There are a lot of words you could use to describe the Trump administration and its handling of domestic and foreign policy. Some are good, many are bad, and still others probably shouldn't be repeated here. But there is one adjective upon which nearly everyone can agree: unpredictable. Whether it's wild (and often inaccurate) statements, 3 a.m. Twitter storms, unusual Executive Orders, or the surprise firing of FBI Director James Comey, it certainly seems as though The Donald likes to keep his friends (and especially his enemies) guessing. But is this just Trump defeating his enemies using his skills in "4th dimension intergalactic chess," or is this the incoherent thrashing about of someone woefully under-qualified for the position? This week, we unpack the strategy of unpredictability.
We will likely receive a lot of criticism for this idea, but it wouldn't be fair to dismiss this possibility entirely. Many people believe that the administration's unpredictability is part of a dedicated strategy to keep people guessing about his true intentions and his next moves. They compare his often contradictory statements to a long, methodical game of chess, with The Donald masterfully drawing his opponents into their inevitable checkmate. Trump has said numerous times that one of his biggest critiques of the previous administration (and politicians in general) is that they reveal far too much about what they are trying to do and how they will do it. This idea is absurd when it comes to Trump's claim that he would "sneak attack ISIS in Mosul" (after all, there are dozens of very good reasons why you would want them to know you are going to attack). But this idea does have merit when applied correctly.
Consider the Madman Theory example of Richard Nixon. Nixon also liked to keep his enemies guessing on his intentions and often tried to portray a volatile and potentially hostile personality. The theory was that nobody would want to provoke someone who could have such a strong and unpredictable response. It's tough to tell if this strategy ever actually worked for him, but governments, diplomats, and especially intelligence services often use confusion and misdirection as a means to conceal their true intentions. After all, if your enemies know exactly what you are doing, then they probably know how to stop you. Of course, the downside to this is that countries can very easily misread your intentions and overreact. This was obvious when Trump took a phone call from the president of Taiwan and ended up sending mixed signals about America's commitment to the One China Policy. His past comments on the NATO alliance have also rattled the foundations of international security, which may push allies to seek security guarantors elsewhere, or convince enemies to preemptively attack what they view as a "loose cannon."
But there is another aspect of this which might make even more sense, Trump's previous history as a CEO and business professional. For decades, he was the leader of a massive (and somewhat successful) international corporation. Previous employees seem to hint that his signature management style revolves around his closest advisers competing against each other for his attention and favor. In this Darwinian atmosphere, Trump takes a more hands-off approach, allowing his support staff to do the majority of the heavy lifting until a final snap decision needs to be made. If this sounds familiar, it's basically because you watched it play out for years on The Apprentice. In the political world, where optics and perception are everything, this strategy can give the appearance of a chaotic administration fighting among itself. But then again, if even the administration doesn't really know what it will do next, there is almost no way anyone else can plan against it.
Then again, it's very possible that, to a degree, we are witnessing the growing pains of a president (and nearly an entire administrative staff) that don't yet understand (or care to appreciate) the political realm of Washington D.C. It took president Obama a while to get used to the powers (and severe constrains) of the executive branch. As we've stated before, the political world is vastly different from the business world. Firing a potential liability in a company may be great for shareholders in a business, but firing a potential liability in the political realm can be devastating. Running foreign and domestic policy is almost nothing like running a business. So it's likely that, even if there really is a grand master strategy to all of his actions, his progress has been hampered by his lack of technical political knowledge, his (apparent) disdain for the usual norms of political behavior, and his isolated status as a political outsider with few friends inside the Beltway. If unpredictability is his strategy, even that seems to be off to a rough start.