How Donald Trump is being perfectly rational in refusing to concede – if you adopt his assumptions

17th November 2020

The ongoing refusal by Donald Trump to concede that he has lost the presidency election is dangerous and profoundly undemocratic.

It threatens the prospect of a peaceful transition of power, and it is delaying the incoming administration from being able to prepare for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and other problems.

There is nothing to be said for this refusal from any sensible and decent person.


From Trump’s perspective, and adopting his assumptions, the refusal is a perfectly rational course of action.

Currently, Trump has within his power a thing that is valuable, a power that many would many want him to exercise.

He has a thing that many people want.

But if he exercises that power, he is left with little or nothing.

He would at a stroke become a lame duck president, easily disregarded.

And so he is going to hold on to that thing as long as he can.

If Trump concedes, he personally gains nothing – even if the United States polity gains an immense relief.

And so this is a grand exercise of political game theory: as long as Trump holds on he has the possibility of something in exchange for the valuable concession.

From a personal, selfish perspective what possible incentive is there for him to concede this valuable thing for nothing in return? 

There is none.

Of course, sensible and decent people would want Trump to act with public spirit, for the good of democracy and political stability, and for the benefit of public health and social peace.

But for Trump, these considerations are alien, as his considerations are alien to us.

His assumptions are entirely selfish and self-serving, and on those assumptions, what he is doing is what a rational actor would do in his predicament.

And this is the key to understanding Trump: the constant pursuit of leverage.

Trump is, in effect, like a video game character forever leaping from seesaw to seesaw.

Of course, he has only until 20 January 2021 to play this game.

For unless something extraordinary happens, his term ends by automatic operation of law.

But the potential disruption of two months without concession is immense and he knows it, and so he is playing it for all its worth.

This is perhaps a perfect example of a thing being illustrated by the manner of its departure.

For while Trump does not concede, he retains power, attention and money; he can generate income; he can promote possibility of running again; he keeps a hold over Republicans in Congress; and he can even seek a deal in return for the concession.

From his perspective it would be irrational for him to concede.

Trump may be better understood as a supposed business person, going from – and then reneging on – deal after deal, than as a politician.

Again, the constant pursuit of leverage.

Will he concede before 20 January 2021?

Maybe, though only if it suits him.

But it may also suit him to maintain and promote an ‘undefeated’ brand.

In any case, we should always be careful about dismissing unpleasant politics as ‘weird’, ‘bizarre’ or ‘mad’ – you may instead be dealing with perfectly rational behaviour but on very different assumptions.

The surprise is not that Trump is refusing to concede when defeated, but that any of us ever thought he would.


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28 thoughts on “How Donald Trump is being perfectly rational in refusing to concede – if you adopt his assumptions”

  1. Trump perfectly illustrates the futility of attempts by philosophers from Plato on to show that monstrous behaviour is irrational.

  2. If you take the game theory idea and play it out it will also show that there will be an optimum time to concede.

    The gains that can be made by Biden’s team lessen daily. Therefore Trump’s hand will get weaker every passing day until Jan 20th.

    At some point the gains made by the Biden team will politically cost less that what Trump is asking for.

      1. His role model in so many things, Roy Moore, never did concede. My bet is that he will continue to follow the Moore model.

          1. I concur Roy Cohn.

            “Roy Cohn was Trump’s Platonic ideal as an advocate. In the 1970’s, Cohn had represented Trump when he and his father Fred were investigated by the Department of Justice for discriminating against blacks in his rental properties in New York City. ………”

            “Roy Cohn had played the role of pit bull for Trump until the Boss dropped him like a hot potato in his hour of greatest need when he was dying of AIDS – ………….”

            Ref. Disloyal – A Memoir by Michael Cohen

  3. So if his “rational choice” further endangers lives of individuals, which could well be the case whilst gaming the system on the middle of a pandemic, at what point do other forces come in to play in order for that damage to be ceased?

    1. Midday on 20th January 2021 when his tenure runs out.

      The Republican Party machine seems to (generally) be happy supporting him so no help there.

  4. I agree that conceding cedes power to others. That the point of a the whole thing about concession speeches it hands over power it allows everyone to prepare. Now think about the power he has: If this was any other person you would have a generous concession speech the GOP would have moved on and more importantly will have disgarded the loser rather quickly. No conceding means the GOP has to make a choice. Do they continue with his fiction or do they say it is all over. If the continue with the former it means that they have determined that Trump is too strong to overcome if it is the latter then Trump is no longer important. remember in my view Trump is just a continuation of the GOP without the niceties, vote suppression obstructionist cabal is still there. The other thing is Trump pulled out a lot of voters he is around 60K voter from being 269 -269 with Biden so the reality is that it is narrower victory for Biden.

