A few days before the 2016 election, journalist Andrew Sullivan wrote this about Donald Trump: “He has no concept of a nonzero-sum engagement, in which a deal can be beneficial for both sides. A win-win scenario is intolerable to him, because mastery of others is the only moment when he is psychically at peace.”
I’m not sure dominating other people is the only occasion when Trump feels at peace. Presumably there’s a moment during what is reportedly his standard McDonald’s meal—two Big Macs, two Filets-O-Fish, and a chocolate milkshake—when all seems right with the world.
Still, in Trump’s hierarchy of bliss, dominance does seem to rank at the top. “I love to crush the other side and take the benefits,” he wrote in a book called Think Big. “Why? Because there is nothing greater. For me it is even better than sex, and I love sex.” He went on to observe: “You hear lots of people say that a great deal is when both sides win. That is a bunch of crap. In a great deal you win—not the other side. You crush the opponent and come away with something better for yourself.”
So it makes sense that, two years after Trump entered office, Sullivan’s game-theoretical framing has caught on. The zero-sum game—in which the players’ fortunes are inversely correlated, so that for one player to win the other must lose—has become a standard paradigm for the Trump presidency. If you Google “Donald Trump” and “zero-sum” you’ll get such headlines as “Trump’s Zero Sum Delusion,” “Donald Trump and the Rise of Zero-Sum Politics,” and simply “Zero-Sum Trump.”
Some of the articles attached to these headlines are about economics. They may lament Trump’s gleeful anticipation of “winning” the trade wars he starts—as if trade were a zero-sum game—and his seeming obliviousness to the fact that trade wars can have lose-lose outcomes. Other articles focus on world affairs more broadly. Nations come together to pursue win-win outcomes in the face of all kinds of problems, from financial meltdowns, climate change, and weapons proliferation to overfishing of the seas. And Trump’s attitude toward the institutions that embody such nonzero-sum engagement is notably lacking in warmth.
As journalist Jonathan Swan wrote on Axios this summer, “Trump has expressed skepticism, and in some cases outright hostility towards NATO, the European Union, the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the Group of Seven.” Swan added that Trump has “already withdrawn the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran deal” and “announced his intent to withdraw from the Paris climate accord.”
The zero-sum label applies not just to Trump’s policy preferences but to his political style. He’s expert at evoking reactions that seem to have been engineered by evolution for zero-sum situations, notably fear of, hatred of, and contempt for a perceived enemy. Bill Clinton presumably had Trump in mind when he said, five months into Trump’s presidency, “We’ve seen a resurgence in the oldest of all social reactions—the tendency to look at people first as the other, to think of life in zero-sum terms, it’s us versus them.”
I claim an increment of credit for Clinton’s conversance in game theory. During his presidency I published a book about human history and the future called Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, which he read and said some nice things about and assigned to White House staffers to read. Clinton even said the book had a big influence on his presidency.
As a result of all this, I once got some face time with Clinton. And when the subject turned to my book (which I made sure it did), he said what he had liked about it was that it was realistic—not naive—yet hopeful.
And it’s true that, after documenting humankind’s historical drift toward bigger and bigger cooperative networks—a process driven by technological change—I had sketched out a pretty sunny possible future. It was a future in which the world’s nations grasp that they’re enmeshed in lots of nonzero-sum games and act accordingly: working together to solve various problems, gradually building the foundation of good global governance. I even said this political progress could involve moral progress. People of different nationalities, religions, and ethnicities, aware of their interdependence, of the correlation of their fates, could muster the tolerance that facilitates peaceful coexistence and active collaboration. We needn’t let our tribal impulses prevail over nonzero-sum logic, I opined 19 years ago.
That was then. Now we’ve got a president who not only resists playing nonzero-sum games but actively fans emotions that impede the wise playing of them. And as if that weren’t enough, the fanning of those emotions can recalibrate the games, making lose-lose outcomes even worse than they would be otherwise. The more tribalized the world is—the more antagonistically divided along national, ethnic, religious, ideological lines—the more danger there is in, for example, letting arms control challenges go unaddressed: The more nations will be in the mood to lob missiles, the more terrorist groups there will be that might get ahold of a nuke or a bioweapon. Trump’s policy instincts make good governance hard, and his political style makes the consequences of bad governance grave.
Still, hope springs eternal, and so does my belief that hope can be reconciled with realism. There’s reason to think that, in a weird way, the Trump presidency, rather than drag us into a death spiral of tribalism and lethal technology, could be a roundabout path to a higher plane. But to see this cause for hope you have to see that the conventional view of Trump as the zero-sum president has its shortcomings.
For starters, to view Trump as someone who ushered in an era of zero-sum politics and policy is, in a sense, to give him too much credit. Many of the tensions that fueled Trump’s rise—tensions between globalization’s losers and winners, between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, between unfettered national sovereignty and global governance—were building up long before he arrived, and were bound to keep building up, thanks to the relentless impetus of technological evolution. If Trump hadn’t won the lottery to represent one side of this dialectic, someone else would have. Once you step back and view this moment in the full sweep of history, Trump starts to look like so much froth on a very big wave, a wave that’s been growing for a long time and was bound to crest at some point. [Continue reading…]