Zero-Sum May Prove Poor Math

Terry Schwadron
5 min readMar 10, 2018


Terry H. Schwadron

March 10, 2018

All over the commentary world, people are scratching for useful phrases in attempts to explain Trumpism.

Of course, there are a lot easier explanations about what it isn’t — populism, for example, or traditional Republicanism — than there are about what actual strategy the White House is espousing, other than calling it America First. In part, that’s because the current version of the White House is in a bit of at least policy disarray, not to mention personnel disarray, and that this president is impulsive and as likely as not to announce, hint, tweet or lean towards one statement of policy only to recant and go the opposite direction in a day or two.

In part, what doesn’t help is that the president seems to have a very short attention span for policy issues that get complex in enforcement and practical detail. So, even if one is an utter fan of the president — or one of his Cabinet members or a legislator trying to make his policy into a passable bill — this on-again, off-again way of thinking is hard to find reliable when talking about issues as wide-ranging as gun controls, potential trade wars, North Korean’s mercurially sudden hopeful expressions or sanctions for Russian interference.

Of late, I’ve seen a lot of commentators’ references to Trump’s “zero-sum” thinking as a summary phrase to explain why he sees trade wars as “easy,” or nuclear showdowns as one-way affairs, or even legislative brinksmanship as so common.

In making his formal trade policy announcement yesterday — against the backdrop of selected steel and aluminum workers and Cabinet secretaries — the president again underscored that steel is finite, that other countries are producing more of it than the United States, and then draping “national security” concerns over the tariffs he was launching. Of course, aren’t computers (and parts) important to national security, or tires, or food products and uniforms? If we had a country that cared more about American-made labels than about profit, we wouldn’’t have companies fleeing to follow the lowest worker wage.

Zero-sum is a phrase that means that Trump is applying a pretty straightforward, simple measuring stick to most public policy issues: In his world-view, there is a finite amount of steel or immigrants or nuclear weapons. From his thinking, the United States, with the largest economy and military in the world, should have More or even Most of whatever is on the table.

In most zero-sum situations, the situation where one or more participants’ gain or loss equals the loss or gain of other participants. Thus, a gain for one must result in a loss for one or more others.

In Trump’s position, then, almost all problems resolve to whether Americans make more money than the other guy, or sell more goods, or have the choicest immigrants or have the biggest nukes. Missing from his equation, which many who argue about “zero-sum” thinking accrue to real estate brokering, is the idea that both sides in a debate can “win.” Or, perhaps more importantly from a diplomatic view, that keeping others from feeling as if they have lost will tend to keep them as trading or military partners.

Thus, applying this idea to building a Wall with purported Mexican money results, naturally, in a poor public display of bullying behavior with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who simply refuses to play and cancels a state visit. In zero-sum terms, Trump wins. But the country does not gain, and even advocates for a Wall don’t really gain.

In announcing his recent trade tariffs, a punitive, isolationist policy, Trump underscored an us-versus-them relationship with trading partners. It was as if there is a finite amount of steel production in the world, and that he wants American steelmakers to own the most profitable ends of that zero-sum mathematics. But in so doing, instead of punishing China, his supposed target, he is really hitting Canada, Mexico and South Korea, whose steel imports far exceed China’s. Approaching this not as a simply zero-sum equation might allow a U.S. president to see that this might not be such a good time to provoke South Korea, with whom we have mutual interest in calming North Korea. It might not even be a good time to poke Canada and Mexico, if the president is serious about adjusting and updating the NAFTA agreement.

Now comes Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who is boasting of having a new class of nuclear weapons, nuclear-fueled intercontinental missiles, that can run forever at heights too low for anti-missile systems to track. Obviously, there is no finite number of nuclear weapons in the world — unless you negotiate limits that all parties accept. It’s unclear immediately how the president’s zero-sum thinking would help craft a response; instead, the White House has offered no response, other than a generalized sense that the U.S. military has this possibility covered.

It is easy to find commentary on the use of zero-sum thinking to explain Trump.

Vox has commented that “For Donald Trump, calling someone a loser is not merely an insult, and calling someone a winner is not merely a compliment. The division of the world into those who win and those who lose is of paramount philosophical importance to him, the clearest reflection of his deep, abiding faith that the world is a zero-sum game and you can only gain if someone else is failing.”

In the official Democratic response to the State of the Union speech, Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D-MA) denounced Trump administration policies for “turning American life into a zero-sum game” in which the well-being of some Americans must come at the expense of others. A columnist for Fortune said of Trump’s inaugural address that “Leaving aside the absence of humility, poetry and generosity towards his predecessors, (President Trump) presented a zero-sum view of the global economy.” The Financial Times headlined a story last year, “Donald Trump’s zero-sum folly threatens trade in Asia.”

Last week in The Washington Post, political scientist Ian Bremmer argued, “In Trump’s view of the world, there is a finite amount of everything — money, security, jobs, victories — and nothing can be shared. . . . The problem is that the triumphs that Trump craves — strength, safety, prosperity — cannot be achieved alone. They require friends and allies, and they require the president to see those people as partners, not competitors. But Trump doesn’t know how to do that, which makes everyone suspicious; other governments don’t like to be punching bags, the only role he appears to envision for them. Mutual distrust imperils the collaboration the United States needs to succeed. Which is to say, Trump’s determination to win could easily position the country to lose.”

I could argue one policy or another. But I can’t fight a mind-set that only sees enemies. Making America Great shouldn’t mean having to demean everyone else.