    Most importantly the GOP attempts to push the boundaries as much as they can. I suspect this will be the approach from now on form them both at a local level all the way up to the National level the aim is to delegitimise the opposition.

    I think that if I wanted to screw with the opposition I would do the same and think about this Biden is almost 4% up in national voting but his voctory is based on WI AZ and GA which total around less than 60K margin

    That the GOP has an inbuilt lead for them the margins are worth fighting for until the bitter end

  5. Good description of Trump as always looking for leverage: he brings his real estate modus operandi to government.

    The goals are harder to define. Part is pure obstinacy, the ugly side of Trump’s personal behavior – one last fight with media that has run an astounding four years of constant criticism (when the likes of Greenwald are calling the bias out, this is more than just a redneck rant). But it also seems likely that this is part of creating the legacy to support continued political involvement and even a 2024 run. One hopes not but Obama has set an example of not fading away gracefully: the first president I can remember who campaigned hard for his potential successor and emerged in 2020 for more than a cameo role. We seemed doomed to lengthy tomes of nanny knows best…

    Will Trump go? In all likelihood yes. The art of the deal has always been to make an outrageous opener and then settle. Keeping the base riled up serves its Rep purpose just as the coup rumor mill does for the Dems in the run up to Georgia.

  6. 1. He has already lost most of his power.
    2. What power he has left is solely due to the GOP being intimidated by Trump and his cultists.
    3. He will have no power to exact any concession, because all that Biden has to do is bide his time.
    4. Trump’s power is an illusion.

    1. (2) appears to not be consistent with (4)

      (4) is not true – the transition team cannot start work, and so a refusal to concede is having real effects – the fact that power is often an illusion does not make it always so

      (3) is valid and a wise course of action for Biden

      1. Yet…the transition team has commenced working, albeit not across the full range of initiatives that could if the outgoing administration played by the rules. Since so much about this stage is based on “custom” (I wonder where they learned that bad habit from), it’s difficult to nail down what is not being done.

        I don’t (2) and (4) are inconsistent. His power is an illusion, because he doesn’t control it. If a number of senior GOP politicians told him to get on with it, his power would vanish.

  7. I think this post is correct and sensible. And if you follow through the logic of it, it explains a lot about the Biden team’s way of dealing with this. Once you accept all of this is true, then ramping up the pressure on Trump to concede just increases Trump’s situational power. So you’ll notice, the Biden team’s approach has been “it doesn’t matter what Trump says. Biden will be President.” They’re refusing to push for transition money, downplaying the importance of the intel briefings Biden isn’t getting.

    The point here is to signal that Biden is totally fine with his BATNA (Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement). If he doesn’t NEED Trump to concede, and signals that clearly, then his hand is much stronger. The intent here is to devalue the only currency that Trump holds. So while the Biden teams actions may frustrate Democrats who are (correctly) concerned that the President Elect isn’t getting what he’s entitled to, it’s actually a calculation based on the strength of their position – and designed to make it even stronger.

    1. I agree entirely with your points. Concomitant with retaining such “power” as Trump has in refusing to concede, he must also take responsibility (he won’t, but it will be de facto his responsibility) for what may be another 200,000 Covid deaths by January 20. Nearly half a million deaths on his watch is some legacy. His intransigence may also cost the Republicans the two Senate run-offs in Georgia and thus the Senate majority. A Pyrrhic victory not uncommon to Trump’s business affairs.

  8. So, the problem is in the media that is still taking him seriously not grasping the fact that he is playing the game.

    Although than is not very strange since his personality is very well exposed, to me it appears that the media likes the game since it adds to its outreach.

    Both sides; Trump and Media, are benefiting from this game, but Biden admin is losing valuable time to face COVID19.

    One more thing, the court could end all of this because he selected to go to court. Is it?

  9. I think the transition team is already working, they’re just having to be a bit more circumspect (and, I suppose, without pay?).
    This is typical Trump, though. It is as if as long as he refuses to admit he has lost, he has won. I don’t think this does anything except make Biden look more presidential for every passing day; and make the US look more dysfunctional.

    I wonder if (when?) it will be possible to quantify the harm this sideshow is doing to the US’s reputation?
    One hopes that voters in Georgia are watching and realize the harm that they can stop this silliness.

