Strategy Trumps Confusion

Donald Trump is winning the GOP Presidential primary race for one simple reason: he can think strategically and his opponents cannot.  Increasing numbers of voters sense this, and they are fed up with leaders who are confused.  Far from being “silent” or “low information,” these voters have discovered the key to this election -- strategic thinking.

What will happen in the “big show” later this year is that Trump will likely square off against Ms. Hillary Clinton and, once again, strategic clarity will surely win that contest.  Her history of strategic blunders, including, but not limited to, her email fiasco and the Libyan “adventure” (as part of a reaction to an non-existent “Arab Spring”) -- while likely not rising to the level of indictments -- will probably sink her candidacy. No, Toto, we aren't in Kansas anymore.

Past Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been making the rounds declaring, “running a business (i.e. Trump) isn't the same as running a government (i.e. the two Presidents for whom he worked, Bush and Obama).”  On this he is certainly correct, though it raises the question of whether, as SecDef, Mr. Gates “had a strategy.” 

“We don't have a strategy . . .” -- President Barak Obama (27 August, 2014)

Based on work we have done consulting to senior strategic officers in the Pentagon over the past decade, we would have to say, “No, he didn't.”  His Pentagon was (and still is) chronically confused.

As it turns out, our experiences, including a long career on Wall Street engaged with technology companies, such as IBM, Apple, Google and others, suggests that strategy is also extremely rare in the business world today.  What is usually attributed to “short-term/quarterly focus” goes much deeper than that.  Indeed, as veteran Fortune magazine reporter Walter Kiechel documented in his masterful 2010 book The Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World, strategic-thinking in business world largely disappeared by the 1990s -- dying out with the WW II generation of corporate leaders for whom strategy was a way-of-life.

As Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business School's Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration, specializing in corporate strategy, put it in public comments addressing the 2012 HBS U.S. Competitiveness Survey, “Unless you're a small, authoritarian enterprise like Singapore, strategic thinking in business today is nearly impossible.”

All this raises two basic questions:  How is Trump different and why has this happened now?

We begin by noting that we do not know Donald Trump personally and we are not supporting his candidacy.  This is not a “partisan” argument.  It is a strategic one.

Mr. Trump is hardly a secretive character and his approach to his real estate and other businesses is, as such things go, fairly widely known.  Repeatedly, as he reminds us, through every New York City administration from Lindsey to Deblasio, Trump has figured out how to “make the deal.”  We believe that any honest account of his business success will quickly reveal the source of his success -- he out-strategized his opponents.

For those inclined to denigrate what this involves -- from calling him an “opportunist” to “eminent domain” bully -- Trump's trajectory seems baffling.  Some think that he came across the bridge from Queens with a chip-on-his-shoulder and some just presume that he “inherited” his empire.  Woe to those who have lost the plot line of his life and shame on those who judge him but have never faced a life defining strategic challenge themselves.

Some who know him, and his business operation, point to a singular event that shaped Trump perhaps more than any others.  On Oct. 11, 1989, Trump's closest business colleagues died in a helicopter crash in New Jersey.  This accident and resulting adversity forced him to rebuild in a way that few others have experienced.  The fun-and-games had ended.  Going forward Trump and his newly assembled team would have to be far more strategic in their outlook.

Trump's strategy-centered approach to the GOP primary race reflects the results of these repeated “trials-by-fire.”  Clearly he has out-strategized the television networks -- where the “logic” of ratings compels them to cover his every move, saving him millions.  In Iowa, instead of either the classic mailing-list driven, army of volunteers knocking-on-your-door approach or the new-and-improved television “niche marketing” segmentation approach, Trump has relied on the combination of mass-rallies and “social media” -- strategically aligning himself with how the voters do their politics today -- adding the old-fashioned touch of sending signed Christmas cards to his supporters.

We believe that Trump deserves to be called the only “digital” candidate in the race.  The contrast between how politics was considered fully “established” with opposition-research/consultant/focus-group driven television-advertising campaigns and Trump's approach is impossible to miss.  Strategically speaking, his opponents are bringing a roller coaster (i.e. television-based campaigning) to an F1 Grand Prix race.

