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Trump and the OODA Loop: How He Predicably Disorients His Predictable Adversaries

To collapse an adversary’s system into confusion and disorder causing it to overreact and underreact to activities that appear menacing while being at the same time ambiguous, chaotic, misleading…

My personal opinion of Donald Trump?  I didn’t like him and didn’t vote for him.  However, I all along had an appreciation of his cunning.  The man has been repeatedly underestimated and unpredictably predictable.

I understand that the mainstream view of President Trump does not mesh with “predictability.”  The mental model of most Trump adversaries that has taken on the form of dogma is that he is a loose cannon with a big mouth and personality defects that leave him unstable and wildly unpredictable.  I disagree.

Sun Tzu said a couple of thousand years ago:

“Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.”

What do we expect from President Trump?  He will apply deception, appear arbitrary and capricious in his actions, and otherwise act to inflame the emotions of his adversaries.  He is exploiting the political environment and the landscape, and otherwise harnessing the predictability of his opponents to keep them fired up.

In a fundamental sense, he is actively stressing their ability to adapt to the present circumstances.  Gary Johnson, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and even Bernie Sanders never realized what Trump figured out – this election was a battle and all was fair in it (even the unfair, such as torpedoes fired at Sanders during the primary). It was a battle of good versus evil, Trump was an existential threat.  And Donald Trump was excited to be the cowboy in the black hat.

And let’s be real here: Trump approached the election and commencement of his Presidency with a different mindset: if they want battle he will give them a war.

Trump’s Actions Fit within the Theories of Col. John Boyd

My personal opinion – Col John Boyd was one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. He pretty much defined US military tactical and strategic thinking since the 1970s, as well as business models and patterns of conflict. He was a proponent of acquiring broad knowledge on a number of subjects. Anyone who has read Boyd has a mental model that can make sense of what is happening today. I am seeing the actions of a person who seems to inherently understand Boyd’s process, and adversaries who are willfully ignorant of it.


Boyd said that successful decisionmaking runs off of the OODA loop. Whomever can: (1) Observe the environment; (2) Orient the observations to mental models; (3) Decide on a course of action; and (4) act the most quickly will have the advantage. It is called a loop because it is a constant process.  In aviation it’s called “staying ahead of the airplane.” In everyday life, it’s grabbing a coat and an umbrella when it’s raining.

To flourish doesn’t mean standing in the rain and complaining that it’s raining even though I’m wearing a wool suit.  It means, “It’s raining and I am outside in a wool suit. I can either remain here and get wetter and colder or I can seek shelter and/or grab a coat or umbrella to stay drier and proceed. I will get the umbrella and coat.  Got it.  Oh.  The rain stopped. My mental model says it may return. I will take a coat and umbrella with me.” We are aware of it and practice it thousands of times every day.

As a fighter pilot, he understood it and developed ECM theory upon which the F-16 was based. It could turn on a dime, slow down and speed up more quickly because it was agile, and maneuverable and therefore unpredictable. This works with large systems and even people. Be maneuverable.  Be able to quickly adjust to a rapidly evolving situation.

The goal of all this? To collapse an adversary’s system into confusion and disorder causing it to overreact and underreact to activities that appear menacing while being at the same time ambiguous, chaotic, misleading, etc.

Does this look familiar? Not only does Trump force changes in the environment, he does so knowing exactly what his opponents will do,

Trump’s Adversaries are Predictable, Don’t Apply the OODA Loop – And Seemingly Haven’t Integrated a Model for Trump’s Behavior

And what of his adversaries. Rather than applying the OODA loop, adversaries predictably Observe, Decide, Act. Arguments can be made that the adversaries “Observe React” – and I actually think many operate under the “Decide, Observe, React” convention. Either way, the adversaries skip the most important part of the OODA loop – Orient. Orienting to the environment means having models of thought – not dogmas. If a person or system operates under one or two sets of assumptions, that person will torture reality to fit within those one or two belief systems.

