One of Donald Trump’s most effective tactics is the puff ‘n bluff. He puffs himself up as a tough guy, a know-it-all, or a tough guy know-it-all and starts babbling bullshit. It is a tactic he learned at a young age. When he was an “aspiring developer,” he puff ‘n bluffed his way into city contracts and young women’s beds. When he was called on it, he’d find a new target.
Once Trump was pegged as Mr. Puff ‘N Bluff, instead of retreating, he turned up the volume. His puff ‘n bluff got so obnoxious and loud that people figured it was a clown act, but they didn’t dismiss him. Because Trump was too wealthy and too eager to sue or ignore, he often got his way. And, no matter the reason for his “success,” Trump gave praise to the puff ‘n bluff. He has continued to use this tactic throughout his life.
None of what I just wrote is original. Puff ‘n bluff is a poker term. The observations about Trump as a young man have been told before. Examine his life and you will see this tactic employed a lot. Remember “John Barron”? “John Barron” was the fictional spokesperson that Trump created in the 1980s. As “John Barron,” Trump would get on the phone and tell reporters and tabloids stories of Trump’s business and sexual conquests. In the 1990s, “John Barron” was replaced by a “publicist” named “John Miller,” another Trump creation. Like “Barron,” “Miller’s” voice was “instantly familiar; the tone, confident, even cocky; the cadence, distinctly Trumpian.” Of course, it was Donald Trump playing puff ‘n bluff!
While Trump dodges questions about his many aliases, without calling it puff ‘n bluff, Trump has been very frank about the tactic.
“The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”
“My leverage came from confirming an impression they were already predisposed to believe.”
The quotes above are from Trump’s ghostwritten book The Art of the Deal, a manual on the puff ‘n bluff, lying, and other deceitful business practices – stuff Trump calls “innocent.” And, yeah, using a fictional front to puff ‘n bluff your attractiveness to women is innocent enough in a sleazy, creepy way, but when puff ‘n bluff meets politics Trump-style, not so much.
Unlike “John Barron” or “John Miller,” what President Donald Trump says has consequence. As the head of the world’s wealthiest and most militarily powerful country, with a just few words, Donald Trump can influence everything from the price of steel to where China sends battleships. He also can scare the hell out of his “subjects,” the citizens of the United States.
Step away from the chaos and the instant fear Trump generates when he puff ‘n bluffs and you will see a pattern. Take North Korea. Soon after he was elected, Trump started puff ‘n bluffing hard at Kim Jong Un. First came U.S. naval maneuvers intended to needle Kim. They were successful; Kim test launched several missiles. In response, Trump went full puff ‘n bluff. August 2017, Trump said that any provocation by North Korea “[will] be met with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which the world has never seen before.” North Korea provoked back.
Trump responded in September with “If it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States are ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.” “Rocket Man” fired back, calling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”
While this was going on, Trump was telling confidants that he was applying the “madman strategy” against Kim. Following Nixon, Trump thought that by puff ‘n bluffing extremity Kim would back down. Two big problems: The madman strategy didn’t work for Nixon and Kim was also playing madman. The result was that puff ‘n bluff turned into a game of nuclear chicken, Trump and Kim backed down, met, became “great friends” and North Korea continued to do what it wanted to do.
So, what happened? Simple, Trump puff ‘n bluffed, having absolutely no intention to meet North Korea “with fire, fury and frankly power” or “totally destroy” the country. North Korea knew this. Kim called Trump’s bluff and Trump folded. The same thing happened with Iran. Trump pulled out of the nuke treaty. He puff ‘n bluffed about war and nuclear attack. Iran ignored him and kept doing what it wanted to do.
Those who spend their lives dissecting international politics saw what was happening and reported it straight, without succumbing to the puff ‘n bluff. The American public was not so lucky. Trump might have failed puff ‘n bluffing North Korea and Iran, but his madman act certainly scared the shit out of us. Even folks like me, who saw Trump’s threats as bluster were a bit unnerved by how cavalier Trump was with his violent language, and somewhat shaken when Kim turned the puff ‘n bluff into a game of chicken. Self-preservation told me that neither would act on their words, but observation informed me that Trump could certainly stumble us into war (much as his COVID response has been a long fall down a stairwell).
I do not think that Trump’s international puff ‘n bluff was ever aimed at Americans – Trump is not that cunning or strategic – however, it did aid him a lot. In our popular imagination, Trump emerged from the Kim cockfight as our madman. From then on, we took nearly every puff ‘n bluff seriously.
I recently wrote about Trump’s empty threats of pulling federal funding from states who institute mail-in voting and his puff ‘n bluff at California over wildfire disaster money. What prompted my analysis was people like you and me seeing Trump’s threats and freaking out. Trump being the vindictive, petty man that he is we take the threats seriously. Some of us respond by freezing; others give up; many get confused; a few of us ask, “Can he really do that?” When the answer comes back, “No, not really,” the puff ‘n bluff is exposed and we escape the trap.
