Escalation of commitment is a decisional error that occurs when an individual or a group stays with, and usually doubles down on, a wrong decision, doing significant harm to themselves and their environment. When I explained the concept to students until now the early 1990s New York Yankees have been my example. Every baseball fan knows that pitching is the name of the game, but the Yankees had an owner who figured that as long as his team got more runs than the opponent the pitching didn’t matter. So for years he spent heavily on sluggers, counting on multiple grand slam homeruns per game, and ignored the pitching. The result was a number of poor seasons and too many disgruntled long ball hitters, of which only one or two could be in the game, sitting on the bench and losing their skills. Things got better when the owner removed himself from decision making about the team and let his general manager invest in pitching. Soon the Yankees had a more balanced team and started winning World Series again, four between 1996 and 2000 alone.
From now on I will use the Republicans in Congress as the perfect illustration of escalation of commitment. Long before the presidential election everybody could have known that Donald Trump is a pathological narcissist and a serial liar, but until he got elected Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell didn’t really care, and when he won the presidency they got stuck with him. Since then, Trump has created one embarrassment after another, for himself, for his party, and for the USA, culminating in his firing of James Comey after he had asked Comey to stop investigating Michael Flynn. Trump’s interactions with Comey were entirely improper, and according to most experts border on obstruction of justice, but so far the only response from Paul Ryan has been that ‘Trump is new to the presidency,’ and therefore not aware of established protocols, while McConnell must have gone fishing somewhere, because he hasn’t been heard from for a while. It appears that both Ryan and McConnell still see president Trump as the umbrella under which they can make policy.
Their attitude is somewhat understandable but foolish at the same time. If they decide to disassociate from Trump now they antagonize the approximately 35% of Americans who still consider him a good president, and all but guarantee a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives in 2018, after which their agenda can no longer be implemented. But if they stay with Trump they share responsibility for his current and future scandals.
The latter may hurt them more than the former. Robert Mueller has only just started his investigation of Russian interference with the election and of collusion by the Trump campaign, and at some point there will be a report showing Trump’s involvement, either passive, by ignoring his subordinates’ misconduct, or active, by directing and encouraging them.
By that time Trump’s presidency will have become even more ineffective than it is now. The ‘cloud’ will have been hanging over him all the time, and the current Congress will only be known for destroying Obamacare without replacing it and subsidizing the ultra-rich.