Donald Trump is very proud of his abilities as a negotiator. His brilliance in that field was a constant subject of his speeches during the campaign, and he continues to remind us. Since the election, he has shaken up the rest of us with tweets and actions that seem to signal enormous changes in foreign policy. Most of us do not have the constitution to deal with a parade of days like yesterday, but it looks like this will be the case for the next four years. Where we become exhausted, Trump seems to gain energy from the uproar. As we become exhausted, it will be easier to tolerate what we cannot if we want America to continue as a democracy. So it’s important to understand and counter what Trump is doing.
From what he has said, and from his actions, I have extracted four principles.
- Every interaction is a negotiation.
- Win-lose is the only acceptable strategy.
- Unpredictability is a cornerstone of negotiating.
- Negotiations should be opened with an outrageous offer.
Interestingly, Trump talks little about the slog of negotiating after the first outrageous offer. It appears that doubling down and general bullying are a large part of that slog for him, wearing down the other side. This is consistent with win-lose being the only acceptable strategy.
His campaign demonstrates a combination of these four points. His positions were extreme, and some are now being walked back. “Drain the swamp” has given way to appointing the cabinet with the greatest personal wealth ever. His continuing vendettas against Alicia Machado and Rosie O’Donnell indicate that he is unwilling to accept anything but crushing those he sees as opponents. Point 3 means that he feels he must keep information from those he is negotiating with. That group includes the voters; see point 1.
His tweets provide an ideal ground for points 3 and 4. As we have seen, an outrageous tweet (point 4) unsettles the world (point 1) because it is so unexpected (point 3). That gives him time and space to maneuver and perhaps cover for something less acceptable, although I suspect these are useful secondary results. Point 3 is important in that it unsettles the opposition’s plans and makes it easier to drive through Trump’s preferences (point 2).
If we can get a handle on his strategy, we will have a better idea of how to respond for the next four years. Here are my tentative thoughts, based on my experience in negotiating.
- Expect the unexpected. We can’t anticipate every detail, but we know that Trump likes to unsettle us. Don’t let him do it.
- Respond with facts. This will help to deflate the exaggerations and set a different tone for the negotiation. The first response should not obsess over every word, however, because of Point 4. He probably doesn’t mean it literally. His doubling down in response to criticism should be pointed out, with only enough detail to make it credible. He is not arguing seriously.
- Pin him down. This is largely the job of the media, but the rest of us need to keep up a clamor to encourage them to do that job. It is particularly difficult to do with Twitter, so journalists need to be very careful with how they report his tweets. I am seeing more skepticism in some articles. It is a particularly important point, because Trump has an abuser’s facility with vagueness, which will damage all of us if we let it.
- Keep an even tone. Hair on fire messes with our ability to think straight.
Trump’s negotiating strategy boils down to win at all costs. We have to deny him that win. He is showing a pattern in how he uses it, particularly via Twitter. Once we begin to counter it, we can expect him to change up, although it’s hard to see how he can change the basics.
I wrote about Trump’s negotiating strategy in July. I still see it as a poor strategy, brittle and fomenting distrust. It is also weak because of its consistency and relatively easy counters.