Thus the adversary, without a sufficiently open mind, is being maneuvered beyond his or her mental, moral and physical capacities to adapt to the changing situation. Put simply, those who haven’t gotten over and adapted to this new environment are dooming themselves. They cannot figure out what he’s trying to do – they won’t let it happen. See Sun Tzu quote above: “Engage people with what they expect… It confirms their projections.” Trump’s adversaries have expectations of the President and he is doing his damnedest to meet those expectations.

On the other hand, Trump knows what will happen. His adversaries are predictable. He tosses out the bait, they take it hook line and sinker, they react immediately with viral online outrage instead of a measured and well thought out response because he hits them at an emotional level.  The most recent was his sudden tweet about a ban on transsexuals in the military.

The response to the tweet about banning transsexuals surprised nobody. Response was immediate, inflamed, emotional and hateful towards the President for his discrimination against the LGBT community – and in this one singled out the trans community – in the military.  The trans community in the military will be protected at all costs.

Oh, yeah.  Trump’s tweet came amidst reports of polls and reports from the Democrats that identity politics is killing them with the public at large and that they need to change the strategy to appeal to a large and homogenous voter base.  Trump tweets.  The adversaries observe, react, and keep on reacting.  This because they operate primarily on the mental model of “Trump is a bigot.”

What else was President Trump up to that week?  Failed Obamacare repeal?  Issues with Russia?  Two coops of ice cream?  Nope.  The reaction was focused on an issue that the strategists on the adversarial side is dividing the voter base – and the Party itself.  The dogma to which they have attached themselves leaves them open to being poked, prodded and ultimately splintered.

Get Inside Trump’s OODA Loop

As Boyd taught, Trump is operating inside their OODA loop. His adversaries, even those in the GOP, are utterly disoriented.  “Why on earth would he announce such a thing in a tweet?  Trump is hitting his adversaries where they have made it known they are susceptible.  He is exploiting confirmation bias.  For the millions who were deeply offended and highly bothered, he knows there are tens of millions who have other things to worry about.

Add to that, there are legitimate reasons (regardless of my personal disagreement with the policy) for why trans, specifically, would be subject to heightened scrutiny for military service.  Do they require frequent and continuing medical treatment?  Then they are not eligible for certain portions of service. Do they require hormones?  The military doesn’t allow people with bee sting anaphylaxis on submarines because they can’t treat ANY anaphylaxis.  Bees on a submarine?  Too bad.  Peanut allergies are out, too.

Applying the OODA loop, it probably makes some sense to get inside Trump’s OODA loop.  Are you saying “Trump is Not My President?”  Well, from a factual standpoint you might as well be saying, “Global Warming is not Real.”  It doesn’t matter what you feel, and denial means that you have stalled yourself on “Observe.” Build the model for understanding this reality, orient yourself to the landscape as it exists, decide what will bring success, and act on that.

A quick note regarding climate change – my continuing question remains: have the strategies and tactics of the past 30 years done a damned thing regarding worldwide policy?  An agreement in Paris 18 months ago that’s practical uselessness and de jure toothlessness is exceeded only by the emotional attachment to the moral victory? Oh, yeah.  Trump hit you all on that one, too – taking nothing except a concept of progress. Reaction was predictable. And did anybody not see it coming? Did anybody stop and think, “Maybe the whole worldwide outrage thing that hasn’t worked won’t work this time, either?  Maybe we should work to convince Trump that pulling out of this agreement won’t do any good measurable good.  Naw, let’s say Trump destroyed the world.” Trump is inside your OODA loop, too.

I have given you a model of behavior.  I may indeed be wrong, but the only to determine the impact is to use the model I’ve provided as a resource.  Perhaps you will allow yourself to have some context for what you have been observing. This model isn’t new – it’s been around for a half a century.

Are you going to decide to reorient yourself from “Trump is stupid and psycho?” Are you willing to consider that you are being played by a person who understands you much more thoroughly than you understand him? Are you willing to act differently? Maybe hit him back in a way that was unexpected?

Or will you continue to try to fit the reality that is Trump into a model that has not been effective?  I hope to be pleasantly surprised but I predict that his opponents will refuse to learn.

2 thoughts on “Trump and the OODA Loop: How He Predicably Disorients His Predictable Adversaries

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