Knockout Wars, Wars Of Attrition, And Trump

March 26, 2019 11:57 p.m.

Let’s start with some military strategy. In the late 19th and early 20th century, German military strategy, influenced by the work of the historian Hans Delbrück, became obsessed with the distinction between Ermattungsstrategie (exhausting strategy or more loosely attrition strategy) and Niederwerfungsstrategie (knockout strategy). This distinction played itself out in history with the German military repeatedly trying to win knock-out wars (famously in the blitzkriegs of World War II) but finding itself bogged down in wars of attrition (in the trench warfare of the Great War and the slaughter-house of the Eastern Front in World War II). This is far outside my field of expertise but it could be that being so oriented to a knockout war made the Germany army less adept at wars of attrition.

This distinction can be useful in political analysis (in fact the attrition/knockout dichotomy shaped the politics of socialist thinkers like Karl Kautsky and Antonio Gramsci). Since Trump’s rise to political prominence in 2015, his opponents of all stripes have hoped for some knockout blow that will finish him off: a gaffe, a scandal, a defection, a revolt from within the GOP.

But as should be clear by know, we’re not in a quick knockout war but a long, drawn out war of attrition. Trump won’t be going away anytime soon and it is vain to hope for a law enforcement solution to what is a political problem (Trump entrenching himself as the warlord of the GOP).

Wars of attrition require patience, flexibility, and a willingness to take the fight to different fronts. All of which raises questions about the fallout of the completion of the Mueller Report and Attorney General William Barr’s letter about it. Obviously, a straggling battle on this front will continue for a long time. Barr’s letter, for reasons discussed before, is unsatisfactory. There will be a struggle to get the Mueller Report released and it looks like the White House will do what they can to keep it under wraps as long as possible. There will be summaries released and maybe redacted versions. My expectation is that the full report won’t be viewed by the public until Trump is long out of office.

Get TPM in your inbox, twice weekly.
Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

If we look at the Mueller investigation as a knockout strategy, it failed. But if we see it as part of a larger war of attrition, it has played a useful role. It has already shaken up Trump world, leading to felony convictions for major figures like Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and Michael Cohen.

And the Mueller investigation seems also to have put a damper on Steve Bannon’s plans to make Russia part of a global alliance system based on white nations fighting people of color. As Bloomberg reports, “Former White House strategist Steve Bannon said Tuesday that the ‘poisonous’ atmosphere that built in Washington during the now-completed Russia investigation has set back efforts to work with Russia ‘to unite the Judeo-Christian West.'”

But, while the Mueller investigation is an important front in the war of attrition, it is only one front. And it is also a front that, aside from a few more skirmishes about releasing the report, will now no longer one of the main theatres of war. Many other fronts remain. Trump, his family and the his businesses, will continue to receive scrutiny from congress and from law enforcement. There are many scandals left to investigate. Politically, issues like health care will be crucial in organizing popular opposition and fuelling electoral victories.

The Mueller Report isn’t out yet and might not be fully out until Trump is leaves office. In that sense, while we should still push for the release of the Mueller Report, we should also realize we’re entering a post-Mueller world. It’s a war of attrition and there are other fronts to attend to.


I’ve been filling in for Josh for the last week. It’s been an inadequate vacation for him since breaking news drew him back to blogging. But, for my part, it’s be a pleasure to have had a chance to contribute to this terrific site at such a crucial moment in history.

Latest Edblog
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Investigations Desk:
Senior Editor for Content Strategy and Audience Development:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: