as a potential rival, so he was executed during the Night of the Long Knives". Ross Perot was unusually perceptive about the psychology of the PD when he fired employees who had cheated on wives, saying that anyone who would lie to a spouse would certainly lie to a boss.

Many Shakespeare tragedies, for example Macbeth, include the theme of helping the autocrat betray other people, while wrongly assuming he will not betray you. The history of Mafia families also inevitably seems to lead from collaborations like the Apalachin conference to the murder of Paul Castellano as he exited Sparks' Steakhouse.

For a subset of Trump's base, voting for him was a deliberately nihilistic act of betrayal of the perceived establishment in Washington. This by the way I have previously named the "Scorpion move", after the old story about the scorpion which bites a frog carrying it across a stream, even though it will itself drown, because "that is my nature". Suicide bombing is a scorpion move in a PD, also frequently involving fraud, like the men posing as journalists who talked their way in to see a Bin Laden adversary a day or two after 9/11, and then blew themselves and him up.

Trump as a higher life form does not feel he owes any obligation of truth or loyalty to his base. Similar to the strategy of pretending to praise the Dreamers while working for their total destruction, Trump has consistently betrayed his own base, by endorsing legislation such as the tax cuts and the Obamacare repeal, and envisioning cuts to "entitlements" after expressly promising not to, that will cause them increased suffering. I recommend Thomas Frank's What's The Matter With Kansas. Though I don't recall the author mentioning the PD, the book is an exemplary analysis of how an entire class of people, almost from 1800 on, has been betrayed into voting against their own jobs, health, mortgages and education. Trump voters thus include a large group which has been betrayed in every American PD since the beginning.

Given the magnitude of the existential threat Trump's all-betrayal strategy represents to what remains of our constitution and culture, the only way out would be cooperation between the Republicans and Democrats to counter the threat via the 25th amendment or impeachment. The spectacle of so many Republicans cooperating with a President who has already repeatedly betrayed them is rather astonishing, as if the individuals involved were suffering from some sort of paralysis or death wish.