Donald Trump & the OODA Loop

The OODA Loop

Colonel John Boyd, possibly greatest American military strategist of the 20th century.

When John Boyd was a young airman flying F-86 Sabre fighters in the skies of Korea, he noticed that American pilots were downing their Communist (mostly Soviet) rivals in MiG-18’s with far greater frequency than the Soviets were destroying U.S. fighters. Boyd became intrigued and realized that the reason for this was not necessarily due to better training or a better plane, but rather, due to two minor (but significant) advancements for the F-86.

The first advancement was a bubbled canopy for the cockpit that allowed pilots a larger field of view than their Soviet rivals. The second advancement was in hydraulic control systems. Unlike the MiG pilots, the F-86 pilots did not need to physically exert themselves when flying the planes. This was especially beneficial in dogfights. This combination of increased vision and better handling in combat gave American pilots the advantage that they needed to take down their Soviet rivals in the air at a ratio of 10-to-1! Due to these advancements, the U.S. pilots were given the advantage of speed in combat which allowed for them to be victorious in the Korean War.

The complete OODA Loop, as drawn by Colonel Boyd’s most-trusted aide in the 1970’s. It’s far more complex than simple speed (and it is more than a simple loop).

While serving in the Pentagon during the 1970’s, Colonel Boyd would come to expand upon his insight by crafting the OODA Loop. OODA, or the Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act Loop was a concept based on Boyd’s in-depth study of the pattern of warfare. Essentially, Boyd’s purpose with the OODA Loop was to create a capability for unraveling one’s opponent by acting in the least-expected way possible (as opposed to the most-effective way possible).

The concept is to keep an opponent off-balance, so as to prevent them from being able to muster an effective defense. Much like Boyd’s idol, Sun Tzu, the OODA Loop cycle was as much a psychological warfare strategy as it was a kinetic warfare strategy. Consequently, I believe that the highly controversial 2016 Republican presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump, is a living, breathing embodiment of Colonel Boyd’s OODA Loop.

Opt For the Least-Expected Strategy Rather Than the Most-Effective One

Trump is to politics what Free Radicals are to science: necessary and refreshing.

Everything Mr. Trump has done this campaign has been an example of the least-expected over the most-effective. During his campaign announcement in the summer of 2015, Trump accused Illegal Immigrants from Mexico of being “rapists” and “murderers.” Shortly thereafter, he pivoted and criticized Arizona Republican Senator John McCain for having been a Prisoner of War during the Vietnam War. During the Republican Primary, Trump decided to run to the Left of Jeb! Bush on the Iraq War issue, insisting on his initial opposition to the conflict and highlighting his belief that George W. Bush was incompetent and a liar.

Then Trump opted to take up the Left’s criticism of Conservative darling, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, by claiming that no one liked him and that Cruz’s father, Rafael, was associated with the JFK assassination. Trump made for not only endlessly entertaining television (after all, he was a very popular host of a highly-rated reality television show for years), but also a highly adaptable candidate. While the other far more polished Republican presidential contenders were out waxing eloquent over their opposition to Obamacare, or were feigning disgust over Mr. Trump’s ceaseless barrage of media-backed aggression, Trump was out courting the oft-forgotten elements of America’s electorate. These were the people whom his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, described as being in a “basket of deplorables,” judging them to be “irredeemable.”

As Trump’s programmatic Conservative and Establishment Republican primary opponents–all better funded and possessing a longer track record in government–listed their tried (and, frankly, tired) solutions to America’s most vexing problems, Trump was in the political trenches, firing on all cylinders.

Republican 2016 presidential candidates pose at the start of the first official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign in Cleveland
Trump was the least likeliest candidate to win the GOP nomination. He did so because he was unpredictable and used the OODA Loop. Image courtesy of REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Over the course of the Primary, Trump completely eviscerated the Libertarian crowd with his mockery of Rand Paul’s hair, he made everyone think that Cruz was a scumbag, he completely pushed the successfully Conservative Governor Scott Walker out of the race before the race even got going; Trump made the brilliant neurosurgeon, Dr. Ben Carson, seem like a weirdo (which the media dutifully ran with), he utterly marginalized the up-and-coming Florida Senator Marco Rubio, he delegitimized Carly Fiorina based on her looks, he annexed Chris Christie, oh, and he demolished Jeb! Bush, the presumptive frontrunner.


