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Can James Mattis Protect Trump From Hubris?

The president-elect and the risks of overconfidence

In ancient Rome, the ultimate honor was to receive a triumph, or a lavish parade through Rome to celebrate a great military victory. The hero would ride a chariot, accompanied by the veterans of the campaign and the plunder of war—the ranks of prisoners, vessels of gold, crowns of pearls, and placards bearing the names of conquered nations—all the way to the Temple of Jupiter where he would make a sacrifice to the god. According to ancient sources, a slave stood in the great man’s chariot, held a golden crown over his head, and whispered in his ear, “remember you are a man.” At the very moment of exultation, the honoree was given a word of warning: You are mortal and glory is transient. Donald Trump is about to enjoy his own triumph—the inauguration as president. There may never have been a president more at risk of hubris. Where is the voice whispering in his ear, urging humility? 

Psychologists have found that most people are prone to overconfidence about their own abilities and control over events. In a 2004 survey of almost 1 million high school students, just 2 percent rated their leadership skills as “below average.” Motorcyclists, businessmen, college professors, Bungee jumpers—all tend to think they’re better than the norm.

Overconfidence can also vary significantly. Men tend to be more overconfident than women (although some studies suggest this isn’t always the case). Americans are more overconfident than East Asians. As two psychologists put it, “Americans are widely regarded as the most optimistic people on earth.” Elites are more prone to overconfidence, whether they’re top-class chess players or masters of the universe on Wall Street. 

Given all this, Donald Trump seems almost uniquely likely to succumb to hubris. Not only is he male, American, and a member of the elite (for all his talk of populism), but he also instinctively responds to challenges by coming out swinging, and is prone to narcissistic or arrogant behavior, such as declaring he doesn’t need daily intelligence briefings, where he says he would hear “the same thing in the same words every single day.” At different times, Trump has retweeted a quote from Benito Mussolini (“It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep”) and lauded Saddam Hussein (“you know what he did well? He killed terrorists”)—two autocrats known for their self-destructive overconfidence.

The initial months of a Trump presidency present particular risks of hubris. Early on, presidents may be tempted by wild adventures, before the realities of office temper their hopes and dreams. Soon after taking the oath of office, JFK gave the green light to the outlandishly flawed Bay of Pigs invasion. George W. Bush espoused missionary crusading zeal after 9/11, but cut a more chastened figure in his second term.

Overconfidence can be a useful trait in some ways, by encouraging leaders to persevere in the face of obstacles. But illusions of triumph can also lead to catastrophic decisions like the invasion of Iraq, where officials predicted that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators, and neglected the chances of disorder or insurgency following regime change. A RAND study found that in pre-war analyses: “post conflict stabilization and reconstruction were addressed only very generally, largely because of the prevailing view that the task would not be difficult.”

What if Trump encounters an unexpected foreign-policy crisis in the early months of his administration? What if North Korea launches a fresh provocation? What if Trump deploys larger numbers of military forces to the Middle East to combat jihadi terrorists?

It is difficult or impossible to self-regulate against overconfidence. Ironically, a classic example of positive illusions is that people believe they are better than their peers at seeing things accurately, uncontaminated by overconfidence.

The most effective way to check hubris is to empower outsiders, such as a board of directors who can hold a CEO accountable. Trump doesn’t have a board, but he does have a Cabinet. Trump once said that he might not come to the aid of NATO allies. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seemed unworried because Trump’s advisers would take a different perspective. “I don’t think that view would be prevalent or held by anybody he might make secretary of state or secretary of defense.”

But will Trump listen to his team?

Research shows that inexperienced presidents often rely on a narrower range of advisers, and may not defer to those more experienced for fear of looking weak. And it’s not clear that the incoming national security adviser, the retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, or secretary of state designate Rex Tillerson will be an effective check on the president. This week, for example, in his Senate confirmation hearings, Tillerson struggled to answer predictable questions about his perceived softness toward Russia and President Vladimir Putin. And no one expects Trump’s 35-year-old son-in-law, and senior policy adviser, Jared Kushner, to lecture the president if he oversteps.

Much rests, therefore, on the shoulders of Trump’s nominee for secretary of defense, James Mattis. He is no yes man. Mattis is a four-star retired Marine Corps general who headed U.S. Central Command. There are two sides to Mattis, captured by his nicknames. One is “Mad Dog,” the Patton-esque fighter who speaks his mind and knows that war means killing: “There are some assholes in the world that just need to be shot.”

And then there’s Mattis the “Warrior Monk,” the arch-strategist with a library of thousands of books of military history, who helped oversee the writing of the Army and Marine Corps’ field manual on counter-insurgency, which stressed winning “hearts and minds” and using limited firepower.

Mattis should sail through the confirmation process. In his Senate hearings, Mattis leashed the mad dog, and offered a calm warrior monk appraisal of the world: Putin is a threat, global order is at risk, and alliances are critical to American security. There was hyperbole in Mattis’s claim that the world order is “under the biggest attack since World War II,” which ignored the Cold War, and the Soviet and Chinese efforts to bury the West. But the senators seemed to find the centrist internationalism on show to be deeply reassuring.

Americans need someone who will educate, encourage, and if necessary, restrain, an inexperienced president. Mattis has been known to carry a book of quotes from Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor. With an eye on Roman history, perhaps he can be the chariot whisperer.

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