Niccolò Machiavelli, that jaundiced student of human nature, pointed out in 1517 that sometimes “it is a very wise thing to simulate madness.” I suspect President Trump has not read the Discourses on Livy, but he instinctively practices what Machiavelli preached. Richard Nixon called this approach “The Madman Theory” of foreign policy: Make your adversaries think you’re so rabid, so unhinged, that you’re capable of anything, including launching the ICBMs. Our current president has used precisely that message in his dealings with North Korea and Iran, but he’s taken the “madman” strategy to a new level. When allies and adversaries at home or abroad fail to bend to his will, Trump invariably goes nuclear. He’s threatening to impose a 25 percent tariff on foreign cars and auto parts, and slap other massive penalties, on China, Europe, and the U.S.’s NAFTA partners (see Business); he’s yanking children from parents to discourage asylum seekers who show up with children at the border (see Main Stories); he keeps warning he’ll put an end to the Russia investigation if investigators go “too far.”
History may credit Trump for creating the Grand Unified Madman Theory: In all conflict and negotiations, act as if you don’t care who gets hurt or what gets wrecked. Is it working? It’s a bit early to say. We don’t yet know whether Kim Jong Un wants a summit because he fears Trump—or believes a needy and impulsive president can be manipulated. China, Canada, and Mexico have yet to yield to Trump’s theatrical trade demands. Special counsel Robert Mueller is treading carefully, but doesn’t seem intimidated. For the madman theory to succeed, the practitioner must only “simulate” madness, while cannily anticipating his adversaries’ goals and moves and planning precisely how he wants it all to turn out. But what happens if the madman isn’t capable of intricate planning and calculation? What if the madman act isn’t merely an act?