A master negotiator will use an opening gambit to gain some initial advantage. If the opponents are highly agitated about the negotiation, the opening may serve to ease tensions and provide reassurances. If the opponents are over-confident and closed minded, the first ploy might shatter their expectations and set them on edge.
One of the Trump Administration’s opening gambits was the January 7th gag order placed on four government agencies. This clearly defied widespread expectations in the context of government’s recent objective to become more transparent, the Freedom of Information Act and recent Supreme Court cases involving our right to “free speech”.
Back in January, it was too early to discern what the Administration’s opening gambit was intended to influence and what it indicated about the Administration’s agendas. Two months later, patterns have emerged which support drawing some conclusions.
I’ve come up with five possible explanations for using this adversarial tactic against the E.P.A. and the Departments of Interior, Agriculture and Health & Human Services. A gag order could mean many things, come from a variety of different agendas and serve several different purposes. To take the gag order at face value misses the point.
1. Providing democratic leadership
Democratic leaders look after the vitality of their democracies. They seek to increase civic engagement, bipartisan deliberations and the inclusion of diverse interest groups. A gag order could be an indirect strategy to realize enhanced vitality in the democracy. The gag order itself would predictably backfire. The suppression of communication would spawn numerous leaks to the press and conversations among the silenced insiders who were suddenly “all in the same boat”. The stories told by the press with the leaked information would position the press as extremely valuable. The stories would seem intriguing and suspenseful. The reportage would inform the public about those endangered facets of government, the Constitution and the role of the free press in a democracy. The amount of readership and viewership could easily skyrocket.
2. Extracting a concession from the opposition
Top flight negotiators know they cannot force their opponents to concede defeat. The dealmaker must use adversarial tactics to make the other side more desperate, needy, or uncertain. Once the opposition’s state of mind has been altered, the negotiator can take something off the table that was taken for granted up until now, like freely communicating government agencies. With more of the pending deal now in jeopardy, the opposition becomes more cooperative. They concede to some demands in order to get the taken-for-granted thing back on the table or to cut further losses. The gag order could function superbly in a protracted negotiation by the Trump Administration to obtain more executive power or legislative cooperation.
3. Distracting the guard dogs
Spies and con artists practice the art of deception. They create covers for their covert activities. They rely on distractions and misdirection to move people’s attention away from their true intentions. The gag order may have been very dramatic, alarming and distracting for the Trump Administration to get away with something else they hoped would avoid public scrutiny. It could have been like a bunch of raw steaks tossed over the fence to preoccupy the vicious dobermans that had barking incessantly at every move the Trump Administration made.
4. Controlling the victim
When a sociopath has victimized someone, threats are made to intimidate the prey. The victim gets told to say nothing to anyone or suffer worse consequences. Placing a gag order on the prey is standard protocol for child molesters, rapists, abusive spouses, organized crime bosses and dirty cops. Any sociopath has no conscience, moral code or self control. For these predators, there is no right or wrong, only winners and losers. Their only interpretation for anything the victim does is the inevitable whining of a powerless loser. Sociopaths cannot take any responsibility for doing harm, making a mistake or being abusive. They are confident they won and fully expect the losers to shut up permanently. The Trump Administration may be acting as if a)business is a winner and government is a loser b)Republicans are winners and Democrats are losers c)a press briefing is winning and press coverage is losing and/or d)the current Administration is a winner and the prior Administration is a loser.
5. Flexing their muscles
Adolescents go through a phase of being counter-dependent and obnoxious after years of being dependent on their relatives and every kind of surrogate parent. Teens feel desperate to strut their stuff to hide their lingering insecurities. Nobody can tell them anything because listening would revert to being horribly dependent. They cannot yet be independent, confident and free of lingering doubts. They can only show off their superiority, exaggerate their accomplishments, rebel against imposed authorities and come across as overpowering. Some adults seem to be chronic adolescents, perpetually immature, profoundly insecure and desperate for attention. The story of the Emperor’s New Clothes highlights this condition in the reigning monarch. Slapping a gag order on four government agencies is quite a show of power and superiority for anyone eager to impress skeptics and overcome personal insecurities.
In my next post, I’ll explore which of these five possibilities is the most congruent with the events which have transpired since the day of the gag order.