Is the Trump Presidency at a Tipping Point?

March 05, 2017

A friend posts the following observation on Facebook: With multiple stories breaking about Trump-Russia, we may have hit a tipping point, from which the meltdown of the 45th presidency accelerates.

Part of me wants to think it's true--the sooner the presidency is transferred to competent hands, the better--and part of me is worried about the meltdown. But let's step back for a second and ask a basic question: What is the game being played, and why might this game feature a tipping point?

From a game-theoretic perspective, a game with a tipping point has the feature that players are more likely to take one action over another, the more that other players do the same. This herd tendency might arise from safety in numbers (protesting a repressive regime is safer in a crowd) or the belief that others have information about the "right" course of action. A tipping point occurs when enough players take some action (e.g., because they have outlier preferences or information) that this behavior becomes mutually reinforcing: others take the same action, which encourages still others to do so.

If you've seen a few of these models, it's easy enough to tell stories in which players have the sort of incentives that lead to tipping points. Just off the top of my head, I can think of four, each involving a group of actors on which the Trump presidency depends.

Disaffected insiders: This is a classic case of safety in numbers: it's harder to get caught leaking if everybody around you is also talking to the media.

The media: No legitimate news organization wants to get scooped. The more news organizations are investigating a story with legs, the more that others want to jump in.

Republican policy experts: Well-connected Republicans smell scandal and failure, discouraging them from taking positions in the Trump administration. This in turn discourages other potential nominees from seeking out such positions.

Republican members of Congress: Trump is still quite popular among Republican voters, so cutting loose the White House--say, by calling for an independent investigation of Trump-Russia ties--poses a political risk. That risk, however, may be smaller if other Republican members take the same position.

See, that was easy. It's even possible to rank the four stories by distance to the tipping point. My rough sense is that disaffected insiders have already tipped, that the media are in the process of tipping, and that Republican members of Congress have a ways to go; I'm not sure about the Republican policy experts. (It's hard to tell from the outside how much the historically low rate of presidential appointments is driven by lack of interest among potential nominees, versus the fact that Trump is not _of_the Republican Party and therefore has little base on which to draw.)

We can take this one step further, noting that there are likely spillovers from one "game" to another: The more leaks there are, for example, the more incentive for the media to invest in the story, which in turn affects the incentives of Republican policy experts and members of Congress. Maybe we're headed for the mother of all tipping points.

The problem, as Paul Krugman observes, is that this sort of storytelling is "too easy and too much fun." Once you start thinking about tipping points, you see them everywhere. But for each of the four cases above, I could just as easily tell a story in which the relevant actions are strategic substitutes rather than strategic complements. Perhaps leaking is a volunteer's dilemma, for example, whereby each potential leaker hopes that somebody else will do the job (though, if so, there is some serious miscoordination, as the White House has sprung a thousand leaks).

Moreover, some of those around Trump may be playing a game in which it doesn't really matter what anybody else does. Consider a last key group of actors: Trump associates under investigation. Here, the best metaphor may be the prisoner's dilemma, whereby cooperating with investigators is the best action, regardless of what the accused expect their collaborators to do. Assuming that those under investigation have something to hide, this may be the game that poses the greatest threat to Trump's presidency.