Donald Trump's Deportation Gambit

Donald Trump has no more idea how he's going to deport twelve million people than John Kennedy knew how he was going to put a manned spacecraft on the moon.

But then, Kennedy was a visionary and Trump is an imbecile, right?

Also, Kennedy had his eye on elevating humanity, while Trump is trying to put the kibosh on cheap landscapers.

But still... what's he up to?

Here's what: He's controlling the architecture of the argument.

That's the way high-level business guys get what they want.  He's good at it; he does it reflexively, and it's a technique he uses over and over.  None of this has anything to do with compassion, or the lack of it; fairness, or the lack of it; practicality, or the lack of it. It has only to do with leverage, with controlling the argument and eventually winning it, whatever that looks like.

How then, does he do that? How does he, “control the architecture of the argument”? Simple.  He does it by ruthlessly applying the core principle that every good negotiator adheres to:

Never argue about what the other guys want to argue about.

Don't even argue about what you want to argue about.

Nope. Argue about what the other guys don't want to argue about.

The reason the other guys don't want to argue about it will be because it's either uncomfortable and embarrassing, or it denies them the logical foundation for the case they are trying to make.  Firmly bolting them to those noxious things is how you win. It's the way you get the other guys to cede the point, to give an inch if you need that, or a mile if it comes down to it.  There's always something.

How hard is it?  Not very, especially if you have no scruples; but observe for a moment how this has been playing out on the border issues:

The illegal immigrant community has, for years, been framing the argument to their self-perceived benefit: We're here. We're your problem. You have an obligation to figure out what's to be done with us, and you need to do it in a way that demonstrates to the world that you are not a country made up of lousy, unfeeling, greed-driven people.  (Did I mention you’re racists?)

Put simply, the question as they would have it constructed is this:

“What are you going to do for us in order to get us to stop being your problem?”

For Gandhi's “passive resistance” to prevail against the Raj, British compassion and empathy were necessary, but probably not sufficient.  They also needed to value what the world thought of them and, even more important, what they thought of themselves.  They had to believe there was something akin to a “national character” and care about it, which is to say they needed to be concerned with who they were as a people, and what their behavior dictated about just that.

Donald Trump is willing to back burner those concerns, or ignore them altogether in the service of something entirely pragmatic, with which his aggressive business background makes him far more familiar.  When Trump states that his first order of business is going to be to deport the problem back to wherever it came from, on the one hand, he leaves behind any pretense of punctiliousness, but, on the other, he immediately turns the discussion on its head.  The question no longer perches on the issue of what he, President Trump, is going to do for them, undocumented workers, to get them to agree to stop being his problem (which is to say, what they want to argue about), it hops across a great divide, turning back on itself, and becomes: What are they going to do for him, Trump, in order to incentivize him to stop being their problem.  That is, it moves from something they do want to talk about -- what are you going to do for me? -- to something they don't want to talk about: What do I have to do for you in order to be let back in through your big, beautiful door”?

This is no small thing.

It is second nature to a guy like Trump.  He's not kidding when he says, “The Hispanics love me”; he no doubt believes it, and, until Election Day returns are in, who's to say he's wrong?  He's a business guy, sub-species real estate developer, doing things that are completely familiar to other business guys, especially those who are involved with the “building trades.”  His career has involved spending all day, every day, tussling with people who want to gain the upper hand, and will do almost anything toward that end: Unions, construction companies, permitting agencies, zoning boards. It's a swirling, bubbling power-stew, an ever-fluid ebb and flow of leverage relationships, the control and management of which are the stock in trade of a guy like Donald Trump.  This is what he does, and the ones who are successful at it do it not only well, but reflexively and at times ferociously.

Look what he's accomplished with this outlandish stance, and remember, so far, he hasn't actually done anything:

Prior to this, the advocates would consider anything less than full amnesty to be a loss; now, Trump has maneuvered to the position where he is more than happy to let them consider anything less than full deportation a win.  That is a totally different negotiating position, one that would not occur to politicians who prefer to endlessly nibble around the edges hoping to gain a few crumbs, but which a hardened businessperson would go for like a Cheetah.

That's why even Trump himself might not be entirely aware of what he's doing and why.  Over many years of the rough and tumble, figuring out how to rock the other guy back onto his heels and seize the tactical high ground has become so instinctual and ingrained that Trump vaults to it and embraces it tenaciously despite any amount of caviling – because it's virtually part of his DNA. It's who he is, and, in his own words, “It's not mean-spirited; it is business.”

It's about identifying sources of leverage, seizing that leverage and then exploiting it to get what you want, and here's the remarkable thing about it: If everybody's doing that in a pretty skilled way, stuff gets done, and even a cracked sort of fairness can prevail. Good things happen and seemingly intractable conflicts can find their way to a resolution.  And, yes, buildings get built – sometimes with a big, fat “Trump” emblazoned at the top, like a flashing “Eat Here” on a desert chow palace in the middle of nowhere, standing like some kind of post-apocalyptic monument to getting what you want.

Trump's hardline deportation posture may very well be a gambit on his part, intentional or not, where he sacrifices one thing -- any claim to a liberal progressives' conception of human decency -- in order to get something he considers more valuable: negotiating leverage.  Is that crazy, or what?


