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Donald Trump and Alinsky’s rules

Donald Trump and Alinsky’s rules


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.]


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Or maybe he’s a Sun Tzu fan: “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
Coopting agitprop to use against its founders seems brilliant. This guy can turn on a dime. Underestimate him at your peril.

    n.n in reply to jack burns. | May 8, 2016 at 3:36 pm

    If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.
    — The Art of War

    n.n in reply to jack burns. | May 8, 2016 at 3:41 pm

    A corollary is that war and politics are unsavory businesses, that may require compromise; or beginning with a set of principles that are internally, externally, and mutually consistent; or adoption of a pro-choice (i.e. selective) religion instructed by gods in the twilight zone.

    n.n in reply to jack burns. | May 8, 2016 at 3:45 pm

    … or “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Or maybe he’s a Democrat.

    jack burns in reply to Matt_SE. | May 8, 2016 at 1:00 pm

    Or maybe its a new paradigm. Funny watching the left trying to find a label that fits.

      Shane in reply to jack burns. | May 8, 2016 at 1:57 pm

      If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck then … it must be an adorable kitten.

      Funny how statists can’t seem to see the difference between the left and the right. For them the left is communism and though they won’t admit it the right is fascism. They are blind to the fact that the left and right are currently two sides of the same coin … statism.

      Quibbling over where the government has control is pointless.

      JasonJay in reply to jack burns. | May 8, 2016 at 5:10 pm

      Funny finding the right and the left trying to figure it out

TX-rifraph | May 8, 2016 at 1:16 pm

The left does not seem to know what to do with Trump (nor does the GOPe for that matter). What is he doing with Cherokee Warren? Applying rule #4? Does the left fear Trump or fear his tactics?

Good analysis neo-neocon. You are bringing Alinsky out into the open arena. The left will not like that.

It’s nice that you’ve noticed that Trump’s methodology isn’t madness or proof that he’s a buffoon. There’s something behind it; in fact, rather a lot. This is why I wrote here months ago that he’s a brilliant candidate. This wasn’t a claim that I thought he’d be a brilliant president—I had, and have, no factual basis to make or deny such a claim—but as a campaigner, he’s dazzling. The boring old pro politicians in this country are childish amateurs ranked against him, and the press is entirely out of its depth.

Look again at that Cruz/Oswald thing; a brief throwaway, but it’s a hand granade in a sack of oatmeal and Trump need expend no energy to maintain it. That makes it the ideal sort of attack; and constant attack is how Trump dominates the press. Otherwise, he would have to do what everyone else does; wait for the press to attack, and hope he can deflect it. Why wait, when attacking is so easy? And it doesn’t even have to be a good, solid attack (as the Cruz/Oswald one wasn’t)—it will work anyway. But there’s a caveat; blatant lies aren’t so effective, and the damage to a lying candidate is cumulative. This is why constant attacks don’t, and won’t, work for Hillary. Or, for that matter, Obama. Plausibility is not really optional.

Is Trump following Alinksy, or Sun Tzu (as I have mentioned in the past), or Clausewitz? It hardly matters. You build a road from A to B, it makes little difference if it’s made of tarmac, wood planks, crushed stone, gravel, or the bones of obsolete Party fossils; can you travel on it? And is your destination “good” or “bad”? The destination isn’t affected by the road materials. (Well, within reason; if the road is paved with dead puppies or orphans, well, that’s another matter.)

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

I would dispute that The Prince describes unethical paths. It evaluates paths with no reference at all to ethics. Machiavelli himself was quite clear on this point. For ethics, a prince should consult the Church. To stay alive, a prince should consult Machiavelli. Niccolo’s idea was that whether a prince was a good man or a bad man was secondary (in time and therefore priority, not necessarily in importance), and in any case not something Machiavelli could do anything about; if good, then if a prince was deposed or killed, any good works he had in mind would be irrelevant.

