How Trump’s “Unpredictability” Dodge Became the Dumbest Doctrine in Politics

He couldn’t answer a question. He wound up with a political philosophy.

US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the California Republican Party 2016 Convention in Burlingame, California, April 29, 2016.
Donald Trump addresses the California Republican Party 2016 Convention in Burlingame, California, on Friday.

Gabrielle Lurie/Getty Images

Donald Trump has a creative excuse for not answering questions about what he would do as president. He says he has solutions to all our problems, but he can’t divulge his plans, because he has to remain “unpredictable.” Last week, in a prepared speech, Trump assured voters that if they elect him, ISIS “will be gone very, very quickly.” How? That’s a secret. “I won’t tell them where,” Trump said of ISIS, “and I won’t tell them how.”

To skeptics, this is a laughable ruse. In a CNN interview that aired Sunday, Hillary Clinton mocked Trump for “pretending [to] have some sort of secret plan” to destroy ISIS. But Trump’s unpredictability shtick isn’t confined to one issue, like Richard Nixon’s bogus “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War. It’s a comprehensive pose. Trump is claiming the right—in fact, he’s claiming the obligation—to conceal his plans on every issue from everyone: ISIS, China, our allies, congressional Democrats, and voters.

Trump touted his unpredictability even before he announced his campaign. In a Fox News interview on May 27, 2015, he told Greta Van Susteren that he had a scheme to defeat ISIS. “I’m not going to tell you what it is tonight,” he teased. Van Susteren asked him why not. “I don’t want the enemy to know what I’m doing,” said Trump. “All I can tell you is that it is a foolproof way of winning.” A week later, on an Iowa radio show, he repeated that he had “a way of beating ISIS so easily, so quickly.” But he declined to say more, warning that if he were to divulge the plan, we would “lose the surprise.”

Reporters called his bluff. “You say you have a foolproof strategy to defeat ISIS,” George Stephanopoulos told Trump in an ABC interview on June 17, “but you’re not going to tell anybody what it is.” Trump demurred: “I hate to tell people, because if I win, I don’t want ISIS to know.” Stephanopoulos persisted: “I’m asking you right now, what is the strategy?” Again, Trump ducked: “The problem is, you’ll see it, and so [will] everybody else, and so [will] the enemy.”

When Trump said “the enemy,” he meant ISIS. But his pretense of a secret plan didn’t seem to be hurting him. In fact, over the summer, his share of the vote in Republican primary polls soared from about 5 percent to more than 30 percent. Soon, Trump was using the same conceit to feign brilliance against Russia and China. At a rally in South Carolina on Aug. 27, he declared: “We need unpredictability. We’re so predictable. We’re like bad checker players, and we’re playing against Putin.” The crowd applauded. A week later, in a radio interview, Hugh Hewitt asked Trump: “If China were to either accidentally or intentionally sink a Filipino or Japanese ship, what would commander-in-chief Donald Trump do in response?” Trump played coy. “I wouldn’t want to tell you,” he told Hewitt, because “you don’t want the other side to know. … I don’t want people to know my thinking.”

Politicians often tiptoe around hypothetical military questions, but Trump went further. He used unpredictability as an excuse to say nothing at all. Crowds loved his Chauncey Gardiner routine. So did obsequious interviewers. “It’s a great point,” Hewitt effused after Trump ducked the China question. “It’s a very good answer.”

So Trump doubled down. On Sept. 21, he returned to Hewitt’s show. This time, Hewitt asked about the 90 nuclear weapons in Pakistan. If the country “goes unstable,” Hewitt asked, “Would you be prepared to send American troops … to go and get their nukes?” Again, Trump declined to answer. “You want to have a little bit of guesswork for the enemy,” Trump argued. “So when you talk about Pakistan—and let’s say they go rogue—I don’t want to really be saying what my initial thought is. … I want them to not know what my thought process is.”

