Tag Archives: Spite

The Science of Spiteful Donald Trump

This is a descriptive model of Donald Trump’s behavior, which ultimately works out to a prediction that Donald Trump won’t last very long. In an evolutionary sense, at least.

I’ve found that many people use the term “spite” incorrectly. Many assume it has to do with vitriol or nastiness, or otherwise, is motivated negative behavior of some kind. This is not even close to the scientific definition of the term. A daffodil plant can carry out an act of spite, and a daffodil plant is unlikely to engage in motivated behavior.

Spite involves carrying out an act where the ultimate cost to oneself exceeds the net benefit to oneself, at the same time the recipient of the behavior experiences a net cost.

Trump’s anti John Lewis tweeting is an example of spite. It was an attack on Lewis, but it caused huge problems for Trump, and strengthened his opposition.

Since Trump’s tweet may actually have benefited his victim and may have done very little harm to anyone else, it is actually possible that it was an act of altruism.

The pertinent theory comes from behavioral biology, which many years ago influenced economics theory, so you see the concept in both evolutionary theory and game theory today. (Because most people incorrectly assume that economists are smarter than everyone else, except possibly physicists, it is often assume that this set of theories comes from economics and then was borrowed by biology, but the reverse is actually true. See work by Sewall Wright and Robert Trivers.)

This classic theory can be classically represented by the following classic graphic:


The actor, called here the “donor,” can help or hurt the recipient. In this case, the potential act probably has to do with nuts, since these are squirrels. But it can be any act as long as the act itself incurs a cost for the actor. (The cost is part of the definition of acts.) Then, the actor and the recipient, eventually, count up the net result. The actor can expend energy and incur risk by taking a nut away from the recipient. The recipient runs away. This is an act of selfishness on the part of the actor. The actor can give a nut to the donor. That is an act of altruism. The actor and recipient can share the nuts under a tree, and thus share the job of keeping an eye out for predators. They are both losing because they need to share the nuts, but since there are a gazillion nuts the loss is very close to zero. Since two sets of eyes are more than twice as good as one set of eyes for feeding squirrels, both gain. That is cooperation. And so on.

Trup’s Attack on John Lewis was spite

Trump seems immune to the idea of forethought when he tweets. I sincerely — and this is not an ablist remark but a legitimate question — suggest he is a victim of Tourette’s. Even the most obvious degree of restraint is like water cast on granite. Alternatively, it is possible that Trump sees himself as invulnerable to legitimate criticism — all those who disagree with him are mere losers, he seems ready to declare. He does seem to have megalomaniac tendencies.

Whatever the reason, a pair of 140 character missives by Trump can be relatively benign or incredibly offensive, but this time were very self destructive.


John Lewis was up to the fight:

Lewis said in an interview on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” on Sunday, that he doesn’t believe Trump is a “legitimate president” and that he wouldn’t be attending the presidential inauguration for the first time in his 30-year political career, citing the intelligence community’s explosive findings over Russian hacking of the presidential election.

More here.

The material harm to Trump and his presidency from this act of spite is growing, as the tweet is causing a cascade of effects..

The number of Democratic members of Congress saying they will boycott Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday has increased to 26.
Many have cited as a reason the president-elect’s recent attack on civil rights icon and fellow congressman John Lewis.

There is also a petition.

See also: BBC – Democratic Inauguration boycott grows

In the end, what started out as a harmful stab against an opponent caused more harm to Trump than benefit. If the tweets also harmed Lewis or Liberal Democrats, then this was probably an act of spite. If, and look at the squirrels above, this was an act that benefited Lewis, Liberals, and Democrats, and hurt Trump, then it was an act of altruism. Maybe the Democrats should send Trump a thank you note!

Trump vs. CIA chief

Everybody knows that in Washington, the story is usually the comment or reaction, not the thing. It is all very meta. The story is the story, not what the story is about. We have a new term these days bandied about to stand in for thinking about this: The narrative. You control the narrative. Just hope no one asks you to explain what a narrative is. This can all seem very senseless, but it is also a little bit complex, thus pretty much beyond the range of Trump’s level of thinking. And for this reason, perhaps, Trump has not learned when to shut up.

The result is that when a moderately interesting story comes along, Tump picks it up and bludgeons himself about he head and neck with it. Five year old’s do this. The John Lewis story is an example. Rather than ignoring a complaint from a liberal democrat, he victimized a widely loved civil rights leader on the eve of MLK celebrations.

With respect to the intelligence business, Trump is attacking the outgoing director of the CIA for absolutely no reason, and this is causing a reaction that will harm Trump far more than his comment could possibly have benefited him.

In a recent tweet, Trump accused the outgoing CIA chief of being behind the “leak” of the Trump Dossier. Meanwhile, the CIA chief notes that

…Trump lacks a full understanding of the threat Moscow poses to the United States, delivering a public lecture to the president-elect that further highlighted the bitter state of Trump’s relations with American intelligence agencies.

The Dead Zone
The Dead Zone
More here.

Trump’s reaction to the widespread acceptance of Russian influence on the election, and the as yet less widely accepted — but very credible — Trump Dossier is to elevate these problems to the level of international incident. In his effort to protect himself from political fire, he is holding up a baby in front of his attackers. Unfortunately, the baby is all of use, Americans, his country, and beyond.

Trump takes big risks with American security

This is yet another example of spite, and a good one, because it shows that spite does not require malice. It can arise from simple ignorance.

I think, and prove me wrong if you like, that the Trump transition team is, collectively, as dumb as a broken brick. When they saw all these “presidential appointments” on the list of things to consider, they assumed that they were to replace them all on the 20th of January. So, they fired everyone effective that day including all of the ambassadors around the world.

This is one of several examples of misunderstanding the system, and in this case, putting our nation at risk.

A plan by Donald Trump to toss out dozens of ambassadors on the day he takes office risks months of uncertainty in some of the most sensitive parts of the world, according to several experts.

More here.

You might argue that this is not spite because it was just stupid. But the evolutionary biological theory of behavior counts this as spite because motivation is not related to the definition. By keeping motivation out of the definition, the theory is more general. For example, a plant can carry out a spiteful act. That makes the theory a hell of a lot more useful.

In this case, the Trump team gained nothing from their decision, but they risk causing innumerable problems world wide, hopefully mostly small ones, that put them in the hole with respect to foreign policy literally on day one. Nay, minute one.

Spite ends things

Look again at the chart above, and consider examples of spite in nature.

You can’t easily find them. When you do see them, they usually end up being acts of altruism that are explained as acts of cooperation or selfishness by taking the analysis to the next level. A squirrel allows another squirrel to forage near itself even when there aren’t a gazillion nuts under the tree, and is taking a real hit on food access for this reason. That looks like altruism, which is even more stupid, evolutionarily, than spite. But it turns out that the recipient of that act it the actor-squirrel’s offspring. By benefiting an offspring even with a cost to herself, the mother squirrel gains an ultimate genetic benefit.

I do not see how any of Trump’s acts of spite benefit him other than to strengthen the love he receives from his relatively small base. His spite erodes his support at the softer end, invigorates (and increases funding for, I’ll guess) his opponents, causes problems for his administration that will make him and his entire presidency less effective. Ultimately, he will spite his way into impeachment.

We don’t see true acts of spite in nature very often because that sort of behavior, or more exactly, the behavioral facility to make the generation of such behavior even possible, is selected against.

If Donald Trump does not learn, or is not restrained, almost literally, by his staff, he will spite himself into the annals of the Darwin Awards, in a political sense. Spite ends things. Spite will end Trump.