Trump is fighting his war in the “moral conflict” space that Boyd often spoke of. He has to double down and intensify his attacks, if he is to use the OODA Loop to lead him to victory.

Because Donald Trump, like any insurgent or underdog, fundamentally understood that he had to engage his adversaries on such a level that he utterly psyched them out. Trump attacked with what Boyd often referred to as, “moral conflict.” Mr. Trump’s actions increased uncertainty in the mind of his enemy, sowed mistrust among the electorate, and menaced his opponent thoroughly. This gave Trump greater flexibility and a more favorable degree of the initiative. As he did this, he increased harmony among those allied to the Conservative cause.

Donald J. Trump is an alumnus of the Wharton School of Business. Boyd’s OODA Loop has been taught in business schools for decades.

Trump is a successful businessman who attended the Wharton School of Business. He undoubtedly came across Boyd’s theories on the OODA Loop at some point during his studies. Even if he did not fully understand or appreciate them in the classroom, like General George S. Patton and blitzkrieg, Trump practiced the theory routinely, and excelled at its use. Trump has made it as far as he has in this election because of his fundamental understanding of the OODA Loop.

Trump has very often opted to employ the least-expected campaign strategy (which has annoyed me at times) rather than sticking to the most-effective campaign strategies. Had he done the latter, he would have been decimated early on by his programmatic rivals who were prepared for such things as, for instance, arguing over tax reform.

But, he did not take the most-effective route. He took the least-expected, thereby dazzling his foes, giving Trump an opening, and allowing Trump to capitalize on the confusion of his adversaries.

Trump sought out elements of the Republican base who had been marginalized. He engaged the disaffected Pat Buchanan/Ross Perot-types who felt that America had left them behind decades ago. He opened his arms to disenchanted Democrats who loathed Hillary for her corruption and support of Free Trade Agreements. He also wanted to bring traditional Democrat support groups into his camp. This explains why he wants the Blue-Collared, Coal Miner-types on his side.

These are usually all-but-guaranteed Democrat voters. But Trump did not stop there. As he was deftly playing to the edge, keeping the media and his Conservative adversaries off-balance, he also began going after the Black vote. For all of the charges of racism lobbed against him, Donald Trump has done more to reach out to African Americans in the last forty years than any other GOP candidate has (and, quite possibly, more than Hillary Clinton ever has). While he may not win them over, he might be able to get just enough out that it hurts Hillary. Trump then signaled that he would not make social issues, such as gay marriage a key tenet of his campaign.

At the same time, he has indicated that he will embrace a more Progressive view on women’s issues. Trump is playing for keeps and he is keeping the Democrats off-balance, all the meanwhile remaining focused on the ultimate prize: the White House. With Clinton and the Democrats having forsaken the rural, white poor this election, they are banking on bringing out the Obama Coalition of minorities to the ballot booth. But, Hillary is not Obama. And, history has shown that most incumbent parties are kicked out of power after two terms in the White House. Plus, let’s be honest, Hillary’s sclerotic campaign performances have been uninspiring to watch when compared to Trump’s unpredictable and brash campaign style.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to the media after meeting with a group of black pastors at his office in the Manhattan borough of New York
Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to the media after meeting with a group of black pastors at his office in the Manhattan borough of New York Image courtesy of REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Trump has kept his adversaries off-balance by unraveling them with the least-expected campaign strategies. He has such a fundamental grasp of Boyd’s OODA Loop that he is now improving it with the increasing speed, severity, and variety of his attacks. A fundamental aspect of the OODA Loop–what’s known as the “Boyd Cycle”–is that once the process has begun, the OODA practitioner (in this case, Trump) must intensify the speed of the cycle. Thus, success is the greatest enemy of an OODA user.

