Tim Harford may be best known as the Undercover Economist, but his latest book ventures far outside the realm of straight economics, into technology, business, culture, and politics. In Messy: How to Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World, Harford looks at how chaos and messiness actually can be beneficial, from creating great music to winning an election. Messy was published in October, but in one eerily prescient chapter, Harford focusses on Donald Trump, analysing his ability in the presidential campaign to create confusion and disorient his opponents. Now, five weeks into Trump’s presidency, that analysis seems more relevant than ever. I caught up with Harford to find out how his theories about winning by manufacturing chaos could help us understand what’s been going on in the White House.
In Messy, you have a chapter on “winning”, in which you discuss the military concept of “OODA loops”. Can you explain what “getting inside an enemy’s OODA loop” means, and how Donald Trump used that tactic during the primaries?
The OODA loop is a piece of military jargon coined by a brilliant pilot and tactician, John Boyd. Boyd was always a bit of an insurgent himself inside the US military, but was also a highly influential thinker. Dick Cheney was one of many of Boyd’s admirers, and the “Desert Storm” operation in 1991 in the Gulf War is one military operation that was inspired by Boyd’s thinking.
So what does “OODA” mean? It stands for Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. There’s a lot to the idea – Boyd used to give five hour lectures on the subject – but it describes the process of gathering new information in a rapidly-changing world.
One of Boyd’s key insights is that you can gain a big advantage if you can disorient your opponent, and keep disorienting them. You can do that through ambiguity, by raising apparent contradictions, or by rapid movement. If your tactics are so confusing that your opponent keeps having to stop and reorient himself, again and again and again, you’re “inside their OODA loop”.
And Donald Trump’s election campaign – particularly the primaries, where he absolutely dominated against much better-established, better-funded and more experienced opponents – was a masterclass in getting inside the OODA loop. He made the primary campaign all about him and sucked the oxygen away from all of his rivals. They just couldn’t make headlines, and couldn’t respond quickly enough to what he was doing.
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Since Trump’s victory, we’ve seen one disorienting announcement after another – from his reaction to reports of Russian interference in the election, to the misinformation handed out to the press about the inauguration crowd size, to the travel ban. To what extent do you think this is an extension of the “messy” tactic, creating chaos to prevent the opposition from adequately responding?
I think it’s very much a continuation of the same tactic. I’m not sure it will continue to work, but he’s trying. One problem for Trump is that the tactic is designed to work by disorienting your enemy. But Trump doesn’t have a clear enemy any more – Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have gone; Hillary Clinton has gone. Now he’s trying to create new enemies, such as the mainstream media or the judiciary, but that’s a very difficult kind of fight. Judges don’t have to beat Trump in an election, so they aren’t necessarily disadvantaged if they don’t rise to his bait.
We’ve heard reports that Trump’s White House is as chaotic to insiders as it seems to observers, with staff shortages, advisors unclear of their roles or powers, and constant contradictions. The rushed nature of the travel ban, with the involvement of the relevant agencies, is one example – so is the scandal over Michael Flynn and his contact with Russian officials. If this is true, do you think this is a failure of management, or a deliberate attempt at maintaining unpredictability even internally?
I honestly don’t know. This may just be an utterly incompetent train wreck of an administration, or it could be an incipient coup. Political scientist Tom Pepinsky has written a nice reminder that we sometimes very different scenarios can play out in very similar ways at first.
But it’s clear to me that some of this is a strategy. Trump continues to dominate the news cycle; it’s been very hard for political rivals (and here I would include Republicans in Congress) to get much air time. He’s successfully painted the mainstream media as his enemy. I suspect that this won’t work out well for him in the long term, but I could be wrong. And in the short-term he continues to appeal to the same people who voted him in. They’ve not changed their minds – not yet.
Trump’s volatility worked well in the primaries, and eventually in the presidential election. If his behaviour now as president is deliberate, will it work in the long-run, or is running a country too complex a job for mess and spontaneity?
Trump’s goal appears to be tear down the post Cold-War international order and replace it with “America First”. He will have his work cut out – partly because his own team seem to oppose the goal. As I write (late February) we’ve seen his Treasury pick Steve Mnuchin and his Vice President Mike Pence politely contradict Trump’s own policy announcements on Chinese currency manipulation and NATO respectively.
Still, I suspect that his constant improvisations and changes of directions could go a long way towards making the changes he seeks if only as a side effect. If he wants to undermine the systems and institutions we have, he can do that simply by demonstrating that his an unreliable ally. Unfortunately I don’t think those changes are in America’s interests.
In Messy, you contrast Trump’s agility with the “schwefällig” (ponderous) mentality of his rivals, in particular Jeb Bush. From studying the military generals who created chaos to disorient their enemies, what advice would you give to Trump’s opponents? How can the media, the Democrats and even his Republican critics best combat his tactics? Is there any hope?
“Schwerfallig” was the term the German military used to describe the British army in the second world war – I contrast it with the German commander Erwin Rommel’s nimble and often improvisational tactics. Rommel was a master of messy warfare and his own preparations often appeared shambolic close up – but he won victory after victory.
Still: Rommel, in the end, was defeated by the slow, methodical preparations of Montgomery. Monty assembled an overwhelming material advantage and ground out a win.
Of course politics is not war, but I suspect that Trump, in the end, will be defeated by a methodical approach rather than trying to beat him at his own game. He is opposed by large numbers of government officials at all levels and in all branches of government; the media are starting to be much more systematic in calling out falsehoods. And it’s clear that he’s infuriated the intelligence services. One suspects the leaking against his administration isn’t going to stop. So let’s see.
Messy: How to Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World by Tim Harford is published by Little, Brown Book Group.