The Science of Spiteful Donald Trump

This is a descriptive model of Donald Trump's behavior, which ultimately works out to a prediction that Donald Trump won't last very long. In an evolutionary sense, at least.

I've found that many people use the term "spite" incorrectly. Many assume it has to do with vitriol or nastiness, or otherwise, is motivated negative behavior of some kind. This is not even close to the scientific definition of the term. A daffodil plant can carry out an act of spite, and a daffodil plant is unlikely to engage in motivated behavior.

Spite involves carrying out an act where the ultimate cost to oneself exceeds the net benefit to oneself, at the same time the recipient of the behavior experiences a net cost.

Trump's anti John Lewis tweeting is an example of spite. It was an attack on Lewis, but it caused huge problems for Trump, and strengthened his opposition.

Since Trump's tweet may actually have benefited his victim and may have done very little harm to anyone else, it is actually possible that it was an act of altruism.

The pertinent theory comes from behavioral biology, which many years ago influenced economics theory, so you see the concept in both evolutionary theory and game theory today. (Because most people incorrectly assume that economists are smarter than everyone else, except possibly physicists, it is often assume that this set of theories comes from economics and then was borrowed by biology, but the reverse is actually true. See work by Sewall Wright and Robert Trivers.)

This classic theory can be classically represented by the following classic graphic:


The actor, called here the "donor," can help or hurt the recipient. In this case, the potential act probably has to do with nuts, since these are squirrels. But it can be any act as long as the act itself incurs a cost for the actor. (The cost is part of the definition of acts.) Then, the actor and the recipient, eventually, count up the net result. The actor can expend energy and incur risk by taking a nut away from the recipient. The recipient runs away. This is an act of selfishness on the part of the actor. The actor can give a nut to the donor. That is an act of altruism. The actor and recipient can share the nuts under a tree, and thus share the job of keeping an eye out for predators. They are both losing because they need to share the nuts, but since there are a gazillion nuts the loss is very close to zero. Since two sets of eyes are more than twice as good as one set of eyes for feeding squirrels, both gain. That is cooperation. And so on.

Trup's Attack on John Lewis was spite

Trump seems immune to the idea of forethought when he tweets. I sincerely -- and this is not an ablist remark but a legitimate question -- suggest he is a victim of Tourette's. Even the most obvious degree of restraint is like water cast on granite. Alternatively, it is possible that Trump sees himself as invulnerable to legitimate criticism -- all those who disagree with him are mere losers, he seems ready to declare. He does seem to have megalomaniac tendencies.

Whatever the reason, a pair of 140 character missives by Trump can be relatively benign or incredibly offensive, but this time were very self destructive.


John Lewis was up to the fight:

Lewis said in an interview on NBC News' "Meet the Press" on Sunday, that he doesn't believe Trump is a "legitimate president" and that he wouldn't be attending the presidential inauguration for the first time in his 30-year political career, citing the intelligence community's explosive findings over Russian hacking of the presidential election.

More here.

The material harm to Trump and his presidency from this act of spite is growing, as the tweet is causing a cascade of effects..

The number of Democratic members of Congress saying they will boycott Donald Trump's inauguration on Friday has increased to 26.
Many have cited as a reason the president-elect's recent attack on civil rights icon and fellow congressman John Lewis.

There is also a petition.

See also: BBC - Democratic Inauguration boycott grows

In the end, what started out as a harmful stab against an opponent caused more harm to Trump than benefit. If the tweets also harmed Lewis or Liberal Democrats, then this was probably an act of spite. If, and look at the squirrels above, this was an act that benefited Lewis, Liberals, and Democrats, and hurt Trump, then it was an act of altruism. Maybe the Democrats should send Trump a thank you note!

Trump vs. CIA chief

Everybody knows that in Washington, the story is usually the comment or reaction, not the thing. It is all very meta. The story is the story, not what the story is about. We have a new term these days bandied about to stand in for thinking about this: The narrative. You control the narrative. Just hope no one asks you to explain what a narrative is. This can all seem very senseless, but it is also a little bit complex, thus pretty much beyond the range of Trump's level of thinking. And for this reason, perhaps, Trump has not learned when to shut up.