Them? The enemy? Who was Trump talking about? The Taliban? The Pakistani government? Either way, his pitch for unpredictability made no sense. Trump was being invited to send a message of deterrence to anyone who had eyes on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. And he was refusing to do so. A sensible candidate might have kept his contingency plans opaque, but he would have made his position clear: that the United States wouldn’t permit rogue control of Pakistan’s nukes. Instead, Trump was keeping his whole “thought process” to himself. And Hewitt lauded him for it. “It makes perfect sense,” Hewitt fawned. “It’s Nixonian.”

Now Trump was fully emboldened. He began to boast not just that he was evasive but that any candidate who answered foreign policy questions was stupid. In a CNN interview on Sept. 24, Trump castigated Sen. Marco Rubio for telling the public what he would do in Syria. “Marco Rubio wants to tell every single thing he knows to everybody, so that the people on the other side, so that the enemy, can learn about it,” Trump scoffed. “I want to be unpredictable. … I don’t want the other side to know what my views are.” A few days later, when CNN’s Don Lemon asked Trump to “give more specifics about foreign policy,” Trump said only “a fool” would do so.

Up to that point, Trump had used the unpredictability dodge only in contexts where foreigners might need to be deceived. But in October, he began to make the case for deception at home. In a Fox News interview on Oct. 18, Chris Wallace asked Trump: “Would you be willing to use the debt limit, and risk the possibility of the country going into default, to get more spending cuts?” Trump hedged: “I don’t want to say. I want to be unpredictable, because, you know, we need unpredictability. Everything is so predictable with our country.” Wallace floated another scenario: “Would you be willing to shut down the government in order to defund Planned Parenthood or to push some other key policy goal?” Again, Trump begged off: “I do not want to say that, because I want to show unpredictability.”

Unpredictability to whom? In the context of Planned Parenthood or a fiscal standoff, who was the enemy? In an Oct. 25 interview on Face the Nation, Slate’s John Dickerson pressed the point. He asked Trump whether a breach of the national debt ceiling would be “an economic problem.” Trump waved the question aside. “I don’t want to say,” he told Dickerson. “We’re so predictable, whether it’s with ISIS or with Iraq or with the negotiation of a debt limit.” Trump called the debt ceiling, because of its gravity, “an amazing tool to negotiate” with. If Republicans promised not to hold the debt ceiling hostage, he warned, they would lose “everything to the Democrats and to President Obama.”

So the enemy was within. Originally, Trump had refused to divulge military plans on the grounds that foreigners might learn about them. Now he was refusing to clarify his positions, even on fiscal issues, because Democratic politicians had to be kept in the dark. The simplest premise of contemporary democracy—telling voters what you would do if elected—was being suspended, not in the name of national security, but for sheer partisan advantage.

On Oct. 28, Trump extended this argument to personal weaponry. Responding to a debate question about the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, Trump bragged that he had a permit to carry a gun. “I do carry on occasion, sometimes a lot,” he said. “But I like to be unpredictable, so that people don’t know exactly when I’m carrying.” The audience laughed appreciatively, and Trump went on. He juxtaposed his strategic ambiguity as an armed citizen with “our country, where we’re totally predictable, and the enemy—whether it’s ISIS or anybody else—they know exactly what we’re doing, because we have the wrong leadership.” The crowd applauded.

Journalists didn’t like Trump’s evasions, but Republican voters didn’t seem to care. By January, he had a 20-point lead in national primary polls. On Jan. 3, he declined to say under what circumstances he would use a nuclear weapon. “We have to be somewhat unpredictable,” he argued. The next day, he sidestepped a question about bombing Iranian nuclear facilities. “I want to be unpredictable. I’m not going to tell you right now what I’m going to do,” he told Bill O’Reilly on Fox News. “We have to show some unpredictability. I want to be unpredictable. I don’t want to tell you exactly what I’m going to do.” O’Reilly pressed the candidate: “Don’t the voters have a right to know how far you’re going to go?” Trump blew him off: “No, they don’t.” In fact, said Trump, “The voters want to see unpredictability.”

