Just prior to the Indiana primary and Ted Cruz’s and John Kasich’s suspension of their campaigns, I was contemplating Trump’s “play fair” and “don’t rig the process to deny me” assertions about the process of choosing convention delegates. It became apparent that this was a case of Trump following Alinsky Rule 4 of Rules for Radicals: “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.”

The “enemy,” of course, being the conventional (in several senses of the word) Republican Party, the party whose standard bearer Trump is now poised to become.

And then it occurred to me that there are a lot of Alinsky’s rules that Trump follows, and has followed right along. In fact, when you refresh your memory on those rules, it’s hard to escape the conviction that Trump is an advanced practitioner of the Alinskyite approach.

Saul Alinsky described methods for political activism. Alinsky himself was a man of the left and he was speaking to the left, and the “rules” he wrote have usually been used by the left rather than the right and ordinarily seem to fit the temperaments of people on the left far better. But the rules themselves don’t have an absolutely limiting built-in left/right limitation. Much like Machiavelli’s The Prince, they describe a particular path to power and ways of shaping public opinion to keep and build power. These ways are not ethical ones, as ethics are usually conceptualized. But Alinsky’s approach can be and often is a very effective one, given some of the tendencies and vulnerabilities of human nature.

So let’s look at those rules of Alinsky’s and see whether they fit:

1. “Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.” Power is derived from 2 main sources – money and people…
2. “Never go outside the expertise of your people.” It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone.
3. “Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.” Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty.
4. “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules.
5. “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” There is no defense. It’s irrational. It’s infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions.
6. “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.” They’ll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They’re doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones.
7. “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.” Don’t become old news.
8. “Keep the pressure on. Never let up.” Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new.
9. “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.” Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist.
10. “The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.” It is this unceasing pressure that results in the reactions from the opposition that are essential for the success of the campaign.
11. “If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.” Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog.
12. “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” Never let the enemy score points because you’re caught without a solution to the problem.
13. “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.

The only rules Trump doesn’t seem to care for much are numbers 2, 9, and 12. But he makes up for that with his devotion to the others. Every one of the remaining rules is used by Trump to a degree that seems to me to be as great (and sometimes even greater) as the degree to which they’ve been used by Barack Obama, who once taught a course in Alinsky’s methods. I’m not sure whether Trump is a natural at this or whether he’s done a study of it, but it’s dramatic how often and how effectively he follows Alinsky’s rules.

People argue about whether Trump is more a man of the left or of the right. But whatever your opinion on that question, he certainly is using Alinskyite methods in the service of what it is he’s promoting.

Now that it is highly likely that we will see a Trump vs. Clinton general election, it is worthwhile to note that Hillary Clinton is a disciple of Alinsky who actually knew the man and wrote her Wellesley senior thesis on him. So we may be facing the prospect of the first all-Alinsky election campaign.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]


Donations tax deductible
to the full extent allowed by law.