You’ve probably heard about Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals.” Ever wonder what they were?
Alinsky, who died in 1972, is sometimes seen as the father of modern urban community organizing, a calling that provided President Obama with his first job (in Alinsky’s hometown of Chicago at that). Hillary Clinton wrote her undergraduate thesis about him. (It’s currently kept under lock and key at Wellesley at her request).
Alinsky’s rules are frequently credited as being the core operating principles of radical leftist organizations like Occupy Wall Street, MoveOn.Org, and Black Lives Matter.
But what are they?
Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” are found in his 1971 book of the same title — in the chapter on tactics, to be precise.
The chapter contains 13 numbered, italicized rules, as well as several other pieces of advice.
Here are the rules, along with some of Alinsky’s elaborating comments on them:
1. Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.
2. Never go outside the experience of your people.
“When an action or tactic is outside the experience of the people, the result is confusion, fear, and retreat. It also means a collapse of communication…”
3. Whenever possible, go outside the experience of the enemy.
“Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat.”
Alinsky gives General William T. Sherman’s march through Georgia and the German Army’s panzer tactics during World War II as examples of going outside the experience of the enemy.
4. Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.
“You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.”
Alinsky adds, “The fourth rule carries within it the fifth rule:”
5. Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.
“It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. It also infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.”
6. A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.
“If your people are not having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong with the tactic.”
7. A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.
“Man can sustain militant interest in any issue for only a limited time, after which it becomes a ritualistic commitment, like going to church on Sunday mornings… ”
8. Keep the pressure on, “with different tactics and actions, and utilize all events of the period for your purpose.”
9. The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.
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 to the success of the campaign… The pressure produces the reaction, and constant pressure sustains action.”
11. If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside; “this is based on the principle that every positive has its negative. We have already seen the conversion of the negative into the positive, in Mahatma Gandhi’s development of the tactic of passive resistance…
“In a fight almost anything goes. It almost reaches the point where you stop to apologize if a chance blow lands above the belt… ”
12. The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.
“You cannot risk being trapped by the enemy in his sudden agreement with your demand and saying, ‘You’re right — we don’t know what to do about this issue. Now you tell us.”
13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.
“ … a target … must be a personification, not something general and abstract such a community’s segregated practices or a major corporation or City Hall…
“ …the C.I.O. never attacked General Motors, they always attacked its president, Alfred ‘Icewater-In-His-Veins’ Sloan… ”
Alinsky’s rules were intended for left-wing radicals who wanted to transfer wealth and power from the world’s haves to its have-nots. But the rules weren’t means tested. Anyone — have or have-not, poor or rich — can use them. Including multi-billionaires running for president.
Here are a few examples, in no particular order, of Trump playing by Alinsky’s rules:
Never go outside the experience of your people.
Trump never does. He not only stays within his supporters’ experience — on immigration, on trade, on national security, on foreign policy — he has a genius for giving voice to those experiences in ways they haven’t thought of before, like his four-word refrain, “America doesn’t win anymore.” For millions of his supporters, it is the common denominator that ties together the major public and private grievances that define life as they experience it.
Whenever possible, go outside the experience of the enemy.
Has Trump done anything in the last seven months that is inside the experience of his adversaries?
A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.
Trump rallies are a hoot. They are hands down the most entertaining political theater to come along in decades. People come from hundreds of miles around because they are so much fun.
And now Trump found a way to make them even more fun — by making the Eighty-Sixing of MoveOn.Org and Black Lives Matter protesters part of the show.
Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.
Trump’s mastery of this rule should be self-evident. The obvious title for his forthcoming campaign memoir is The Art of the Insult.
Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.
Alinsky was probably thinking of the ability to convince an adversary that you’re stronger than you actually are, but the ability to convince an enemy that you are weaker than you actually are can be just as important.
For the first three months of the campaign, Trump’s enemies were dismissive of him while his support emerged, jelled and grew. More the fools they. If they had recognized the nature and potential of his challenge from the outset, they might have been able to stop it.
If the ghost of Saul Alinsky were to appear at a Trump rally, Trump would have some choice words for him: You’re hired!
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.