In a recent episode of Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell highlights the tactic of ‘pulling the goalie’ in hockey as an example of how people can maximise their chances of success by adopting controversial strategies. US President Donald Trump almost always pulls the goalie.
When hockey teams are losing and time is running out, coaches may substitute the goalkeeper with an outfield player – a high-risk, contentious yet often effective strategy. Gladwell argues that pulling the goalie - making the controversial or socially unacceptable choice - can be the right decision in other contexts, such as leaving a threatening stranger with your children while you flee and get help. Similarly, he points out that ‘stand your ground’ laws – which empower people to grab their guns and fire on intruders - have resulted in more deaths of homeowners as engaging is far more dangerous than retreating. Gladwell also relates the idea of pulling the goalie to the psychological concept of agreeability, asserting that disagreeable people who don’t care what others think are more likely to make the smart but controversial choice.
Trump is hard to place on the agreeable-disagreeable spectrum. His obsession with TV ratings, crowd size, status and gathering opinions on his decisions suggest he cares a great deal what his peers and the public think. However, he regularly espouses controversial views and takes shocking actions, knowing they will be slated by the mainstream media. He seems most concerned about how his core supporters, and their proxy of Fox News, perceive him. For example, following fierce blowback from Republicans and conservative media after he suggested Russia didn’t meddle in the last presidential election, he backtracked and claimed he misspoke. Similarly, he refused to denounce the murder of a counter-protester at a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, stating there were “very fine people on both sides”.
Nonetheless, incessantly and often effectively, Trump pulls the goalie. Calling Mexican immigrants “rapists”, accusing American football players kneeling to protest police brutality of disrespecting the flag and his other outrageous statements were key to differentiating him in the presidential race and persuading millions to vote him into office. Violating norms by appointing unqualified friends and loyalists to his cabinet, refusing to divest his businesses and undermining the press, the courts and intelligence agencies have allowed him to enact his desired policies, enrich himself and avoid censure – forms of personal if not national success. Insulting nuclear-armed dictators, threatening international allies, attacking trade partners and siding with Russian President Vladimir Putin over his own officials are highly disagreeable and risky actions, but could have positive outcomes. Not that the president’s goalie withdrawals always work: his all-out assault on Obamacare failed, and his firing of FBI Director James Comey for refusing to drop the Russia investigation could cost him dearly.
Acting disagreeably and pulling the goalie has been critical to Trump’s success. But discarding the status quo and taking controversial actions could end up costing him and his country.