Bobby Fischer, who spent his entire life, every waking moment, immersed in the strategy of chess, its intricacies and bottomless complexities – one might say the art of it – was once asked what the best part of playing chess was, the part he loved the most.  He thought about it for a long moment, then said:

“I like to make them squirm.”

Anybody think Trump is any different?

This willingness, even eagerness, to go for the jugular is unseemly in the extreme, of course, but Trump seems more than willing to absorb charges of mean-spiritedness in order to have the focus shift off of him and onto the other guy in a way that makes the other guy as uncomfortable as is humanly possible. And he is uncanny at sniffing out the vulnerabilities, identifying the vanities of his adversaries, making them argue about the one thing they want to have the focus on least, whether it is Rosie O'Donnell's weight problem or Jeb Bush's energy level.

He calls it counter punching, but that's not precisely it, because that implies a random, almost spasmodic reaction. there's nothing random or willy-nilly about it.  It's an immediate retaliation to a pre-identified vulnerability designed to serve up the opponent's dirty linen or strategic weakness on a platter, while rendering forgotten one's own.  He doesn't respond to the substance, he deflects and attacks back at whatever he figures the attacker doesn't want to discuss.  It's a technique that doesn't lead to a lot of gentlemanly, Cartesian discussions, but which does, on the other hand, induce one's opponent to back the heck off.

And guess what?  It works, and it works in part because Trump knows that this constant, reflexive attacking technique, when done deftly and with a loony kind of élan, is catnip to the media; he knows how to manipulate them better than any other candidate by far, maybe ever.  If the media starts homing in on something sensational about you, give them something even more sensational about the other guy, and watch them turn on a dime. It's like a prison escapee evading the hound dogs by tossing a Porterhouse in the opposite direction.

Yes, it's about pushing the other guy around, and in the world of business -- any business but especially big time real estate development -- what you do all day long, every day, from morning until night, until the stupid building gets itself done.   You're either doing the pushing or being pushed, the pusher or the pushee, but somebody, at all times, is being pushed, and that is exactly what he's doing on the campaign trail.

None of this, however, ever involves arguing about what the other guy wants to argue about, and one way that people try to slip out of the snare is to demand details.  Just how, Mr. Trump, do you plan on implementing this cockamamie deportation plan?  As if Trump cared whether it was actually implementable or not.  They don't seem to fathom that implementing it is not the point -- it's threatening to implement it that completely changes the framing of the argument, and that is what Trump is really, really good at and why he is, in his Donaldian way, so exasperating to many.

One person who gets that is Jorge Ramos.  Despite appearances, Ramos' fury -- which finds its expression in a demand for detail -- isn't really based on a desire to expose Trump by requiring he explain how on earth he is going to grab twelve million (or twenty) by the collar and chuck 'em back over the border.  If it's a preposterous, unworkable idea (and it is, and even Trump recognizes that, I would bet), what's Ramos worried about? It's not going to happen and everybody knows it.  No, he's upset (very) because the appeal of framing the discussion around “What are you going to do for me?” disappears if you know the answer is, “Throw you the heck out.” It pulls the rug out from underneath the kind of political leverage (some might say blackmail) that has been the baseline position for decades.

So they fulminate: You can't just toss ideas like that onto to the table like a big, flopping flounder without providing details as to how you're going to do it, or how are we to believe that it's even feasible?


Without in any way diminishing the outlandishness of Trump's detail-free approach, it should be pointed out that there is some precedent in this regard, for example, Abraham Lincoln.  Horace Greeley and a lot of others wanted to pin Lincoln down on what he was going to do about slavery.  What, precisely, is your plan, they demanded to know.  So, Lincoln, while he did use it as an opportunity to repeat his “...oft expressed wish that all men everywhere could be free”, deftly side-stepped the slavery issue and, by so doing, changed the orientation of the discussion while cavalierly and purposefully refusing to give any specifics.  He told Greeley that his aim was to save the Union:

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all of the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.

Can you imagine how well this would fly with, say, Chuck Todd?  In his usual, smug, smarty-pants (and remarkably obtuse) way, Todd would remonstrate with Lincoln, informing him (and who better than Todd to know?) that, hey, if you're going to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate (by important people such as myself), you're obligated to give details! Where are the specifics???

Specifics? How's this?

My aim is to make the country great again. If I can do it without deporting anyone, I'll do that. If I can do it by deporting everyone, I'll do that. If I can do it by deporting some and not others, I'll do that.

At this juncture it would be both fair and horrifying to ask whether I was comparing Donald Trump to Abraham Lincoln, which allows me to quickly say that I am doing nothing more than pointing out that there is precedent for presidential candidates to take the position that they will figure it out as they go along. Whether it seems like a good idea to accede to that might very well hinge on a determination as to whether you are dealing with an Abraham Lincoln or a Donald Trump.  My advice is to not guess wrong.

In the interim, folks ought to start realizing what it is, exactly, that Trump is doing, and if they have an inclination to neutralize his candidacy, the place to start is by using his own favorite technique against him.  It's not that hard; you just need to be willing to get a little dirty.