The result is that when a moderately interesting story comes along, Tump picks it up and bludgeons himself about he head and neck with it. Five year old's do this. The John Lewis story is an example. Rather than ignoring a complaint from a liberal democrat, he victimized a widely loved civil rights leader on the eve of MLK celebrations.

With respect to the intelligence business, Trump is attacking the outgoing director of the CIA for absolutely no reason, and this is causing a reaction that will harm Trump far more than his comment could possibly have benefited him.

In a recent tweet, Trump accused the outgoing CIA chief of being behind the "leak" of the Trump Dossier. Meanwhile, the CIA chief notes that

...Trump lacks a full understanding of the threat Moscow poses to the United States, delivering a public lecture to the president-elect that further highlighted the bitter state of Trump's relations with American intelligence agencies.

The Dead Zone The Dead Zone

More here.

Trump's reaction to the widespread acceptance of Russian influence on the election, and the as yet less widely accepted -- but very credible -- Trump Dossier is to elevate these problems to the level of international incident. In his effort to protect himself from political fire, he is holding up a baby in front of his attackers. Unfortunately, the baby is all of use, Americans, his country, and beyond.

Trump takes big risks with American security

This is yet another example of spite, and a good one, because it shows that spite does not require malice. It can arise from simple ignorance.

I think, and prove me wrong if you like, that the Trump transition team is, collectively, as dumb as a broken brick. When they saw all these "presidential appointments" on the list of things to consider, they assumed that they were to replace them all on the 20th of January. So, they fired everyone effective that day including all of the ambassadors around the world.

This is one of several examples of misunderstanding the system, and in this case, putting our nation at risk.

A plan by Donald Trump to toss out dozens of ambassadors on the day he takes office risks months of uncertainty in some of the most sensitive parts of the world, according to several experts.

More here.

You might argue that this is not spite because it was just stupid. But the evolutionary biological theory of behavior counts this as spite because motivation is not related to the definition. By keeping motivation out of the definition, the theory is more general. For example, a plant can carry out a spiteful act. That makes the theory a hell of a lot more useful.

In this case, the Trump team gained nothing from their decision, but they risk causing innumerable problems world wide, hopefully mostly small ones, that put them in the hole with respect to foreign policy literally on day one. Nay, minute one.

Spite ends things

Look again at the chart above, and consider examples of spite in nature.

You can't easily find them. When you do see them, they usually end up being acts of altruism that are explained as acts of cooperation or selfishness by taking the analysis to the next level. A squirrel allows another squirrel to forage near itself even when there aren't a gazillion nuts under the tree, and is taking a real hit on food access for this reason. That looks like altruism, which is even more stupid, evolutionarily, than spite. But it turns out that the recipient of that act it the actor-squirrel's offspring. By benefiting an offspring even with a cost to herself, the mother squirrel gains an ultimate genetic benefit.

I do not see how any of Trump's acts of spite benefit him other than to strengthen the love he receives from his relatively small base. His spite erodes his support at the softer end, invigorates (and increases funding for, I'll guess) his opponents, causes problems for his administration that will make him and his entire presidency less effective. Ultimately, he will spite his way into impeachment.

We don't see true acts of spite in nature very often because that sort of behavior, or more exactly, the behavioral facility to make the generation of such behavior even possible, is selected against.

If Donald Trump does not learn, or is not restrained, almost literally, by his staff, he will spite himself into the annals of the Darwin Awards, in a political sense. Spite ends things. Spite will end Trump.


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Squirrels, nuts. Sounds about right.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 16 Jan 2017 #permalink

Given that Lewis' memoir sold out on Amazon following Trump's spray, I'd say that it was very definitely altruism in the biological sense.

Of course, from a psychological point of view the benefit to his opponent was not intended by Trump, or probably desired, so it might be better framed as something else. Many words come to mind, none flattering...

By Bernard J. (not verified) on 16 Jan 2017 #permalink

And Wesley preempts my post!

