Soon thereafter, this great gate is sealed by the Crisis resolution, when victors are rewarded and enemies punished; when empires or nations are forged or destroyed; when treaties are signed and boundaries redrawn; and when peace is accepted, troops repatriated, and life begun anew. One large chapter of history ends, and another starts.
In a very real sense, one society dies— and another is born.
—*The Fourth Turning*
This post should be fun because it involves games.
You’ve probably heard of the game called Chicken. And maybe you’ve heard of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Just in case you don’t know these games, I’ll give you quick overview.
Two rivals get into cars at opposite ends of a long straightaway. On a signal, they accelerate toward each other. The winner is the one who doesn’t chicken out by swerving out of the path of the other car. If neither player chickens out, it’s a draw.
Two people are arrested for a crime. Call these suspects A and B. Police separate them into different interview rooms where they have no way to communicate with each other. A detective tells A that if he cooperates and confesses, the DA will recommend a short prison sentence of 1 year. If he doesn’t cooperate and is found guilty, he’s looking at 20 years. Oh, and by the way, B already confessed to his minor role and implicated A as the mastermind.
A must decide whether to cooperate or keep his mouth shut. If he cooperates, he’ll get 1 year. If he keeps his mouth shut and the detective lied about B’s confession, both men could walk. But if B really confessed and A doesn’t cooperate, A will be in prison until he’s old.
Meet Ben Hunt, PhD
Ben Hunt is that genius financial planner I quote often. Dr. Hunt is no fan of Donald Trump, but his latest blog post illustrates our present situation rather well. He points out in his latest post that in normal times, life is a series of repeated cooperative games like Prisoner’s Dilemma. But now we’re playing repeated games of Chicken.
That first bit — the nature of repeated-play competitive games — is a mouthful. All it really means, though, is that our real-life social interactions, whether in politics or markets or everyday life with our family and friends, are never a single, solitary game. We play the same core game over and over and over, each single interaction setting the stage for the next, and what we really should be concerned about is the overall pattern of the entire set of interactions. That’s real life, as opposed to some 2×2 matrix of Cooperate/Defect like you’d see in a game theory textbook.
In Hunt’s view, Trump has transformed America’s repeated game—from a cooperation game to competitive game. Chicken is winner-take-all.
Trump, on the other hand … I think he breaks us. Maybe he already has. He breaks us because he transforms every game we play as a country — from our domestic social games to our international security games — from a Coordination Game to a Competition Game.
And Dr. Hunt points out that’s a bad thing:
Well … first off I’m going to suggest that we should all prepare for impact. The evolution of competition and the success of “mean” strategies in games like Chicken is at least as robust as the evolution of cooperation and the success of “nice” strategies in games like Prisoner’s Dilemma. Once you introduce, say, mustard gas into the trench warfare game, it doesn’t just un-introduce itself on its own. These bells are really hard to un-ring, and it typically takes a lot of car crashes on both sides before you get a peace treaty and a chance to rebuild a cooperative game structure. That’s at least four mixed metaphors, but you get what I mean. And unfortunately, all of these metaphors apply just as aptly to a social structure of family and friends as to a social structure of a political party or an entire nation. The evolution of competition is a powerfully contagious virus, and it hops easily from a big tribe like a nation to a small tribe like a family.
So, the question is: Is Dr. Hunt right?
Good Diagnosis, Erroneous Causality
If you’ve read my previous posts in the #PeopleWantYouDead series, you know that I agree with Dr. Hunt’s diagnosis of the American condition. We are playing repeated competitive games of Chicken. On that, he’s absolutely right.
I also agree that Donald Trump is a master of the game of Chicken.
But I strongly disagree with Hunt on a key point: Donald Trump is a symptom of the competitive game, not the cause.
Long before Trump decided to run for President, we abandoned, as a nation, those coordination games for competitive games. I’m not smart enough to give you the exact cause or the exact date, but we in the center-right were still playing Prisoner’s Dilemma and getting our asses kicked by the side playing Chicken. I knew the game had changed when SEIU thugs beat up Ken Gladney at a town hall in 2009. I knew the game had changed when President Obama talked about our stupidity for bringing a knife to a gunfight. I knew the game had changed when the president of the AFL-CIO told his members to punch us.
Dr. Hunt probably wasn’t paying much attention to our little Tea Party movement back then. His Epsilon Theory blog wasn’t around at the time. Or maybe politics wasn’t his thing then. He is an economist, after all, not a political scientist. I don’t expect him to pay attention to obscure political events—events made more obscure by a national press that ignores events that are potentially damaging to the American left.