There’s nothing in Machiavelli (or, rather, The Prince; that wasn’t his only work, but it makes a thin book, which aids readability no end) which encourages the prince to be unethical. In other words, one can be Machiavellian without being a villain. But the book doesn’t explicitly discourage unethical actions, either. But so what? The Prince has no material about automatic looms; we can’t conclude from that that Machiavelli was at heart a Luddite.

    inspectorudy in reply to tom swift. | May 8, 2016 at 2:56 pm

    “but as a campaigner, he’s dazzling. The boring old pro politicians in this country are childish amateurs ranked against him, and the press is entirely out of its depth.”

    I happened to catch his speech on me SIRIUS radio that he was giving out West somewhere while driving in my truck. He started off talking about how yuge the crowd was and how the cameras would not pan to show how yuge the crowd was. Then he went back to the last six or seven primary victories that he had won and talked about how the other two candidates vote totals, added together, did not equal his votes. Then he talked about how yuge the crowd was and that the cameras would not show how yuge it was unless there was a dissenter in the crowd. Then he talked about what losers his opponents were. Then he mentioned how yuge the crowd was and that he was going to make America great again! After about ten minutes of this, FNC channel cut him off and went on to some news. I simply could not believe my ears! The man talked about absolutely NOTHING and the crowd cheered him! I don’t get it.

      There is a time and place for everything. At assemblies, people want a pep talk, not a lecture or seminar. The primary goal is to bolster the confidence of the “troops” while controlling exposure to the “enemy”.

      DaMav in reply to inspectorudy. | May 8, 2016 at 7:36 pm

      Really? Talked about nothing, eh? No wonder he’s doing so poorly then.

    Semper Why in reply to tom swift. | May 9, 2016 at 1:33 pm

    You build a road from A to B, it makes little difference if it’s made of tarmac, wood planks, crushed stone, gravel, or the bones of obsolete Party fossils; can you travel on it? And is your destination “good” or “bad”? The destination isn’t affected by the road materials.

    I’m pretty sure you’re building a road of good intentions there.

Here’s a memo to NeoNeo: Any man who lives as the strong horse and has no taste for losing is going to appear to be following Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals.

In other words – this is a nothingburger.

I think you are on to something Neo, but I think Charles Krauthammer’s insight also applies.
” This time around, evangelicals are not looking for someone like them. They’re looking for someone who will protect them.”

People are sick and tired of having the media and politicians from both sides use Alynsky’s Rules almost exclusively on Republicans or the TEA Parties and for no good reason. They know there are good answers to these tactics, and they want to see those answers in action.

Flashback to the 80’s……I’m mad too, Eddie and I’m not going to take it anymore. Maybe the serfs finally listened to the ghost of Eddie Chiles.

I think he only has one rule.
Attack, then attack some more. And keep attacking.
Dems and the media aren’t used to this and it shows.
GOPe don’t understand it and are in a panic.
Wish Cruz had done this style more.

Alinksy tactics cut both ways. The only reason they work is if the opposing party is a scared rabbit (Romney, McCain, Boehner, McConnell.)

Hillary Clinton won’t survive such tactics but Trump will.

DivestThis | May 8, 2016 at 9:05 pm

Interesting observations vis-a-vis Alinsky.

I suspect that even if Trump is not familiar with his thinking, many of his followers have read Conservative commentary over the years that characterizes the list you included in your story as what they perceive to be an operating manual for liberal foes.

The only problem with focusing on that list of techniques is that – for better or for worse – it doesn’t do justice to the positives and considerable negatives associated with Alinsky’s broader philosophy which actually constitutes his “Rules for Radicals.”

If anyone’s interested, I wrote about this in the context of BDS a couple of years back at

I believe that I mentioned the fact that Trump, or his campaign, has followed a brilliant strategy in his road to the nomination. Thank you for noticing this.

Alinsky didn’t come up with anything new. He merely adopted thousands of years of martial strategy and tactics to social combat. And, it has oven wildly successful for the liberals in this country.

Now, it is interesting that this article attempts to link Trump with Alinsky, in some way. It is interesting that the author missed the obvious similarity in the tactics of both Trump and Alinsky with those of Sun Tsu, Clausewitz, Machiavelli and a host of others. Might the author be utilizing Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals, himself?