  10. If Trump concedes, he personally gains nothing – even if the United States polity gains an immense relief.

    This points to something else about Trump.

    For almost every other outgoing president, they do get something they value when they concede: a burnished reputation. Or to put another way, the approval of historians.

    Think of how George W Bush and Barack Obama were praised for their co-operation with incoming administrations from the opposing party.

    Think of the kind letter that George H W Bush wrote to Bill Clinton on Inauguration Day. I’m sure it was sincere, but don’t tell me that Bush 41 didn’t know that it would eventually be made public, and that it wasn’t written with one eye on that inevitability.

    Donald Trump, perhaps uniquely among presidents and candidates, doesn’t care about stuff like this. ‘Burnished reputation’ and ‘approval of historians’ are things valued by elites, but not by (to use a snobbish phrase) unlettered people like Trump. He seems only to care about what power and influence he can amass in the moment, with no sense of legacy.

    It seems strange to me that people with huge egos like Trump don’t care more about the long term. His presidency will go down in infamy, in no small part due to the way it ended. It’s odd that such a thing doesn’t both him. I suppose that’s what is meant when people call him ‘shameless’ — a disregard for long term reputation.

    This consideration is even more baffling in the case of Boris Johnson, who, as a classicist and biographer of Churchill, is more aware than most of the power of legacy, yet seems happy to be remembered as someone who buggered up the British Constitutional settlement and threatened the break up of the Union.

  11. Is Trump trying to get Biden to undertake to pardon him? Or would a pardon only cover federal offences, still leaving Trump exposed to state criminal charges on matters such as tax fraud or election expense conspiracy?

    1. A pardon from Biden, which may well never materialize, covers only federal crimes and these are not the ones he is being taken to court over. Regarding the position Trump is in, a pardon from Biden is worthless.

  12. 100% correct, add to this his legal challenges in Georgia and elsewhere and as David argues, this is a man in pursuit of a deal – what sort of deal I hear you ask? I beg your pardon? Yes, exactly right he begs for his pardon in return for normalcy. Trump never thought he would lose – winners never do – as Sir Alex Ferguson once said, show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser. Trump is not a good loser and worse than that, he expected to win, begging for his pardon, wasn’t supposed to be necessary for 4 more years, so he is unprepared, was unprepared. The conclusion of this depends on the outcome of two conflicting imperatives on the part of Biden, or the passage of time. How quickly does Biden want access to the State versus how much does Biden and by extension the Democratic party want Trump to swing? If the former triumphs over the latter Donald get off, if the latter triumphs over the former, Donald bargains until the 20th January when he is done – possibly literally. But as David argues this is, not petty vindictiveness, this is rationality of the highest order and something games theorist would have a field day with – if you are such a theorist – enjoy – at least until game over!

  13. In the end, does it matter much to Biden if Trump does not concede? Clearly it would make the transition easier, but as you say, what it in it for Trump?

    Most people accept Biden as the president-elect already (including Republicans in private, and it seems Trump himself when the mask slips). Biden will formally become so at the latest when the Electoral College meets and votes for him on December 14. None of the court cases look as though they will change that. One of the key moments for me was when the Secret Service increased Biden’s protection (because they were pragmatically following the facts on the ground, not the political rhetoric). Even if the GSA continues to drag its feet, and Biden doesn’t force its hand with his own legal action, it will have to give Biden his statutory rights to funds and support once the Electoral College vote happens, and the transition then will take place.

    No doubt Trump will continue to bluster, but is there anything he can actually do?

    By way of comparison, Al Gore did not concede until December 13, 2020, just before the Electoral College met on December 18. As I understand it, George W. Bush was not recognised as president-elect until the 13th, and yet there was an orderly transition from Clinton to Bush.

  14. Spot on, David, and a good illustration of how those who think differently from us are by and large just as likely to be as rational as we are, rather than the bonkers we’d like to dismiss them as. A hard lesson!

  15. Up to a point, Lord Copper. Yes, withholding concession gives Trump some temporary attention/ income. But does it build a platform for further political action, 2024 run etc.? That is debatable. The test of this strategy will be the Georgia run offs imho

  16. Agree, except for one thing. Is Trump so delusional as to think his legacy won’t be utterly tarnished by this final act of defiance? Does he really think it’s better to be remembered as a small, graceless person? Just the smallest demonstration of *class* in defeat would wrap up his disastrous term on a more positive (less negative?) note.

    1. It wasn’t an illusion that 71m people voted for him and his final curtain call will keep him buoyant with most of them for years.

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