The “madman theory” is a political theory commonly associated with President Richard Nixon’s foreign policy during the Cold War.
Nixon tried to make the leaders of hostile Soviet bloc nations think the American president was irrational and volatile. According to the theory, those leaders would then avoid provoking the United States, fearing an unpredictable American response.
The Atlantic notes that Nixon used the theory in April 1971 when he faced an impasse in negotiations with the North Vietnamese to end the Vietnam War. Nixon told national security adviser Henry Kissinger to convey the United States might use of nuclear weapons.
NIXON: You can say, “I cannot control him.” Put it that way.
KISSINGER: Yeah. And imply that you might use nuclear weapons.
NIXON: Yes, sir. “He will. I just want you to know he is not going to cave.”
Some believe that President Trump employed his own “madman theory” in dealing with several nations, but as Jim Sciutto says in his book, The Madman Theory, it was probably sometimes intentionally and sometimes not.
The concept of a madman theory dates back to at least 1517 when Niccolò Machiavelli wrote in The Prince that sometimes it is “a very wise thing to simulate madness.”