Since then, Trump has applied the argument liberally. On Jan. 25, he refused to answer Wolf Blitzer’s questions about ISIS and Iraq, declaring, “I don’t want the enemies and even our allies to know exactly what I’m thinking.” On Jan. 31, he told Dickerson that the United States should behave less predictably in “finance,” too. On Feb. 17, he stiffed questions about what he would do in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, pleading that “there has to be a certain amount of surprise, unpredictability” in the president’s plans. Everyone—voters, Democrats, allies, global markets—had to be kept off balance.

To journalists, this was an obvious fig leaf. In three late-March interviews—a session with the Washington Post editorial board, a sit-down with Bloomberg Politics, and two phone calls with the New York Times—they exposed Trump as a fool. They asked him whether he would send troops to fight ISIS, whether he would halt spying on allies, what he would do about Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea, how he would make good on his threat to “open up the libel laws,” how he would identify Muslims in order to keep them out of the United States, what his criteria would be for deploying force abroad, and whether he might launch a nuclear first strike. Trump couldn’t answer any of these questions. He was surprised to learn that North Korea’s main trading partner was China (he thought it was Iran) and that South Korea covered half the nonpersonnel costs of the American deployment on the peninsula. Then there was this exchange with David Sanger of the Times:

Trump: I would never have given [Iran] back the $150 billion under any circumstances. … They are now rich, and did you notice they’re buying from everybody but the United States? They’re buying planes, they’re buying everything, they’re buying from everybody but the United States. …

Sanger: Our law prevents us from selling to them, sir.

Trump: Uh, excuse me?                                                                          

Sanger: … We still have sanctions in the U.S. that would prevent the U.S. from being able to sell that equipment.

Trump: So how stupid is that? We give them the money, and we now say, “Go buy Airbus instead of Boeing,” right? …

Sanger: So you would lift the domestic sanctions so they could buy American goods?

Trump: Well, I wouldn’t have given them back the money.

To cover his ignorance, Trump reached for his unpredictability blanket. In the Bloomberg interview, he refused to say whether he might nuke ISIS. “We need unpredictability,” he told Bloomberg’s John Heilemann. “When you ask a question like that, it’s a very sad thing to have to answer it, because the enemy is watching.” In the Times interview, Trump declined to answer whether he would “go to war” over the South China Sea, because “I don’t want them to know what I’m thinking.”

These aren’t careful elisions. They’re complete nonanswers. And from any perspective, left or right, they’re reckless. When a president refuses to take a position on a potential seizure of territory, the territory gets seized. When a president refuses to renounce phone surveillance of friendly heads of state, or to acknowledge a limit on the destruction he would wreak to stop an insurgency, allies freak out. The Post’s editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, tried to explain these problems to Trump. “There are many people who think that North Korea invaded South Korea precisely because Acheson wasn’t clear that we would defend South Korea,” Hiatt observed. He asked the candidate: “Does ambiguity sometimes have dangers?”

Trump couldn’t answer the question. He didn’t even try. He doesn’t understand the value of clarity—or of an open society. In his session with the Post, Trump groused about “sitting at a meeting like this and explaining my views.” He said the interrogation would provide material “for the other side to look at, you know. I hate being so open.” In his conversation with the Times, he complained about having to take a position on the South China Sea. “The problem we have is that maybe because it’s a democracy, and maybe because we have to be so open—maybe because you have to say what you have to say in order to get elected, who knows?—but I wouldn’t want to say. I wouldn’t want them [China] to know what my real thinking is.”

That’s the common thread in Trump’s pleas for unpredictability. An excuse that began with ISIS has grown to encompass China, Israel, Iran, Pakistan, the Korean peninsula, Planned Parenthood, and the debt ceiling. Trump’s enemy isn’t Putin, Iran, or North Korea. It’s democracy. He doesn’t want to tell you what he’d do. Stop asking questions, and just elect him. “I don’t want ISIS to know what I’m going to be doing,” he told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie on Thursday. “What about the American voters?” she asked. “The enemy is watching every move we say, everything we do,” Trump warned her. And he’s right. We’re watching.

Read more Slate coverage of the Republican primary.