The Way of the Doofus Warrior

Donald Trump attends the Hank's Yanks 1st Annual Golf Classic at Trump Golf Links on Monday, July 6, 2015, in New York. (Photo by Greg Allen/Invision/AP)
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Yesterday we looked at how a doofus and blowhard, awash in derp, can nonetheless have a tactical genius that allows him to defeat all enemies again and again. I focused on an analogy I’m familiar with: increased mobility as a key to victory for Northern Civil War generals. But something funny happened in response to this post. Over almost 15 years of doing this, all of my best ideas and insights and certainly most of our best news tips have come from email exchanges with readers. But in all that time I’m not sure a post has struck the same chord – and a quite specific and technical one at that – with so many readers at once. A number of readers wrote in and said they agreed with the Sherman analogy but that a much tighter conceptual framework comes from a highly influential American military theorist who died almost 20 years ago, Colonel John Richard Boyd.

Boyd is known for something called OODA loops. We’ll get to the specifics in a second. But he argued that all military action is defined by patterns of getting information, deciding how to act on it and then acting. Whoever completes those loops faster dominates and wins. The same also applies if you can get inside the other player’s decision loop and disrupt them.

I’ll let TPM Reader MW pick it up from there …

Are you familiar with the strategist John Boyd (1927-1997)? Among other things, he described the utility of mobility in warfare in such a compelling fashion that the U.S. Marine Corps adopted Boyd’s formula as their doctrine (MCDP-1 Warfighting).

Boyd’s concept of the OODA Loop (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) suggests that whoever controls the tempo controls the fight. In the case of active conflict, like a political campaign, if you can get through OODA loops faster than your opponent, you can change the context in ways that make their responses to your prior moves irrelevant and ineffective.

Your description of Trump’s behavior, and my own shared observation of it, suggests that he is doing this deliberately.

Outside of the Marine Coprs, Boyd is popular among some businessmen. Whether Trump has explicit knowledge of Boyd, he has surely come across discussions about controlling the tempo, speed, and OODA Loops. For example, I’d be very surprised if Trump had not read Competing Against Time, by Stalk and Hout. He may also have read Certain to Win, by Chet Richards, which is about applying Boyd to business by one of Boyd’s friends.

The ideas are pretty easily transferable across disciplines because they relate to conflict in general. So the ideas moving from war to business to politics isn’t hard to observe.

The book on Boyd that seems to be where most people start is Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Coram. (I started with Hammond’s The Mind of War, but that turns out to be unusual.) Boyd, himself, wrote only briefings—slides for presentations. You can find them at

On a personal note, and demonstrating the breadth of those who find utility in Boyd’s concepts, I became interested in Boyd as a humanitarian worker. His ideas have helped me get better at helping others make good decisions under pressure. In politics, I’ve also worked on successful advocacy campaigns where we explicitly made use of Boydian techniques to control the tempo.

The ideas work. Whether Trump is explicitly using them, or whether he’s figured out what all “winners” have, OODA is the lens through which I’ve been watching Trump. (Boyd’s complete oeuvre is called “The Discourse on Winning and Losing”. Trump’s repeated use of the word “winner” suggests to me that he might well have imbibed some Boyd directly.)

As MW notes, Boyd has been hugely influential, and not just in military circles but in business ones as well – to the point where it seems likely that Trump has likely been exposed to his ideas, though I suspect it’s more intuitive than learned.

TPM Reader SR made a similar point …

I do think you’ve hit on something. No idea if Trump is familiar with the work of Col. John Boyd on the OODA (orient, observe, decide act) Loop, but I have no doubt that you are. Trump does seem to have realized that, paradoxically, the 24 hour news cycle and the “Internet Time” phenomena that demands instant responses to other candidate’s statements and acts, has paradoxically led to the accretion of ever greater layers of buffering and vetting to prevent a candidate from losing a news cycle, or several news cycles, to a gaffe that have both created an absolute minimum response time that can be exploited by dispensing with those protections and attenuated the effectiveness of the response when it comes because the fear of the gaffe exceeds the desire to exploit the opportunity. The result is exactly the kind of Luntzified keyword marble-mouthed double talking zinger durp that people (on both sides) have come to loathe. What Trump has realized is that he can get inside the other candidates’ OODA loops by just working without a net and firing off one tweet and one unfiltered message after another so that the other guys are responding to what he said three tweet cycles ago. But perhaps more importantly, he’s realized he can get away with what the other campaigns would deem disasterous “gaffes” by getting inside the press corps’ OODA loop, which he does by firing gaffe after gaffe after gaffe in n such machine-gun like rapid succession that the MSM never has a chance to focus on one and turn it into something like, say Romney’s “49%” or Obama’s “bitter clingers” gaffes (square quote omitted) because by the time they report it, he’s already belted out a half dozen more on that topic and fired off three other salvos on three other topics.

My gut still tells me that at some point, he blows up. At some point, he says something so far beyond the pale that the MSM focuses on it no matter how much more crap he keep spewing out, and that there is a strategy for making this happen to be had by the other campaigns if they work on it. But it only happens if another campaign does, in fact, develop that strategy. But I also have to tell my gut that Rush Limbaugh, who basically ran the exact same scam in slow motion for three decades, took that long to finally hit the Sandra Fluke hatespew that has cost him so many advertisers and resulted in ClearChannel putting him on stations no one listens to, at least for the duration of his current contract.

We really don’t have three decades to spare waiting for Trump to step into the plutonium.

TPM Reader CW added a quote …

A similar but more contemporary framework, I think, is John Boyd’s OODA (observe – orient – decide – act) loop — I think this explanation of the “OODA loop” concept captures what’s really happening in the Republican clusterf***:

>>>>> In his presentations on armed conflict — war — Boyd never wrote the term “OODA loop” alone but used the phrase “operating inside opponents’ OODA loops,” which he seemed careful never to define. The closest he came was 132 charts into his major briefing on war, Patterns of Conflict (Boyd, 1986), where he stated that to operate inside an adversary’s OODA loop could be “put another way” as “Observe, orient, decide and act more inconspicuously, more quickly, and with more irregularity …” Another way to think about operating inside the OODA loop is that we change the situation more rapidly than the opponent can comprehend (Boyd, 1986, p. 5). And keep doing it. These concepts go considerably deeper than cycling through “observe, then orient, then decide, then act” more rapidly than an opponent. Boyd made the claim that the ability to perform the more sophisticated version enabled one to execute an agenda of heinous acts upon one’s adversary, ending with “Generate uncertainty, confusion, disorder, panic, chaos … to shatter cohesion, produce paralysis and bring about collapse” (Boyd, 1986, p. 132). <<<<< or

Trump might not know who Boyd was or what an OODA loop is, but I think he instinctively gets the idea, while the rest of the Republican field remains clueless.

A number of other readers wrote in along the same lines. I just chose a few who wrote at length. I’m still more into Sherman than Boyd. But I agree that it’s a much tighter and more instructive framework for why Trump is running circles around his opponents. Last night’s rapid fire snark about, yes, who would want Eric Cantor’s endorsement is just the latest example.

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