By Bernard J. (not verified) on 16 Jan 2017 #permalink

Sometimes you reap what you sow. It will be rough for everybody before it gets better.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 16 Jan 2017 #permalink

What is it with these...

(23 minutes pass)

fractured tweets from Trump? How long does it take the retard to find out what he wanted to finish the sentence with?

"In the end, what started out as a harmful stab against an opponent caused more harm to Trump than benefit"

But as long as someone gets a dressing down, the job here is done.

Making living with someone a nightmare is what toxic personality is.

(PS anyone else think that one reason why Trump refuses to sell off is because when considered with net debt, trump is practically penniless, and only the loaning based on assets to seize can he get any actual cash out of the system? So if he sold everything the trust would be worth millions at best, and that's not good enough for trump to get women to live with him, nor to browbeat others into accepting the bullying)

"I assumed you had no clue what the word actually meant"

That's a good assumption for anything Wesley writes.

In the end, what started out as a harmful stab against an opponent caused more harm to Trump than benefit

I'm not sure about this. It is true that Lewis received a good deal of support and increased sales for his book, and some Democratic officials declared they won't attend the inauguration. The first two are benefits for Lewis and decent people, but a good fraction of Trump's hard-core supporters don't view Lewis or the causes he has and does support as worthwhile. They won't care about the insults Trump tweeted out.

Nor will Trump's supporters care about the folks who will boycott the inauguration: in their eyes the people participating in it are the main problem in government and this is simply more evidence of that, more reason for Trump to clean house.

I think this only makes Trump look worse to people who already realized what a scumbag he is. To the majority of his supporters, and the other republicans who tolerate him simply because it gives them a chance to royally screw over women, the poor, and the disadvantaged (think Ryan and the rest of them), it won't matter one bit.

Since Trump hasn't given over his tax returns, since he hasn't divested himself of his businesses, since he paraded as "proof" of how much he'd signed over a table piled with clean new manilla envelopes with piles of unprinted clean paper in it and refused to let anyone look (I would have got up and opened up one of those envelopes and spilled the blank paper on the floor,personally), in what way does Trump appear to be a legitimate candidate to take the job.

If I was expected to dress appropriate for my job but refused, I would be sacked.

Sack trump.

He isn't capable of the job.

"spiteful posts from you are not welcome here, since they violate the network’s code of conduct. I have also never once threatened to delete any of your posts"

Uhm, what, then, would be the point of "violate the network's code of conduct", if nothing is going to be deleted?

And given the horseshit that many deniers post up here you can hardly go round interfering with posts and keep the myth that this is not your fault.

"One could just as easily argue that Hamilton used the word incorrectly (or inappropriately) in 1964. "

You would need to do that, though. Not what you did.

Plus English is a living language. Learn what that means.

Dean, "I’m not sure about this. It is true that Lewis received a good deal of support and increased sales for his book, and some Democratic officials declared they won’t attend the inauguration. The first two are benefits for Lewis and decent people, but a good fraction of Trump’s hard-core supporters don’t view Lewis or the causes he has and does support as worthwhile. They won’t care about the insults Trump tweeted out etc."

I would take sort of the obverse view. I think the only place Trump gains supportive thinking is from die hard fans who really can't upgrade their love for the man more than it already is.

But, that is just conjecture so far. I suspect polling agencies will be asking about this specific incident over coming days.


" 1.1archaic [count noun] A grudge:
‘it seemed as if the wind had a spite at her’"

But here:

"You, sir, are the worst kind of Bernie Bot."

Bad move, here, the assertion is pointless and is no better than, say, thunderf00t's claim against "feminist".

Both are terms used as a mnemonic handle on the gross association that is owned by the receiver, but is not two-way associative.

And in this case,what exactly was the problem with him being a Bernie Bot here? If hes a dick, was it BECAUSE of his political leanings, which have been 0% evident to me?

Or is dickery separate to his support for bernie, and the source of your sourness with any of his supporters? Because that sourness is toxic too.

Wow, drop it. You have no idea. This discussion is ended, and purged from this blog.

The post above is about something important. Further comments not about the post will be deleted.

