“Simulated disorder postulates perfect discipline; simulated fear postulates courage; simulated weakness postulates strength.” — Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War
It was January 1991. We’d just decided to do the war thing again. We launched an attack on Saddam Hussein, a weak man who made a show of strength by invading Kuwait. Saddam was a “strongman” — a dictator who harmed his own people. Like all strongmen, he was not a strong man inside.
At the time I was Mayor Daley’s research director at the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, helping to catalogue and combat hate crimes in the city. It was my job to tell the Chicago Police Department and other agencies when and where the bad guys would strike. I memorized and detailed the census tract of every mosque, synagogue, and veterans hall in the city, and shockingly — given that I was all of 24 years old at the time — they actually listened to me. After a few very bad nights, the good guys in blue chased our particular breed of racist thugs back to their warrens. It was glorious.
What the department wanted to do was show strength where they were weak. Mind you, I never thought of the CPD as weak. But they did have limited resources and limited response time. They needed Chicago to believe they had more capacity than they did, and targeting those particular hotspots meant everybody was confident the cops had this situation on lockdown.
Acknowledging one’s own weakness is the heart of strategic decision making. Only when you have a true assessment of your strength in relation to your opponents can you form an effective strategy against them. When you do, you can think like a poker player. In poker, you feign weakness when you have good cards, betting light and hoping others will fall into your trap. And you feign strength when you have bad cards, betting heavy and hoping to chase those with better cards away. This is basic Sun-Tzu, and it works.
Today, we have a president who cannot admit weakness. It terrifies Trump; it makes him a lesser person in his eyes. He is under assault constantly, for reasons entirely of his own making. He rails against the manifest unfairness of it all; he only wants to be loved, despite his unending run of hateful, mean-spirited, and unconstitutional actions. He is portrayed as being weak, and he cannot handle it. He must show he is strong, because he is not strong.
For once, I think he’s right. Politically, he really does need to show strength in the face of his own weakness. It’s the only way he can win with his own base. The only problem for us is, he has control of the nuclear arsenal. If he wants, he can show massive strength. It’ll just get him deposed and maybe worse if he does. Deep down, he probably knows that. So he doesn’t start a war… yet. (Never mind the loss of life. That’s not something that registers with tyrants.)
So imagine Trump’s delight when, thwarted in making any real display of strength, he went to Europe and saw another way. In France, they make a big deal of strength displays in the form of military parades. France’s track record in modern wars isn’t exactly stellar, so showing strength when they have a history of perceived weakness is a good move. The French forget the Maginot Line, Algeria, Dien Bien Phu. They just see those displays of weaponry go by, sing La Marseillaise, and feel like they’re strong.
I want one of those, Trump said, and demanded it of his flummoxed generals. We don’t do that sort of thing here, they said, and seriously, Mr. President, who’s gonna foot the bill? In a time when we’ve had two government shutdowns in a month, it’s not a great time to be wasting millions on parades. The generals hate this idea. Here’s retired Army Major General Mark Eaton:
“For someone who just declared that it was ‘treasonous’ to not applaud him, and for someone who has, in the past, admired the tactics of everyone from Saddam Hussein to Vladimir Putin, it is clear that a military parade isn’t about saluting the military — it is about making a display of the military saluting him…. Unfortunately, we do not have a commander in chief, right now, as much as we have a wannabe banana republic strong man.”
Well now. But hey, Trump wants a parade, and if we’re smart, we’ll give it to him. Because he’s a weak man who controls the nuclear arsenal. We should surrender to his need to show strength, because then he won’t lash out in a show of real strength. One that could kill a whole lot of us. This is what we get for electing a weak man. We’ll elect a strong person after we run this fool out. For now, this is what we got. We win by feigning weakness.
But we don’t have to give him everything. We can deny him right up to his smallest moment of confidence, because he has to accept what we give him, as long as it makes him feel strong. That’s how it works. Watch, I’ll show you.
A few days after we began Operation Desert Storm, the director of the City of Chicago’s Advisory Council on Veterans Affairs had a terrible idea. Chicago’s beloved Casimir Pulaski Day Parade was coming up in March, and there was a reasonable desire to give it a pro-military theme. So the director decided he wanted to run actual tanks down Michigan Avenue. That wasn’t his terrible idea. His terrible idea was telling me in advance.
See, I most assuredly did not want tanks rumbling down the streets of a major American city during a war in which those of Middle Eastern descent were disproportionately victimized. I felt that terrifying the citizenry of Chicago into submission was a wildly undemocratic idea. I planned to stop him.
But I knew that while our men and women hazarded their lives overseas, I’d never win a patriotism battle with the director of veterans affairs. Not in front of the mayor’s staff anyway. I had a much weaker position than he did. I could not pretend I had more strength on the military front. I took a different tack.
I made it a physics discussion. I calmly explained that my objection to this plan was wear and tear on the city streets produced by a column of 60-ton tanks. I sketched out a bar napkin calculation of the damage downtown would suffer. When asked about putting the tanks on trucks, I showed the damage would be much worse, since (ahem) tanks don’t weigh less when they’re on trucks. Within minutes, the idea of driving tanks through the Loop was dead, and we went back to having a good old-fashioned Pulaski Day Parade.
The director was furious at me, but he soon cooled down. Because he knew as well as I did that no matter how passionate you might be about an issue in Chicago, the all-powerful Department of Streets and Sanitation is stronger than you. That’s just how Chicago does Chicago. In the face of his weakness compared to Streets and San, the director was satisfied that he got to make a fruitless display of strength, and that’s all that mattered.
We didn’t have tanks in the streets during the Gulf War. We don’t have to have them now. We can say no. We just have to remember that a weak man needs a show of strength. Unless we’re prepared to remove him from power now, playing to his weakness is good for us. We don’t die in a blue-orange fireball, and we take away his toys in November. I’ll make that trade. We all should.
But seriously, no tanks. You don’t want potholes.
This is the fifteenth installment of a series of posts on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, the debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, and immigration.
Essays like this are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order from Basket of Adorables right now. For a brief time, you can get it by donating to a Democratic candidate. Go to it!