In one of those unproductive Facebook exchanges, someone accusing Michigan’s governor of being a socialist (a rather goofy charge) mentioned Saul Alinsky. For those not familiar with him, Alinsky was a leftist social organizer whose career spanned the decades from the 1930s to the 1970s. His most popular book is Rules for Radicals (1971), which outlines rules for community organizers. Alinsky claimed to be a Machiavelli for the have-nots, and at first it seems curious to assert that Donald Trump, the man who claims to have everything (wealth, intelligence, sexual irresistibility, etc.) was following Alinsky’s rule book.
But the more I thought about it, the more plausible it became. Trump pretended to be one of the “have-nots,” a brave lonely figure fighting the “deep state,” the swamp. As in other areas, Trump is a master of absorbing and transforming things. Let’s work through Alinsky’s list of rules for radicals.
“Power is not only what you have, it’s what the enemy thinks you have.” Throughout his career, Trump claimed to have more money than he in fact did. Many believed him. He claimed to have powers that courts said he didn’t have.
“Never go outside the experience of your people.” Those who went to a Trump rally knew what to expect. It would be good vs. evil, light vs. dark. He hardly ever asked people to exercise their intellect, rather favored chants and jeers. No one ever left a Trump rally with doubts or uncertainties (assuming they agreed with him at the start of the rally). As people, we like certainty, It’s unsettling to be unsure. Historian George Marsden cites an old Puritan preacher who said: “I should rather have ten settled opinions, nine of them wrong, than to have none of the ten settled at all.” The divine may have been speaking slightly tongue-in-cheek, but Trump speaks as if he had papal authority (although its worth noting that the doctrine of papal infallibility has been invoked only once).
“Whenever possible, go outside the experience of the enemy.” Trump excels at this principle. In the past, politicians at least attempted to seem truthful. Even Joseph Goebbels recommended telling the truth, or at least part of it, whenever possible. Lies have the distressing habit of being found out. Trump’s strategy was to ignore truth. The Washington Post tallied 30,573 demonstrable untruths and exaggerations over his four years in office.
This was a brilliant strategy. Politicians in general get roasted for dubious claims. Think of Obama’s statement that people could keep their doctors — often, but not always true, as it turned out . It was cited against him repeatedly. But Trump’s lies were so numerous that by the time one was refuted, it was already forgotten in the face of five new ones. A kind of “lie exhaustion” set in. What was the point of refuting one lie among so many?
“Make the enemy follow his rule book.” I'm still thinking about this one.
“Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” Trump is the Don Rickles of American politics, except that Rickles was actually a nice guy off-stage. Ridiculing anyone who disagreed with him both angered his opponents and delighted his supporters.
“A good tactic is one your people enjoy.” Watch a video of a Trump rally. People are having a fine time. Read social media comments by Trump supporters. They insult others with obvious glee. Their favorite “argument” is often a visual meme, with no source, no evidence, and no sense. But it’s fun, rather like an insult contest on the middle school playground.
“A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.” Trump’s strategy was consistent, but he constantly invented new approaches, or at least new ways of saying the same thing.
“Keep the pressure on.” Trump was great at this. Have you noticed how quiet things have been since he left office? Whenever he needed attention, he’d launch a barrage of tweets that kept the opposition perpetually off balance. He never rested. There were around 25,000 Trumpian tweets during his term, an average of 17 a day. If one line of tweetery didn’t work, he’d try something different. After it was clear he’d lost the election by a landslide, he kept finding new false claims. Refuting one didn’t help, since by the time it was refuted he launched three more. Then he’d come back to the old one.
“The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.” There is a good Politico essay titled “The Truth at the Center of Trump’s Hollow Threats” that speaks to this point. The article begins: “Donald Trump issues threats with the frequency that other people take out the garbage.” It’s a great analysis, well worth reading. Basically, he kept making new threats that kept the opposition worried, quickly dropping or forgetting those that didn’t have the desired effect.
“Maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.” What I said two points above applies here.
“If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside.” Trump is relentlessly negative. Repetition is a cardinal principle of propaganda and advertising. The most obvious example is his mythology of a stolen election. Despite total lack of evidence and complete failure in the courts, Trump repeated the claim so often and in so many ways that most of his acolytes still believe him. For those curious, by the way, this blog has done a good job of tracking the various court embarrassments Trump has suffered.
“The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” Trump did less well here, largely because he was better at attacking than at getting things done. Remember his claims of being the great deal maker? Turns out he wasn’t very good at making deals with people who weren’t marching lockstep behind him.
“Pick a target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Here he excelled. A fascinating particle on Psychology Today found that Trump demeaned people, groups, and countries far more than the average. Over the course of his presidency, Trump insulted almost everyone who didn’t agree with him.
In sum, Donald Trump is the most effective user of Alinksy's principles ever seen. Previous Alinksy followers aimed at getting the city to provide better medical care for poor people or eliminate racist policies. Donald Trump applied them to a whole country.