Answering our second question, “why has this happened now?” we are convinced that television itself deserves much of the blame.  As Merrelyn Emery details in her 1986 PhD thesis, a wide-range of psychological and neurological research points to the “dissociative” and “maladaptive” behaviors that result from television watching.  We believe this is a result of the intense “suspension of disbelief” needed to confuse television for “reality.”  Far worse than “motion pictures” that are composed of a series of still photos, television technology presents the viewer with a hallucinatory display of blinking-lights, without any picture, or motion or even colors. 

In a culture shaped by television, “make believe” (verging on psychological warfare) takes over and the mental qualities required for strategic thinking decline and eventually disappear.  This condition is, arguably, beneficial for the commercial purposes of advertising and (often needless) consumption growth but it is disastrous for economic, political and security planning.  Those who have become habituated to believe that reality is “socially constructed” and that humans are hardwired for “story-telling” cannot be expected to think strategically.  And, as the Trump campaign makes clear, they simply can't.

The current dust-up between Trump and Fox News is a prime example of his opponents’ strategic blunders.  For decades, television has driven the fantasy of the “globalism” that is the basis of Rupert Murdoch's business empire.  As Brietbart has recently pointed out, Murdoch is co-chair of the “open borders” Partnership for a New America, a prime lobbyist for the 2013 “Gang of Eight” immigration bill.  Correctly, Trump understands that this world-without-borders has collapsed.  Indeed, this fundamental change has been driven by digital technologies -- which, unlike “analog” television, point us towards a world of differences not one of “world federation.”  Trump's signature campaign promise, the wall with Mexico, undercuts the Murdoch/Fox “One World” ideology so, to their own peril, they have lined up against him.  No, digital reality is not on their side. Yes, as Trump succinctly puts it, “You either have a country or you don't.”

In addition to rebooting our basic views of world affairs, we are convinced that digital technology brings with it very different behavioral and cultural implications.  Instead of being based on “images” that truly aren't there, like television, digital technology is structured around memory -- from internal computer memory, to disk storage, to the “cloud” and the World Wide Web.  All of this reflects a vast potential to “retrieve” or “remember,” witness how every American teenager with a smartphone is carrying a Library of Alexandria in their pocket.

No, we are not saying that this is without any social or personal dangers.  Plato worried that literacy would destroy his fellow Athenians’ ability to memorize epic poems (at the same time he banned poets from his Republic).  Today we rely on computers to correct our spelling and remember our spouse's work phone number (if not our own).  Surveillance is, of course, a larger form of “memory” -- likely a more important effect on our lives than concerns over privacy etc -- throwing us into a world in which nearly everything we do has been recorded and can be indexed, searched and shared.  When history becomes a Wikipedia search, mistakes and manipulation are serious problems.  No, humanity has never lived under such conditions and the effects on our behaviors and attitudes are expected to be massive.

At root, the conflict between television (aka “the establishment”) and digital technology (aka “the outsiders”) is analogous to the contest between “hallucinations” and “memory” as the organizing principle for psychology and society.  This means we are facing far greater strategic implications than just the 2016 Presidential election, particularly in our dealings with China and Russia, neither of which as succumbed to the same fantasy-based television culture as the West.

We think that we know which of these will prevail and, in the process, we are convinced that those who understand what is happening to us in our new digital environment and can think strategically about the outcomes will as well.

Mark D. Stahlman is the President of the Center for the Study of Digital Life, a not-for-profit strategic research group dedicated to understanding the effects of digital technologies on society -- East and West.  He is a retired Wall Street analyst and investment banker.  Jeffery A. Martineau is the Center's Vice President for Development, and was previously President of the American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE). His doctoral studies in Constitutional Law, Political Philosophy and Diplomacy were done at the Claremont Graduate University. The authors can be reached at The Center for the Study of Digital Life.

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