The trap? Yeah, the goal of every puff ‘n bluffer is to get keep his target at a distance. Best case is that the person being bluffed freaks out and flees. Also great is if the target freaks out and shuts down, or even just freaks out. The important thing is that the target is so frazzled, confused, distracted, frightened, or worn out that they do not call the bluff. If the bluff is especially weak, the puff ‘n bluffer will attack or employ people to attack those who raise questions, i.e. “Fake news!,” troll attacks, doxing, etc. Ignore the threats, expose the bluffs and escape the trap. Or, figure out how the puff ‘n bluff works and deflate the puff before it becomes a bluff.
Over the past three and a half years, Trump has advanced a very dangerous puff ‘n bluff – the idea that he will never leave office. Trump started this during the 2016 campaign with his rhetoric about voter fraud and rigged elections. In October 2016, he said that he would accept the election results only if he won. Trump’s supporters agreed. Trump has “joked” about serving a third term, something that the Constitution prohibits. He also suggested that he be given extra years for all the time “stolen” due to impeachment. And then Trump says that all his talk about serving forever are jokes.
Problem is that every puff ‘n bluff (more than 25) spawns a serious round of “What if…” We are warned of chaos and are told to prepare for Trump refusing to leave. And, yeah, sure, it is possible that Trump tries to hang on, but probable?
In order for Trump to stay on, he has to break the law. Trump thrives on loopholes and skirting with illegality. When Trump choses to breaks the law he engages in fraud. The fraud hurts people, but, legally, it is never egregious enough to warrant punishment harsher than a fine. Trump also tends to prey on people and businesses that lack the resources to defend themselves or hold Trump accountable.
While Trump loves to stir shit up and hurl insults at people, as with his criminal activity, he also punches down. Like every other internet troll, his attacks are done remotely, via tweet or at a press conference. His rep as a tough businessman quick to say “You’re fired” is reality TV fiction. In the real world, Trump rarely fires someone in person. He outsources the dismissal or fire the person via press release or tweet. The only physical confrontations that we know that Trump has engaged in have been staged WWE wrastlin’ events. Conflict with direct consequence is not Trump’s thing.
Trump is also too lazy, unfocused, slothful, sloppy, dim-witted, unimaginative, slow-to-act, negligent, self-absorbed, and disloyal to pull off what would be the Bigliest Crime in American History. His performance during the COVID pandemic proves that he has no idea how to approach a crisis. Ease into problems a bit easier to handle than the coronavirus – hurricanes, NATO, treaties, trade, infrastructure, Russia, the list is long – and its failure after failure. Hell, Trump had two years of total Republican control of Congress and he could not get rid of Obamacare, his number one priority. So, how will he engineer a coup?
Oh, don’t say that the military will help him. Trump is not popular among those who serve. Trump’s attacks on John Kelly and other military leaders are not popular. Trump’s pardoning the crimes of three war criminals was condemned by military leaders and the rank & file. Remarkably, Trump has not only made Veteran Affairs worse than ever, he used the VA to turn vets in to hydroxychloroquine guinea pigs.
When Trump has USS Theodore Roosevelt’s commander Brett Crozier for trying to protect his people from COVID, servicemembers were appalled . Trump dismissed traumatic brain injuries as “headaches.” He said that soldiers who suffer from PTSD or have attempted or committed suicide are are weak. And, of course, there’s the bone spurs, something that compounds Trump’s disregard for those who volunteered their lives for the country.
There’s also this: Those who have served – present party included – would laugh at the idea of a coup. Everyone who serves gets the idea of civilian control of the military and respect for the Constitution drilled into them. There is no history of the military moving on the federal government. We have had one military coup in American history, in Wilmington, North Carolina, 1898. The Wilmington coup was regional and specific to one issue – Reconstruction. That’s it. If there was a thirst for a coup, John Kelly would have led one against Donald Trump.
And, really, bump around with people who serve and you don’t come across many folks bound to an ideology or political perspective. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t Trump supporters or right-wing extremists serving, but their numbers are too small to support or defend a coup. Militia? Please, far right militias are to the military what the guys who stenciled “Naberhood Petroll” on the side of their cars are to cops. Individually, a militia member with a gun is dangerous, but militias as a unified fighting force is fantasy.
That is how you attack the puff ‘n bluff. Step back. Deescalate your emotional response. Get the puff ‘n bluff out of your head and onto the page: Identify it, analyze it, ask questions, write down all that is needed for the bluff to become real, analyze that. Almost always, the bluff unpuffs.
Now, figure out the true reason for the puff ‘n bluff. In the case of Trump not leaving office, the ruse is to get you so worried and so convinced that he won’t leave office that you don’t vote. Everything else is noise. Once you have a clear read on things, tell the truth and shame the devil. Organize, fight back, and, yeah, keep an eye out for the funny stuff, but don’t get paranoid.