Dear Trump Critics: This Is an OODA Loop, Please Get One

Our politics is settling down to into a distinct pattern. It goes like this. Donald Trump says or does something that ranges from the provocative, to the childish, to the utterly normal and unexceptional. The media and the opposition political party (but I repeat myself) then totally over-react and hyperventilate. They take something bad and blow it out of proportion, claiming that mean tweets to talk show hosts constitute an assault on freedom of the press itself. Or they take nothing and turn it into something, calling a Trump press conferences “fake” because the president took questions from a friendly reporter, as if this has never happened before.

Consider Trump’s speech in Poland, which was a fairly standard invocation of freedom and Western values, mixed with some implicitly nationalist phrasing and a lot of talk about faith and tradition. But Democrats and their supporters in the media freaked out about it, describing it as some kind of fascist manifesto.

(There is only one word in Trump’s speech that struck me as new: his invocation of national “identity”—a word the alt-right likes to use to equate America’s cultural identity with a white, European racial identity. But there is no particular evidence that Trump was deliberately using it this way. Besides, criticisms of that idea would be more convincing if critics didn’t repeat the error, describing a defense of Western values as racially exclusionary.)

The mainstream media’s over-reaction then becomes such a farce that the right-of-center media feels it has no choice but to mock them for their foolishness, which is a comfortable and habitual thing for us to do. As Shakespeare put it, “is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed at?”

This pattern of action, over-reaction, and counter-reaction—of Trump, Anti-Trump, and Anti-Anti-Trump—has already become tiresome, predictable, and crushingly boring. More than that, it is totally ineffective. It is having no impact on the president’s actions, his agenda, or, as far as I can tell, on public opinion polls or the loyalty of Trump’s supporters. It’s true that the president is not terribly popular, but that has been true from the beginning. He won the election with fewer votes than his opponent, and he started office with an approval rating well below 50%. That has since trended down but has been flat for a while now. So the media reaction is neither triggering nor reflecting some wider national movement in public opinion. It mostly seems to be hardening people into their existing positions, keeping voters on the left pegged at a fever pitch of hysteria, while confirming to voters on the right that the media lacks credibility and is irrevocably set against their values and interests.

Democrats and the media have not settled into this pattern out of any sense of rational calculation about the best response to new events. They have fallen into it the same way Trump falls into his embarrassing Tweets: impulsively, driven by habitual reflexes they don’t seem inclined to examine or control. That’s why it’s so ineffective.

To sum it up, they have no OODA Loop.

This is a key concept from military strategy that has been applied much more widely to any form of human conflict or competition. The OODA Loop was coined by Air Force Colonel John Boyd, a legendary dogfighter turned military strategist who took his observations about the role of maneuverability and decision-making in fighter jets and turned them into a general theory of conflict. “OODA” stands for Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. Each side in a conflict has to seek out new facts, interpret them, decide on a course of action, and implement that decision. The side that can do this more effectively—and, crucially, more quickly—is the side that will win. The key goal is to “get inside the enemy’s decision cycle,” which means being able to read the situation, decide, and act before your opponent does, so that by the time he has made a decision, he is already out of touch with the reality on the ground and his action is no longer effective.

Democrats and the media are stuck on the “Action” stage they reached about a year ago, that action being “freak out.” They have been doing it continuously since then, without bothering to monitor whether it is effective. In fact, it has achieved the opposite of the intended result.

The entire Trump phenomenon is a live-action version of the old parable about the boy who cried wolf. Spend decades telling everyone that Bush is Hitler or that Mitt Romney is a racist, and you’ll find that there is nowhere left to go when you try to warn everyone that Trump is worse. Crank your reaction to every Trump statement or speech all the way up to eleven, and people dismiss you as noise and tune you out. So there’s no reserve of extra outrage to tap when Trump really does do something awful.

Crying wolf didn’t keep blue-collar Reagan Democrats in Ohio from voting Donald Trump into office, yet it’s what Democrats and the media are still doing.

Being stuck at one stage in the OODA Loop also means that they are not looking for new actions that might actually be effective. The obvious play right now, faced with a relatively unpopular president whose agenda is bogged down in Congress and who is prone to frequent fits of foolish impulsiveness, is to make yourself seem like the opposite—not the opposite in terms of ideology, but the opposite in terms of seriousness and self-discipline. The play is not merely to go for the center, adopting an agenda that can appeal to some Republicans. The play is to appeal to reasonable people who want something they can support other than blind partisan loyalty.

Instead, Democrats are cocooning themselves in slogans about “resistance” and “persistence,” trapping themselves in a purely reactive approach to Trump. I have suspected for a while that Trump’s election seems to have broken something in the left, and I think I can finally put my finger on exactly what it is. He so thoroughly seems to confirm all of their fondest caricatures of the right that they think he excuses them from having to react objectively and thoughtfully to new facts, or from having to understand the actual arguments, ideas, and attitudes of anyone who disagrees with them. This means that they’re not figuring out how to appeal to anyone who is not already with “the resistance.”

I’m on record as wanting an effective political counterbalance to President Trump and to significant parts of his agenda. Democrats and the media aren’t providing that. To do so, they’re going to have to come up with some new ideas. But first, they have to simply unstick themselves from their reflexive reactions and reassess their situation.

They need an OODA Loop. Please let me know when they get one.

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