Had he been in the trenches with us in 2009, he would probably agree that the game changed long before Trump. He might also agree that someone else changed it. He might conclude that the game was changed by the same people who exercised the “nuclear option” in the US Senate. And I know Dr. Hunt agrees that it’s important for us to know which kind of game the other side is playing. He said so:
the most important thing in that interaction is to figure out the meaning of cooperation for yourself and whoever you’re dealing with. Otherwise you’re going to find yourself playing a different game from the other person, and that never ends well. This is a tough piece of advice to follow (myself included!) because we assume that whatever our “identity weighting” might be for a given issue, the person or group we’re interacting with attaches that same meaning.
Dr. Hunt also points out an important aspect of competitive games like Chicken. In Chicken, the player who swerves is a coward and he’s scorned or ostracized by his tribe. In Prisoner’s Dilemma, it’s different:
If you cooperate in a game of Chicken — i.e., you’re driving your tractor straight on at Kevin Bacon’s pick-up truck and you veer off from the looming crash, or you and James Dean are racing towards a cliff and you put on your brakes first — you are the LOSER. You are the COWARD. That becomes your identity and your reputation, which means that others will now treat you like a loser and a coward in the games that they play with you in the future. Compare that to the meaning of cooperation in a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, where cooperation — i.e., you refuse to rat out your partner and cut a deal for yourself at his expense — means that you are STRONG and LOYAL. The words and the examples used to illustrate bloodless, mathematical game theoretic matrices are not accidental! If we believe that our identity is at risk in a repeated-play competitive game, we behave very differently than if it’s not. More to the point, we should behave differently if our identity is at stake. It’s the rational thing to do.
So I am confident that Dr. Hunt would agree that we on the right should be playing Chicken because the left most certainly is. Plus, the left has been playing Chicken for years. It took us longer to recognize that the nature of the game had changed. Which means we’ve already lost a few rounds. Worse, many on the right—Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, John McCain, Jonah Goldberg, Bill Kristol, etc.—they’re still stuck playing Prisoner’s Dilemma. They still think cooperation is a sign of strength and loyalty. That’s why the Tea Party went after them so hard and continues to. Their reputations are as cowards and losers.
We Chose Trump
When we recognized that the game had changed and that our Republican leaders refused to recognize this shift, we looked around for someone with clearer vision. And along came Trump.
Donald Trump might have always been a Chicken-player, but we didn’t need one when the other side was playing a coordination game. Once the left dropped coordination for a competitive death match, he had to change our game or die.
You might even conclude that Hillary Clinton failed to inspire the left because she, like Ryan and McConnell, is a Prisoner’s Dilemma politician, too. The left changed the game and she ignored the shift. She was wrong for the time, even for Democrats.
Where To Next?
All of this fits the Fourth Turning prophesy. In the 1770s, the Crown changed the game from coordination to competition and the colonists responded by declaring our independence. In 1861, the South changed the game by seceding from the union and attacking Fort Sumter which triggered the North’s response and the bloodiest war in US history. In the 1930s, Hitler changed the game from coordination to competition, and, after Neville Chamberlain gave away a chunk of Europe in a desperate attempt to keep the coordination game alive, the Allies recognized the new game and put down the tyrant.
So here we are in the fourth turning of the fourth cycle of American history. The previous three cycles ended in total war, and two of the three were fought primarily on our soil. These cycle-ending wars are brutal and rare, occurring once about every 80 years, at the end of the fourth turning.
Not many people recognize these historical cycles. Most people see history as a straight line. Most people expect the future to be a linear progression of the recent past. But that linear view fails the test again and again. No one expected British colonists to break away from the crown. No one expected the South to sever ties with the United States. No one expected Germany to take over Europe and Africa. No one even saw the Great Depression coming.
No one, I should say, saw those climaxes coming except those few of us who see history as a circle instead of a line.
Our Fourth Turning Strategist
In a previous post, I mentioned that I had no idea whether Donald Trump knows about The Fourth Turning. I’ve since learned that he does. Bigly.
In the White House, sitting at the right hand of President Trump, is Steve Bannon. You know him as the Honey Badger who took Breitbart.com to a new level after Andrew’s early death. You might not know that Mr. Bannon is at least as impressed with the Fourth Turning view of history as I am. Chances are, Mr. Bannon’s views are similar to mine in many ways: the nature of the game we’re playing, the left’s commitment to our death or enslavement, and the need to understand the real threat this domestic enemy poses.
Mr. Bannon likely agrees with me that our growing understanding of his cyclical history gives us a chance—but only a chance—at avoiding the kind of bloodshed that ended the previous three cycles. We both know that pretending the other side wants to coordinate with us is the surest way to end up in a full-scale civil war. It’s why we both supported Donald Trump. It’s why we warn our friends of the diabolical nature of today’s political left. It’s why we prepare for the worst-case scenario, because preparing for that horror is the best way to avoid it.
As Howe and Strauss wrote in 1997, a society will die and a new one will be born. Either our side will give birth to that new society, or their’s will. This is no time for coordination except among ourselves. But there’s good news.
The Gray Champion is coming if we earn his return. And we’ll explore what it means to Earn It in a future post.