How Donald Trump Exploits 12 Of Saul Alinsky’s Radical Rules
Donald Trump continues to fascinate if likely not, for much longer, dominate.
With the most recent Republican presidential debate just passed… what are his secrets?
Richard Fernandez at PJMedia is on to something:
Everyone who thinks Obama was an Alinsky disciple should watch Trump in action. He understands the Alinsky principle that public events are not about bandying words. They are about creating opportunities for transgressing certain emotional boundaries. It’s about “empowering the powerless.”
Fernandez is on to something. It goes much deeper.
Trump is employing twelve of the thirteen tactics Saul Alinsky set forth in his classic work Rules for Radicals.
Are any of the other 15 Republican presidential contenders ready to throw away their consultants’ stale playbooks? If so there’s a powerful campaign manual hidden inside Rules for Radicals.
It is unlikely that Trump ever read Alinsky. Trump presents as street smart not book smart. And Trump is no Alinsky. Alinsky was an affable, kind-hearted, humanitarian cynic. (Think Rick Blaine at the end of Casablanca.)
Still, they are alike in that Alinsky was and Trump is a provocateur. Alinsky enumerated a baker’s dozen key tactics for that.
Trump employs a dozen of these. Trump, I recently predicted here, almost surely will balk at spending real money on his campaign and lose his preeminence.
Who will supplant him as front runner? The field is fluid. Any contender would benefit by proficient use of Alinsky’s thirteen Rules.
As an aside, let it be noted that Alinsky detested Big Government. His much misunderstood classic is all about human dignity, above all about helping regular people, especially the “Have-Nots,” reclaim our dignity. It is not a manual for pumping up the welfare state. His classic’s third epigram, an “over-the-shoulder acknowledgement” of Lucifer, was just him being provocative. Get over it. Alinsky dedicated Rules to his wife Irene. Not Lucifer.
So what are Donald Trump’s twelve secrets? Follow the Rules.
In the chapter on Tactics Alinsky opens by observing “Tactics means doing what you can with what you have. … Always remember the first rule of power tactics:
“Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.”
Donald Trump shrewdly exploits a gullible media to project exaggerated claims. He notably did this with his personal fortune. He may have exaggerated by a factor of two or four. Or more.
This exaggeration worked. The media, ignoring the feebly small amount that Trump actually was spending fell for it, making people think that Trump has far more power than is in evidence.
This is a powerful tactic. Rand Paul, for instance, initially had, and still could reclaim, much of the base that powered his father to national prominence … and build upon it. Sen. Paul can smooth the great Ron Paul’s rough edges without compromising the essence of the Jeffersonian vision of Dr. Paul’s Empire of Liberty.
Liberty is a vision Sen. Paul shares. So do many Americans. It could prove a powerful foundation for a resurgence.
“Never go outside the experience of your people.”
Trump trades in elemental concepts. When he says he’s going to build a wall disgruntled voters can picture that. When he says that he’s going to be the greatest jobs president God has ever created a wistful audience hears a celebrity mogul promising to fulfill their dearest wish. Trump stays within the experience of his people.
To the other presidential candidates I say: stop throwing around abstract statistics about 4%, 4.5%, 6% economic growth. Talk, like Trump, about sizzling job creation.
“Whenever possible go outside of the experience of the enemy.”
Trump, a Creature of the Id, naturally lives outside the experience of the Establishment. The Establishment is made up of an alloy of Ego with a soupçon of Superego. Trump baffles the Establishment, most of whose members are technocrats committed to electing… a better manager.
Trump goes outside the Establishment’s lawyerly conventions by employing Narrative. Reagan, a movie star, did so as well. Trump tells a dramatic story of Us, the Good Guys, beating Them, the Bad Guys (or Losers).
We voters crave a rousing story. We do not thrill to a spreadsheet of policies many of which sound like — because they often are — gobbledygook. Trump drives the discourse outside the experience of the enemy.
Each of the candidates has the making of a great Narrative to hand. By this I do not mean a mere personal narrative. Marco Rubio’s campaign team seems to be betting his election on his personal narrative. No, what is desired is a Big Dramatic Narrative.
Tell us dramatic tales of heroic derring-do. They can be, unlike Trump’s, reality-based and more David vs. Goliath than of hippie-punching defenseless Mexicans.
“Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.”
Taking on Megyn Kelly or Jorge Ramos over the quality of their journalism is a species of this. Trump puts them on the defensive.
Or as Alinsky piquantly wrote: “You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.” In passing let it be noted that Alinsky’s actions show he meant this more as a tribute to the church than as a condemnation.
“Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”
Ridicule certainly is Trump’s most potent weapon. When others attack Trump they tend to argue with or criticize him. That’s far less effective than ridicule. When Trump promises to deport 11 million people or build a Great Wall of America to be paid for by Mexico he’s being ridiculous.
We know that Trump can dish it out. What we don’t know, because it hasn’t really been tried, is if he can take it. Time for his adversaries (beyond the exquisite but, well, niche Rolling Stone and Mother Jones) to start dishing ridicule.
“A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.”
Trump and his audience clearly are enjoying his political theatricality. He flew in on his private 757, dipped his wings to the crowd in Alabama, landed and arrived by helicopter. He then launches into an hour or two of Improv.
People love a spectacle. Trump does not disappoint. Memo to the Candidates: you can’t bore voters into supporting you.
Liven it up. P.S., it helps if we can see you’re having fun.
“A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.”
Trump nimbly hops from venue to venue putting on a fine, fast-paced, show. Most candidates have a standard stump speech and the occasional Major (and utterly predicable) Statement. This gets stupefying.
Trump’s a maniac but he’s never a drag. Rival Contenders! Inject some surprise and some drama into your presentations.
This has risks. Yet stupefying the voters is a sure loser.
“Keep the pressure on, with different tactics and actions, and utilize all events of the period for your purpose.”
Trump is inventive in continuing to embellish his Us vs. Them story. Rooting it in nativism, slamming Mexico and China for taking away our jobs, he readily adds indictments such as of health insurance companies for profiteering.
Other candidates can, and should, keep the pressure on their rivals and the lackluster Establishment. Like Trump, set up and knock down a succession of straw men (and, of course, nowadays, womyn).
“The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.”
Trump’s biggest threat was that of running a rogue candidacy on a “third party” line. H. Ross Perot’s doing so almost certainly led to Bill Clinton’s victory over George H. W. Bush. Ralph Nader’s doing so probably cost Al Gore the election.
Trump, until it became a liability (due in part to party rules), unmercifully exploited the tactic of threatening a third party run. Any candidate would profit from seeking out, and making, other sorts of dire “threats” of their own.
“The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.”
Alinsky observes that “the action is in the reaction.” Trump has demonstrated the value — newsworthiness — of controversy.
Trump, as provocateur, clearly is calculating his words to evoke reaction. Most other candidates seem to be calculating their words to minimize reaction.
Provoking reaction, of course, can be a dangerous tactic if one is unable to parse the distinction between being provocative and being ridiculous. That said, there is abundant room here for a shrewd strategist.
“If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside….”
What Alinsky seems to have meant here is that if you put enough pressure on your adversaries they will make mistakes. These mistakes will open up opportunities that will redound to your benefit. Some of Trump’s rivals already are committing errors. The Washington Post writes, recently, how Gov. Walker fell flat on his face in attempting to out-Trump Trump. He did it again with a trial balloon offer to up Trump’s ante by building a wall with Canada.
“The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.”
This is the one rule on which Trump has gone AWOL. I have predicted, and continue to believe, that a maverick candidate, like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul, by offering real solutions to our economic stagnation rather mere outrage and bluster, will supplant Trump.
There’s a climate of voter disgust with the Establishment. It derives from 15 years of an economic Little Dark Age. It derives from a voter repudiation of the Forever War. Who will up their game and start offering some vibrant, rather than stale, constructive alternatives?
“Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”
This may be the most famous of Alinsky’s rules. Trump excels at picking, freezing, personalizing and polarizing his target.
Trump doesn’t attack The Media. He attacks Megyn Kelly. Trump doesn’t attack Hollywood. He calls out Rosie O’Donnell (who once called for guillotining folks like Trump).
Trump doesn’t blast “free trade.” He attacks Ford for building plants in Mexico. He doesn’t call out “our broken immigration system.” He conjures Mexican rapists.
Polarize? “They have to go” is heinous, and ridiculous, but simple. Convolutions don’t work for seizing power. Polarizing does.
Rules for Radicals’ subtitle is A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals. “Radical” does not mean Hooligan.
Radical means fundamental, getting right to the root.
Obama and Hillary Clinton studied Alinsky. Their use of his tactics was part of the formula that propelled Obama into the White House and nearly so Hillary Clinton. Although it is unlikely Trump ever studied Alinsky comparable tactics have been working to his advantage.
Running for president? Steal some of the tactics Donald Trump has been using to such great effect.
Study Rules for Radicals.
Steal this playbook.
Originally posted on Forbes.com.