When one has success using OODA, that individual must not allow that success to go to his head. He cannot slow down the cycle until the enemy has been defeated. The object is to double-down on the success and to continue doing so, at increasing speed, until the opponent is so dazzled that he submits. Although the OODA Loop was not named in World War II, many theorists believe that Patton was an early practitioner of this strategy. So, too, I believe, Donald Trump is a practitioner of this concept.

Mr. Trump has been wildly successful and has thus far doubled-down in significant and incredible ways after each success (thereby confounding the media and many citizens). He must now do so again in his first debate against Hillary Clinton.

votingagainst-aWhile many analysts continue to caution him about not coming off as though he were bullying a woman, I disagree. Trump must be Trump. Trump has effectively utilized the OODA Loop thus far because he has been relatively uninhibited. He cannot slow the Boyd Cycle down or alter it if he expects to win. And, make no mistake, he can win if he continues with the strategy that he has been using since his announcement. His brashness and adaptability are keeping everyone off-balance, which means that he has everyone right where he wants them.

One Final Note

Donald J. Trump is a natural practitioner of the OODA Loop, in much the same way that Patton was. Had Patton not been interfered with by Eisenhower (who did not understand OODA), then he would have blitzed into Berlin weeks before the Soviets ever took it. If Trump eschews the advice of the so-called “experts” (who have been wrong on everything this election cycle), if he continues to employ the OODA Loop that he has been using, then he will utterly defeat the Democrats in 2016.

Donald Trump was assumed to be nothing more than a joke candidate. He used this to his advantage. Whether one hates or loves Donald Trump is beside the point. I believe that he has a fundamental grasp of the OODA Loop and that he is a natural practitioner of it. That is why he has won thus far. He has taken down the Jeb! Bush machine with a deftness that only a start-up could possess.

Trump then systematically dominated the media coverage with the sheer force of his personality. Did he say some uncouth things? Oh, yes. But, that’s part of his successful implementation of the OODA Loop. The most-effective strategy would have been to hire a team of professional campaign consultants, get donors, and travel the country speaking in general pieties. He could have waxed eloquent–as Mitt Romney did–about the glories of Capitalism. He could have spoken of the need for a national missile defense. And Trump could have sworn fealty to the Social Conservative crowd by listing his bona fides fighting abortion or some such, like so many Republican candidates have in the past (though how many have actually meant it remains in doubt).

But then he would have lost. Taking the most-effective strategy would have been playing to the strengths of his primary opponents. It would have allowed the media (and the Left) to pigeonhole him. Trump took the least-expected route and embraced it with great alacrity. His application of the OODA Loop has been profoundly effective.

If Trump can destroy Jeb! and Hillary with unpredictability, imagine how he’ll mess with foreign leaders–for better or worse.

Should Mr. Trump manage to defeat the Clinton Machine (and, ostensibly, the media), it will only have been made possible because of his Patton-esque handling of the OODA Loop. If he could destroy such rivals with such relative ease–by simply psyching them out due to his unpredictability–imagine what he will do with foreign leaders. Oh, sure, he says nice things about Putin. But, does he really mean them? How can you be so sure? How can Putin be so sure? He says that he would allow the military to target the families of suspected terrorists but then, in the same breath, says that he is going to listen to his generals (who are universally opposed to such things).

Trump has taken up the mantle of protectionism (or some variation of it), but has reaped millions of dollars by engaging in the Free Trade practices that so many of his followers abhor. Is he lying? No. Is he keeping his opponents, both foreign and domestic, off-balance? Hell, yes. And he should continue to do so.

Trump employed the OODA Loop with the kind of skill that Colonel Boyd himself would have likely respected. For Trump to succeed further against Hillary, he needs to continue employing this method. The media and the Democrats will be out for blood the rest of the campaign. Thus, Trump needs to continue playing the game as he has thus far. Therefore, let Trump be Trump for the rest of the campaign and prepare to be amazed.

If Trump continues his use of the OODA Loop without interruption, then Democrats and #NeverTrumpers had better get used to saying, “President Trump.”


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