Alan Zendell, June 4, 2021
Brinksmanship is like poker. You may be holding a winning hand. You may be bluffing. More than one player may believe he has a winning hand, and some players may behave irrationally. If that happens you have is an unpredictable outcome. In poker, unpredictability is what makes the game fun – the worst thing that might happen is losing a hand.
In brinksmanship the worst case is completely open-ended. All players could lose everything. We survived half a century of cold war, in which brinksmanship was thought to be the best way to maintain the peace. The idea was that the possibility that everyone could be devastated, known as mutually assured destruction, would in a rational world assure that no one took any action that set off an uncontrollable chain reaction of events. We survived the terror of nuclear holocaust for two generations. Were we right or just lucky?
Why would world leaders play such a deadly game? Because they believed had no other option. The problem is human nature. The only way to avoid brinksmanship is for everyone to submit to a higher authority, an objective arbiter of disputes. The League of Nations and the United Nations were idealized attempts to create such an authority. But when superpowers cannot agree, the result is either stalemate or war. It’s a truly terrifying situation that depends on world leaders all being basically sane. What might have happened if Nikita Khrushchev hadn’t backed down during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Khrushchev was the ultimate poker player who knew how far he could bluff before he (and we) lost everything.
The Trump faction of today’s Republican Party is presently involved in an equally risky game of brinksmanship. As with world leaders, it’s an act of desperation – they believe they have no other option. If they played by the rules while insisting that their policies and goals for the nation were non-negotiable, the evolving demographics of the country would almost certainly destroy their viability as a party. They could have modified their policies and messaging, but they chose to bluff it out in a power play.
Trump has always preferred intimidation to negotiation. That’s always been the centerpiece of his business philosophy. His narcissistic personality makes him incapable of accepting anything but a victory that completely vanquishes the enemy, and the enemy is everyone who hasn’t sworn fealty to him. Whether he wins or loses this fight, American democracy will be the ultimate loser.
This is not about traditional politics; words like liberal, progressive, and conservative have no meaning here. It’s completely about whether our constitutional guarantees of the rights and privileges of citizenship will survive. As we have repeatedly seen for the last six years, Trumpism is about whites dominating non-whites, regardless of who’s in the majority. It’s about whether the wealthy have a limitless right to protect their fortunes through any means and about the limits on personal freedoms like gun ownership that are required to protect society.
Those three issues are not a political philosophy. They are simply a collection of ideas calculated to win the loyalty of enough people to retain power, with no regard for the well-being of the nation. Thus, Trump is about to engage in a potentially deadly game of brinksmanship that will place everything at risk, a high-stakes, winner-take-all poker game in which winning is the only thing that matters. In doing so he will create a scenario in which the single thing that prevented nuclear war in the brinksmanship of the Cold War is removed from the game. Gone is the assurance that both sides with behave rationally. Trump believes in the Madman approach to diplomacy – intimidate the other side by making it believe that he’s crazy enough to destroy everything if he doesn’t get what he wants.
Why would that change now? He has demonstrated that he’s willing to build a movement on lies and fantasies. He has violated all the constitutional norms of fair elections and peaceful transfer of power. He has gleefully sparked an insurrection that could have had disastrous consequences beyond the lives lost and the hundreds of injuries to law enforcement personnel. And he’s moved on from Fox News to the entirely right-wing conspiracy-driven America One network for his ideas and support.
The faction of the Republican Party and its voting base that supports Trumps from this point forward care nothing about the future of America and everything about accumulating as much power as they can. They are single-minded and will stop at nothing, even if they blow it all up. An irrational leader who respects no authority but his own is the most dangerous threat this country will ever face.
Only Republicans driven by principle and conscience can fix this, and now may be their last chance.