Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Unpredictable Leader

Among the various, repeated themes of this year’s presidential election has been the unpredictability of the Republican party’s unbelievable choice for a nominee.

Ever since he announced his candidacy in mid-June 2015, observers have been focused intently both on his strange, highly unorthodox campaign and his penchant for saying and tweeting out odd, often unexpected comments and criticisms -- statements made all the more strange-seeming given his status as a candidate and eventually the frontrunner choice of his party.

I mentioned just a couple of days ago my Richard Nixon course and how the current presidential campaign does (or does not) compare to ones from the past. In the course we discuss some of Nixon’s poker strategy, something he himself talked about at length in a few different contexts. There’s one quote in particular from Nixon that we as a class tend to go back to frequently when discussing both his poker playing and the strategy he’d employ in campaigns and while in office -- a quote about being unpredictable.

The quote actually comes amid a discussion of how poker and politics tend to overlap, so the advice Nixon is putting forward actually relates to both. Speaking in 1983, Nixon complains about what he calls “the almost insatiable tendency of American politicians to want to put everything on the table. Their inability to know when to bluff, when to call, and above everything else, how to be unpredictable. Unpredictability is the greatest asset or weapon that a leader can have.... And unless he’s unpredictable, he’s going to find that he loses a great deal of his power.”

To be fair, Nixon was speaking primarily of a president dealing with foreign heads of state, although the observation applies not only to poker but to other areas of political strategy. Nixon often in his campaigns made big “moves” or “plays” that were unanticipated by many of his opponents. As president he also often would be unpredictable, often using televised speeches to make genuinely surprising announcements about Vietnam, the economy, various policies and initiatives, his trips to China and Russia, and later on, Watergate.

I wrote a little about this quote and its connection to the Republican candidate earlier this year, responding to a pundit who was congratulating him for being “the best poker player in the Republican field” and in particular being very good at being unpredictable.

I’ve taught the Nixon course a few times now, and during our discussions of the quote we’ve tended to agree with the idea that unpredictability may well be a good campaign strategy. We can also readily see how it might be a favored trait when dealing with foreign powers, especially when in conflict with them.

However, we’ve also recognized that we don’t necessarily like our leaders to be too unpredictable with us. We need to be able to count on presidents not to say or do things that don’t at least conform with our idea of what we expect of them (never mind wildly oppose that idea). Even if they present ideas or courses of actions we hadn’t specifically anticipated, we need those ideas and courses of actions to fit with our earlier “read” of the person whom we’ve chosen to lead us.

That’s because even though it may be hard to remember when we think about our relationship to our elected leaders, we aren’t their opponents. At least we shouldn’t be.

The unpredictability of the Republicans’ current leader -- earlier heralded as savvy and strategic -- has become much less celebrated over recent weeks. It has also become a genuine cause of concern for those contemplating what his presidency might be like, including among many of those formerly enthused about his unpredictability.

What happens next? It’s hard to say. And yeah, that’s unsettling.

Image: “I wonder if #TheDonald reads every tweet about him” (adapted), Steve Baker. CC BY-ND 2.0.

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