OK, hear me out on this. It is going to get weird.
First published in December 2019.
Donald Trump just got impeached on two articles of impeachment: abuse of power (230–197–Tulsi) and obstruction of Congress (229–198–Tulsi). The common belief is that the impeachment trial will now go to the Senate, where Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham will jury-rig an acquittal for Trump during the early primary season for Democrats. Which, I guess, the Democrats might not want? (That’s really not clear. They might already have all they want already, but this column presumes that they want more.)
So, bad news for liberals, right? Well, there’s a victory strategy I started thinking about over a year ago. But I never wanted to say it out loud for fear it would … well, I don’t know what. Now, it’s started to come out of the shadows and it might actually be the greatest comeuppance of all. It’ll be fun to see it play out, anyway.
For the first time, Trump won a popular vote. / C-SPAN
Nancy Pelosi should “Merrick Garland” Trump’s impeachment.
You remember Merrick Garland. In February 2016, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, handing President Obama the blessed miracle of a Supreme Court seat. He outfoxed the Republicans by nominating the centrist Merrick Garland, he thought. But then that weaselly ol’ Mitch invoked the nuclear option and refused to bring Merrick Garland’s nomination to a vote.
President Obama shouldn’t have the right to fill a seat while he was in his last 11 months of office, McConnell said. When Trump won the office, he got the opportunity to slide Neil Gorsuch into that seat, effectively stealing a Supreme Court chair. If Trump had not won, who knows what would have happened with Garland. McConnell bet on delay, and it worked.
Flash forward to 2019. Across the pond, Prime Minister Boris Johnson loses a series of humiliating votes, so he suspends Parliament so that it can’t vote on a hard Brexit. This is condemned from all sides, and court case after court case is filed to dislodge Johnson’s mandate. Johnson loses nearly all of them and then his majority as members defect, but all of this has the curious effect of delaying the Brexit vote past the EU’s Halloween deadline. Now the Tories are torqued beyond reason. They might lose Brexit entirely. They stake an entire election on one principle: Do you want this done or not?
Meantime, the Labour Party peddles an olla podrida that nobody wants: maybe Leave, maybe Remain, maybe you get free broadband, I guess? Its muddled message and mediocre leaders fails to resonate. Not only does the Conservative Party win big across the country, but it sends milquetoast Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn packing and loses Liberal-Democrat leader Jo Swinson her seat in Parliament. Disqualified from leadership, Swinson gets this curious entry in Wikipedia: “In her four and a half months as party leader, she became both the youngest leader in her party’s history, and its youngest ever ex-leader.” Bright nights in the Johnson household.
That stall, whatever the apparent personal sacrifice, was genius. Johnson wasn’t concerned with the wave of losses prior to the December 12 election. He was concerned with one thing: Brexit. And he’s going to get it. Liberal fantasies of a second Brexit vote are motes in the sky. Brexit is coming, and the United Kingdom as we know it may never have another election.
That kind of conservative victory would sound great for Trump. But it’s not. Trump is riding on being declared exonerated again (he wasn’t the first time either, but whatev). He’s stated that he wants a trial. What he really wants is a show trial, where the Republicans show fealty and the Democrats are punished for their hubris. Rivals like Warren and Sanders are pilloried for rising against him. How can he lose, he thinks? How can he be stopped?
There seems to be one way. Nancy Pelosi just hip-pockets the impeachment — delaying transmission of the articles — until she can get a fair trial. Why would the trial not be fair? McConnell has already guaranteed he will make it unfair. “I’m not an impartial juror,” McConnell said, as he described his coordination with the White House throughout the trial. Graham echoed this skullduggery. I’m sure every Republican short of Mitt Romney has thought this. It doesn’t matter what the Democrats have. It doesn’t matter what the truth is. This is our guy, and you can’t take him away from us. That’s it. That’s the trial.
So Pelosi says no. By stalling the trial, she makes the 2020 election about the trial. You want this guy gone, she says? Give us more Elizabeth Warrens. Vote out McConnell by backing fighter pilot Amy McGrath. Boot perennial loser Martha McSally for astronaut Mark Kelly. Send Cory Gardner home and make the world shout “Hickenlooper!” A blue wave destroys the Republican Senate majority, giving Democrats both houses. Likely, a blue wave also gives the Democrats the White House, but even if Trump wins re-election, as sitting presidents often do, now you have a Senate that can do the job fairly. Sixty-seven votes to convict is still a million miles away, but the threat is always there. In effect, the second term of the Trump presidency is neutralized.
Does this trick work? I have no blessed clue.
But I have seen it work in games. The simplest example I can think of is the genre of “player judge” games. A player judge game is one where each player gets a turn judging the actions of the rest of the players. When that player is done, the role of the judge rotates to the left, like the button in poker. The most notable purveyor of this concept is the 1999 game Apples to Apples, where the judge puts out a “green apple” adjective like “Popular” and the other players play “red apple” nouns like “Vacations” and “James Bond.” The judge decides which of these matches the adjective best and awards the green apple card to the person who played that card. The person to the left of the judge becomes the judge for the next turn.
Similar mechanics, different effects.
You might also have seen this in a number of subsequent games like The Big Idea and Snake Oil, but the one you likely know best is the 2009 game Cards Against Humanity, which, per Ellen, “never fails to liven up the party.” The same mechanic is used here, except now there’s black cards with sentences like “I get by with a little help from ______.” The white cards are examples like “Joe Biden,” “Puberty,” and “Three dicks at the same time.” That’s just a little different than Apples to Apples, whose raciest answer might be “Black Holes.”
You can see what the effect of the rotating player judge is here. If the judge is your aunt and she’s on her third mimosa, you might want to open up a little more liberally than if the judge is your pastor. If the judge is a seven-year-old, you might hold back the cards with the big words on them. That assumes you’re playing Apples to Apples with the seven-year-old. For God’s sake, don’t play Cards Against Humanity with a seven-year-old!
So, if you’re dealt cards that will only work on Aunt Molly, save them for Aunt Molly. If you’re dealt cards that will only work on Little Susie, save them for Little Susie. Bring the right cards to the right judge, and you can win a player judge game like Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity.
Choosing your judge is a way to steer the outcome to what you might like. It’s not a surefire strategy — judges are notoriously fickle — but it’s a lot better than showing up for a kangaroo court. So, McConnell wants Chief Justice John Roberts to preside over a trial where McConnell sets the rules. And they can do that because they’re in the majority. Pelosi can stall the impeachment trial out until November, when the election is on the line. Americans will be presented with a choice: Do you want this done or not? My expectation is that a majority of them will. When the power exists to get a fair trial for the President, in which his alleged high crimes and misdemeanors will be duly considered rather than swept into the corners.
It’s a crazy gambit, but Boris Johnson is nothing if not crazy. And it worked for him. It might just work for us.🔷
This is the 49th installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, Trump’s conviction, political outsiders, Rudy Giuliani, the Berlin wall, and protest art. The first 21 of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link, or get as part of the TanTrump campaign.
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