" I think the only place Trump gains supportive thinking is from die hard fans who really can’t upgrade their love for the man more than it already is."

I think that's what I was getting at, but for a group a little more broad than the die-hards: I suspect a good number of people who support him but don't worship him will view this whole thing as more left-wingers whining because they lost the election and so they will believe their choice to support Trump was a good one.

"But, that is just conjecture so far. I suspect polling agencies will be asking about this specific incident over coming days."

Maybe - but with DeVos coming up for questioning and the inauguration on our doorstep, those polls could very easily be lost in the noise.

What may happen is that all members realise that this could be a Niemuller event.

If they don't, as a group, stand up to this maniac, they'll be hunted down individually. Because by the time the others realise this later in term will be too late, because their power will have been stripped.

You get the point, though, Greg.

Trump lacks a full understanding of the threat Moscow poses to the United States,

Probably because he has an understanding of the thread Moscow poses to himself -- and his businesses/family.

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 16 Jan 2017 #permalink

Let's posit that Trump is not President-elect, but Demagogue-elect. Then Trump will see his actions as very successful. The demagogue's first tasks are to silence his enemies and to consolidate his power.

Tweets cause people to get death threats and corporation to lose value. Because the victim is arbitrarily chosen, it can happen to anyone. Thus, people become afraid to oppose him.

One way to consolidate power is to weaken any agencies in his power by chosing unqualified people to run them or leaving them leaderless. He may also delegitimize agencies not under his direct control by questioning competence and honesty of the leaders.

The demagogue's other tasks include co-opting the media and inciting violent behavior so he may militarize the police.

"...causes problems for his administration that will make him and his entire presidency less effective"

First best outcome, I would imagine, from Russian perspective.

Wouldn't be surprised if there are additional leaks in the next couple of days that.

Wow (#5): What is it with these…

(23 minutes pass)

fractured tweets from Trump? How long does it take the retard to find out what he wanted to finish the sentence with?

Perhaps he had to take a call from overseas?
(wink, wink — nudge, nudge...)

By Christopher Winter (not verified) on 16 Jan 2017 #permalink

Perhaps he couldn't complete the thought, and had to "phone home" ::nudge, nudge:: ::wink, wink:: to get instructions on how to finish it...

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 16 Jan 2017 #permalink

Plotting, losing, crying, plotting again, losing again, crying again... a loser-cycle of unevolved liberals--you have nothing else to offer but your false grievances, lies, and tears... you will soon end up in a museum near the dinosaurs...

You're talking about the republicans for the last 8 years, sam.

Sam is helping "make America grate again".

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 17 Jan 2017 #permalink

Plotting with Putin and big oil, losing the popular vote by millions, crying on twitter like a spoiled brat any time somebody publicly says that he is not perfect, plotting with wall street crooks, losing more followers every day, crying again when nobody with talent and a soul is willing to perform for him, and constantly lying through his truly repulsive, pith headed surrogate, kelly ann con-way..... I give the good people of America credit because they are going to stand up to this egomaniac and bring him down sooner rather than later. Can't wait. Trump won't last the year.

Spite. Trying to come up with some way of describing, not so much Trump, but his supporters, I recall from some distant past:

A farmer was plowing his field. The plow unearthed a lamp. The farmer started rubbing the dirt off and a genie appeared. The Genie said, "I will give you one wish. Whatever you want. But whatever I do for you, I double that for your neighbor." The farmer thought about it for a moment and said, "I want you to put out one of my eyes."

Seems appropriate.

I hope the meteor hurries up and puts us all out of our misery. Come on nuclear war! Lets get this OVER WITH.

Everyone has seen the clip of Melania at Trump's inauguration, right? I used to think that Melania was just a gold-digger in a loveless marriage to a sociopathic clown until I saw that clip.

I think a lot of people miss what the expression on her face means. That's the face of someone whose heart has just been ripped from her in public. That's the look of someone who was unable to stop that one sob coming out of their mouth. It was the face of someone who was terrified.

And Trump is turning back with that shit-eating grin on his face....