Pundits often compare the passion behind Donald Trump’s campaign with the passion behind Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. This is more astute of an observation than many probably realize. Their styles are different, but the underlying premise behind their campaign strategies is identical. They both waged psychological campaigns to garner support which is why in both cases their supporters have been accused of “drinking the Kool Aid.”
Obama, as a community organizer and a master campaigner, willfully employed the doctrines of one of his mentors, Saul Alinsky. Trump may or may not have ever read Alinsky’s works (I believe he probably did) but he’s definitely a natural when it comes utilizing the playbook described in Rules for Radicals. Of particular interest is his unprecedented mastery of Rule #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.
At debates, campaign rallies, and interviews, this tactic comes across as Trump bullying his opponents, journalists, and naysayers. While those who believe in political decorum (and there are fewer nowadays than ever before) will hear his words and shake their heads, others see it as strength, particularly when the recipient loses balance as a result. This is why Trump continued to “bully” Jeb Bush even when it was clear he was no longer a threat. Trump earns points in the eyes of his authoritarian followers when he attacks people and despite the misery that exuded from the Bush campaign for months, he was still a Bush. He was still a representative of the type of government that makes many voters upset. Despite being a blip in the polls, he remained a righteous target.
His use of Rule #5 against Ted Cruz is for different reasons. It didn’t work the way it worked against Bush, but it had the effect of shifting the Cruz campaign into counterattack mode. Cruz has always been best at framing a question or an issue in the light of truth. Trump has known all along that he cannot defeat Cruz based upon policy discussions or principles, so his only recourse has been to attack his character. It’s the most dangerous ploy since there’s always an opportunity for the media to call him out on his attacks, but they did not.
Case in point: “Ted Cruz lied about Ben Carson dropping out and that’s why he won Iowa.” This is ludicrous on two levels. First, it wasn’t Cruz but a member of his campaign staff. When Cruz found out about the incident, he apologized to Carson and denounced the activity, but he made the mistake of attempting to frame the conversation around reality. CNN is the one who said it. He knows that. CNN knows that. Trump knows that. However, the media was not willing to highlight this because of a sincere bias against Cruz.
The second and more heinous neglect that the media perpetrated on this issue is that they didn’t point out the fact that nobody was apparently swayed by the incident. Given all of the attention that it received, if Trump was correct that thousands of people changed their vote from Carson to Cruz, certainly somebody would have come out and cried foul. If you were going to vote for one candidate and were misled into voting for another, there’s a chance you would come out and say something. If 100 people did, there’s a near-certainty that at least one of them would have been mad enough to say, “Yep, I was misled.” If thousands of people, as Trump claimed, changed their vote as a result of the app news release, we would have people lined up to tell the media that that we victims of Cruz campaign manipulation. Nobody came out. No, not one. It had no effect, but the narrative that Trump has bullied the media into replaying is that Cruz lied and stole Iowa and hurt that nice children’s neurosurgeon who just needed a new change of clothes.
To say that Trump is just a bully is not giving his psychological acumen enough credit. To paraphrase Marco Rubio, “Let’s dispel with this fiction that Donald Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and it’s following the teachings of Saul Alinsky.”