The Martingale Presidency

One of the puzzling aspects of Donald Trump’s presidency is his inability to follow a coherent long-term strategy.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, strong economic conditions would have made any conventional president a shoo-in for re-election. All Donald Trump would need to do is to stay quiet and avoid saying anything other than, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

Even after the rise of Covid-19, Donald Trump still had a clear path to victory. He could use the pandemic as an excuse to close America’s borders, and then call for a national lockdown (which would reinforce his preferred image of being a resolute strongman) to quash the virus. His opponents would certainly have criticized his “xenophobic” travel restrictions, and protested his “dictatorial” lockdown, but when the United States ended up with some of the best Covid-19 results in the world, he would have been hailed as a visionary hero.

We all know what actually happened; President Trump tried to wish the virus away, sabotaged his own national emergency by refusing to encourage strict lockdowns, and as a result the United States, the country that was considered the most ready for a pandemic in the world, leads the world in cases and deaths.

So why did Trump act the way he did? Simply arguing that he is stupid, crazy, or both offers little explanatory power. I believe there is a (poorly thought out) method to his madness.

Donald Trump is a Martingale president.

A martingale is a betting strategy; the simplest martingale is that if you lose a bet, you simply double your next bet. Repeat as needed until either you win back all your money, or go bankrupt.

When Covid-19 arose, Donald Trump viewed it as a risk, rather than an opportunity. He decided to try to bluster his way through, as had worked for him so many times before. Then, when things started to go badly, he doubled down on his losing bets.

First, he bet that America would avoid Covid-19, much as it had SARS, MERS, and Ebola. He took little action, worrying that aggressive action would harm the economy. He lost that bet.

Next, he bet that hydroxychloroquine would offer a cheap, effective cure to the disease. (To be fair, I had high hopes myself at one point.) He lost that bet.

Then, he bet that we could re-open the country and return to economic growth. He lost that bet.

Then, he bet that encouraging a crackdown on peaceful protests would win him a “law-and-order” vote a la Nixon in 1968. He lost that bet.

Then, he bet that he could go back to holding in-person rallies to show that Covid-19 wasn’t a threat. He lost that bet.

Now, he’s betting that he can sabotage mail-in voting and eke out an Electoral College victory in a depressed-turnout election.

This is, to put it mildly, a terrible strategy. Donald Trump has made a series of poorly-conceived, failed, damaging double-down bets. The only saving grace (as for as Donald Trump is concerned) is that the losses are not borne by him alone, but rather are primarily borne by the American people, especially the portion of the American people that are the least likely to vote for him.

No matter how many of these bets he loses, the most Donald Trump stands to lose is the presidency; meanwhile, over 170,000 Americans have paid off his losing bets with their lives.

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