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Game theory and the two magic words that will impeach Trump.


A theoretical approach on how to impeach Trump, take over Congress, and save the Union. This is the first piece in an exclusive series by Mike Selinker about politics and game theory.


Hi, I’m Mike, and I’m a game designer. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that game theory is a beast. It’s how we got Trump. We knew Candidate Trump was a racist, a sexist, a fraud, a fascist, a creep, a climate change doubter, an anti-vaxxer, and a colossal fool.

Some of us voted for him anyway, because he was a disruptor. Hillary Clinton was our stable equilibrium, a validation of everything we had done up to that point. But Trump tried a bold new strategy—fumble through debates, collude with Russia, brag about sexual assault, threaten to shoot people—and new strategies are the only things that disrupt stable equilibriums.

Et voilà, President Trump.

But even those who voted for disruption didn’t know that he was this stupid, this destructive, this infantile. They didn’t know that in six months, he’d reach where Nixon and Clinton got to in six years: the edge of impeachment. Of course, one thing stops us from rectifying the dumbest move Americans have made since the Confederacy: the GOP’s hammerlock on Congress. The only body that can remove him seems perfectly happy to be in blind lockstep with a boy who plays with trucks while health care reform dies.

Game theory says we need a disruption. I think that disruption comes in the form of some magic words. Only two of them, really.

Those words are “AND PENCE.”

I’m guessing you’re used to saying “Impeach Trump!” by now. Just add the words “and Pence” to the end. It’ll take a while to get used to. You’ll get it. “Impeach Trump and Pence!” Let it roll sweetly off your tongue. Say it a lot.


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Here’s why. Game theory has this little gem called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. You have two suspects and only enough evidence to give each a short sentence. You independently offer each suspect the ability to walk free if he just rats the other out. If both of them don’t take the bait, they both get the short sentence. Yet they squeal every time, getting the longer sentence, because each doesn’t know what the other will do.

So let’s talk about Mike Pence. He’s worse than Trump, some say. Well, no, he’s not, in that Pence won’t nuke Ontario if Alex Jones tells him to. But he is bad in a lot of ways. We don’t want him as president, at least for very long. So we shout “Impeach Trump and Pence!” at the top of our lungs. He’s a smart guy. He’s gonna hear it. And if he hears it enough, that will guide his behavior. Because Pence is about the only person who can organize a 25th Amendment cabinet vote of unfitness against Trump. If Pence fears impeachment, he might take the weasel way out and turn on his boss. But Pence isn’t a weasel. His defining characteristic is loyalty—to his God, his wife, his president—so we need something else at work.


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We need to guide Rep. Paul Ryan’s behavior. As Speaker of the House, Ryan gets to be president if Trump and Pence are simultaneously booted. And while no one else wants that, Congress’s resident hamster-devil assuredly does. If Ryan knows Pence fears impeachment, Ryan—whose defining characteristic is not loyalty—might be emboldened to make that happen.

And if Pence knows Ryan knows Pence fears impeachment, the veep might cut a deal with Senate leader Mitch McConnell. Because if McConnell knows Pence knows Ryan knows Pence fears impeachment, he’ll tell his pal Pence that the Senate GOP won’t convict him. And if Ryan knows McConnell knows Pence knows Ryan knows Pence fears impeachment, Ryan’s only move is to impeach fast. And if Pence knows Ryan knows McConnell knows Pence knows Ryan knows Pence fears impeachment, Pence’s only move is to turn on Trump faster. If Pence can get out in front of this train, he can be president before Ryan files the papers against him.


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The thing about getting out in front of a train, though, is you get run over by a train.

The train—the Republicans’ Rambo Coalition—is composed of three groups: the Racists, the Zealots, and the Randies. Trump and Steve Bannon lead the Racist faction; they monsterize Muslims, Mexicans, and African Americans, and the Racists eat it up like deep-fried Twinkies. Pence is a standard-bearer for the Zealots; he’s got a puncher’s chance to outlaw abortion and gay marriage, and nothing in his blessed world matters more than that. Ryan is the poster child for the pragmatic-conservative Randie faction; if poor people die from a lack of health insurance, he sleeps well at night.

The Racists, Zealots, and Randies basically hate each other. But they’re united in a communal and entirely heteronormative love of white males, so they manage somehow. Sure, they can’t pass a health care bill, but they at least can keep the Democrats off the board. They’re running a dysfunctional train, but it’s lurching in the direction they want.

So if the Rambo Coalition keeps the president in power, the goal must be to break the coalition. Only one thing will do that: making them fight over who gets to drive the train. If we create a disruption—say, we get the Zealot leader to betray the Racist leader and frustrate the Randie leader’s ambitions—they’ll turn on each other. If none of them knows what the other is doing, they will sell each other out. When they do, the Democrats swamp the GOP in 2018 and redraw the maps in 2020. Bingo bango, America saved.

However, one more thing is needed to make that happen: an actually united Democratic Party. This will be a challenge, because Democrats eat their own.

So they need to fear too. We must threaten every Democratic incumbent who doesn’t back impeachment with a primary challenge in 2018. Call your Representative today and ask, “Do you support impeaching the president?” If they say “Yes,” you can tell them they have your support. If not, especially if they say “We have to gather all the evidence before we consider…,” say “Then I will be running against you.” Or if not you, say you’ll find someone who will. Tell your Congressperson that you are a one-issue voter, and that issue is chucking the madman from the White House. Now, who knows? Maybe you won’t pull your support. But they don’t know what you’ll do, so they have to act. It’s just basic game theory.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma works on a lot of people. But most importantly, it works on prisoners, those people who think they’re going to jail. Or worse. We all know what the penalty¹ for treason is. And if you think you might be in power because you committed treason, your dilemma becomes a whole lot easier to resolve. You just need to not know what the guy in the next cell is going to do. And I’m sure as hell not going to tell you.🔷


¹Fun fact: Most states have treason statutes too! And they pretty much all have the same penalty as the one spelled out in the federal code. But hey, Mr. Vice President, I wouldn’t worry about it. You’re probably fine.



Series of articles about politics and game theory:



(This piece was first published in The Blog!)


(Cover: Flickr / Tony Webster. 2016 presidential candidate Donald J. Trump lit up with flood lights in a suburban backyard near Jordan Creek Parkway and Cody Drive in West Des Moines, Iowa.)


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Game designer, puzzlecrafter, author, and president of Seattle's Lone Shark Games. His puzzles and game articles frequently appear in Games Magazine, The New York Times, and The Chicago Tribune.
Seattle, Washington, USA. Website

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