It's called the OODA loop, and it keeps him ahead of everyone.
By Jack Shafer
March 23, 2016
Who was the first candidate for president to comment on the Brussels bombing Tuesday? Who issued the most assertive, saber-rattling denunciations on the morning shows, making the rest of the field look timid? Of course, Mr. First was Donald Trump, whose verbal fleetness and willingness to talk to almost any reporter at almost any time of the day about almost any topic have made him the pacesetter this election year.
According to MSNBC, Hillary Clinton declined interview requests yesterday "until she saw that Trump was calling in to morning news shows," and then went on the air to criticize him, although not by name. By diving in so late, Clinton was reduced to replowing a field that Trump had already turned. Like the Republican candidates before her, Clinton was already caught inside Trump's OODA loop.
OODA loop? What's that? I had never heard of the OODA loop until Wednesday morning, when one of my editors, Blake Hounshell, introduced me to the concept. Originally formulated by fighter pilot and military theoretician Col. John R. Boyd to describe the mental cycles a successful dogfighting pilot navigates in bagging his prey, the thinking behind the OODA loop has since been applied to the world outside air combat by businessmen, athletes, diplomats and competitive types everywhere.
OODA stands for observation; orientation; decision; action—the four steps an individual goes through when reacting to an event. The key to military victory, Boyd preached, was to cycle through your OODA loop faster than your foe. In his June 2002 Fast Company feature about the OODA loop, Keith H. Hammonds explains that to win a dogfight, a pilot must find a way to operate "inside" his foe's OODA loop, "acting quickly to outthink and outmaneuver rivals."
"An effective pilot explodes his rival's comfortable view of the universe," Hammond writes, a statement that couldn’t be a better description of the way Trump has run his campaign. He's rejected most of the etiquette that accompanies political campaigns, taunting and name-calling his opponents ("Lyin' Ted Cruz," for a fresh example) to instigate publicity-attracting feuds. But feuds are only a part of Trump's OODA loop strategy. Upsetting opponents' OODA loops with unexpected and rapid emanations from his own gives Trump the constant advantage of surprise. His ability to change mental course inside a media moment—from "perhaps there are two Donald Trumps" to "I don't think there are two Donald Trumps"—would sound like a contradiction coming out of any other politician's mouth. But Trump has been normalizing contradictions since the beginning of the campaign, with no loss of political support.
Who before Trump convinced TV hosts to accept lengthy phone-ins from a candidate? The practical advantage of doing phone-in interviews is it affords him maximum exposure with a minimum of physical effort. It also conditions TV bookers to call him when news or controversy breaks: He'll be there to take the call. By making himself more available to the news media than almost any candidate, he’s got an edge in determining the terms of the debate, and his media ubiquity also makes him look like the leader and the other candidates like followers. While other candidates are composing expensive TV ads about their plans to solve the political crises of yesterday, Trump is on television screens across America, at no expense to his campaign, talking about how he will address today's catastrophe. He’s already made his move. He's inside their airspace.
Where did Trump come by these OODA loop skills? Although he owns a fleet of aircraft, including a Boeing 757-200, a Cessna Citation X corporate jet, two Sikorsky S-76B helicopters and, for a short time, owned Eastern Airlines' shuttle service, he's no fighter pilot. Maybe he learned the art of quick thinking at his developer father's knee, or in military school dorm fights, or in New York real estate deal making, or while divorcing his first two wives. (I suspect all of the "wit" displayed on his TV show was scripted.)
There's something Zen about one source of Trump's power. He's able to maneuver faster than the other candidates because, unlike them, he's unencumbered by the polls and important advisers that slow the OODA loops governing other candidates. In this sense, his famously unplanned, unstructured campaign operation is a huge advantage. He's a one-man fighter jet; his opponents are lumbering bombers, still painstakingly running through a weapons checklist while they’re viciously strafed from behind.
Unlike your average candidate, Trump doesn't require facts to make an argument. He doesn't even need an argument to make an argument: He possesses the confidence to shoot straight from the lip on any topic at any time, filling the air with chaff. For every critic who tut-tuts, "Trump doesn't know what he's talking about," four or five people in TV land nod their head in agreement with him. By the time the fact-checkers arrive to assess the damage Trump has done to the truth, he has skipped on to several new subjects. He's inside the fact-checkers' OODA loops, too, moving too quickly for them to catch him.
It’s anybody's guess which of Trump's observations, acts of orientation, decision making and action are conscious and which are intuitive. Cartoonist Scott Adams of "Dilbert" fame writes of Trump's great skill at simplifying the complex, which, when you think about it, is as sharp a time-saving tool as exists in any politician's OODA-loopbag: Where other candidates devote whole speeches to how they’ll get things done, Trump merely states he'll get the best people on it and they'll finish on time and under budget. "Trump is talking directly to people's subconscious. Everything else he says is just a carrier signal," Adams writes.
Adams also calls Trump a master of the "linguistic kill shot," citing the candidate's ability to take out other candidates with a word or two that contains a resonance of truth. For Jeb Bush, the phrase was "low energy." For Carly Fiorina, the word was "robotic." For Ben Carson, “nice.” For Marco Rubio, "little." (For Ted Cruz, the word is shaping up to be "Lyin'.")
Did any of the vanquished candidates see Trump rocketing up from behind just before he shot them down?
Didn't I recently promise not to write about Donald Trump again? Dang, I was hoping to sneak this piece inside your OODA loop. Send navigational directions via email to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts orient, my Twitter feed takes action, and my RSS feed is still broken.
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