I believe that there are few more important books to read for the modern man than Robert Greene’s seminal The 48 Laws of Power. It relays the maxims of power and how to get what you want very succinctly, with clear cut examples from historical figures that run the gamut from kings and generals to seducers and con artists. Some criticize the book as being manipulative, but it is a book that purely deals with how the world is, not how it ought to be. I am sure that you’ve recognized the dynamics of this book at work in your real life, even unwittingly, if you’ve read it.
I make a habit of reading The 48 Laws of Power once a year, because I believe it is important enough to have a regular refresher.
One of the things that I noticed, immediately, about Donald Trump’s campaign was his mastery of the strategies outlined in Robert Greene’s magnum opus. The pundits, career politicians, and talking heads have been flabbergasted and mesmerized by his rise and durability, even when it seemed he made comments that should have ended his campaign. It shows that they do not understand power, powerful as they are in theory. I understood why Donald Trump is so successful. He’s successful because he knows how to be powerful. It’s far more important than any single policy he espouses.
Love him or hate him, Donald Trump, is the most fascinating real-time lesson in power in ages.
This will be the first in a series of posts examining Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign through the lens of Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power. I hope that you’ll study it well, or contribute something you thought I may have missed. Once more, never in my lifetime have I seen such a magnificent – and free! – lesson in power.
Law 1: Never Outshine the Master
Always make those above you feel comfortably superior. In your desire to please and impress them, do not go too far in displaying your talents or you might accomplish the opposite – you inspire fear and insecurity. Make your masters appear more brilliant than they are and you will attain the heights of power.
Robert Greene warns of the example of Nicholas Fouquet, who, in his attempt to become Prime Minister of France in 1661, threw a splendid party for Louis XIV. Louis’ response was to see it as an affront and imprison Fouquet on trumped up charges.
The example of upholding the law was Galileo, who, upon discovering the four big moons of Jupiter, dedicated his findings to the Medicis, associating them with the heavens themselves. He thus secured their patronage and money.
When it comes to the modern campaign trail, we could say that Trump ordinarily would be the master, and it is part of the image that he portrays. Yet, Trump has cleverly made overtures hinting at an even greater master that he loves to serve – the American people.
When Trump calls out SuperPACs and says that his opponents are beholden to the donor class, not only is he right, but he implies that these people are part of the regime preventing the true masters, the people of the United States, from exercising control over their affairs. Trump implies that he will serve the true master, and fabulously. He displays humbleness with the American people as a whole, especially in the case of veterans, as we see here:
“Todd” here was the master, and Trump the ever fabulous and flamboyant servant. Trump constantly belittles the media and his competition, but always puts on a show of deference to the American people as a whole.
Law 2: Never put too Much Trust in Friends, Learn how to use Enemies
Be wary of friends – they will betray you more quickly, for they are easily aroused to envy. They also become spoiled and tyrannical. But hire a former enemy and he will be more loyal than a friend, because he has more to prove. In fact, you have more to fear from friends than from enemies. If you have no enemies, find a way to make them.
I’m not sure the campaign is at a point yet where this law applies in full -with regards to friends, that is. One thing however, is that Donald Trump has certainly used his enemies to his advantage. Every time his enemies – whether they be his political opponents, or more prominently the liberal media, have attacked him, he has gotten stronger. He’s mocked them, most notably the protesters offended that he was hosting Saturday Night Live, and people have loved him for it.
Instead of cowering and apologizing like most do, he’s used the media and public ire for his own advantage. It’s kept him sharp and ready to pounce on opportunities.
Greene in The 48 Laws of Power advises his readers to make enemies, and Trump is a real-time example of the benefits of adversity. Trump also follows the example of Emperor Sung, a man who used his enemies to his own advantage, making them his allies by buying them off. This was the example Greene used in support of the law. Donald Trump relays precisely this in Crippled America:
One reason that I have been successful in business is that I hire the best people. I pay them well, and I keep them working for me. There are times when I meet someone working on the other side of the deal. Maybe they don’t beat me, but they give me a tough time. I respect that. In fact, I respect them so much that sometimes I hire them away from the company they were negotiating for. (pg. 17)
That is the classical application of the law as seen in The 48 Laws of Power. He hires people because of their competence, not their relationship with him, with the notable exception being his children, of course.
Law 3: Conceal Your Intentions
Keep people off balance and in the dark by never revealing the purpose behind your actions. If they have no clue what you are up to, they cannot prepare a defense. Guide them far enough down the wrong path, envelop them in enough smoke, and by the time they realize your intentions, it will be too late.
There are two major subchapters in this one – deception by distraction, and creating a smokescreen, though they center on the same end – distracting people from your real intentions, and a warning not to ever announce them.
Although this may seem somewhat questionable with regards to Trump’s campaign (unless you believe it’s all an act, in which case it’s one of the best scams of recent times), Trump has paid lip service to this law recently by saying that our leaders are too predictable (we will see this later in this post).
According to Trump, he will not announce his precise intentions to getting to his goal once in office, especially in regard to foreign policy.
On the campaign trail, this would seem counterproductive, but it has earned Trump more support.
And on the face of it, it makes sense! Remember in 2013, when the saber-rattling over Assad’s supposed use of chemical weapons in Syria had everyone on edge but scratching their heads? That was just one of many examples of Obama and others flapping their gums and making them look predictable and incompetent.
Although Trump can be seen to have violated this particular law of power by talking about taking the oil from ISIS, he has left his precise formula in total for dealing with ISIS and Syria vague.
And this leads me into the next law of power…
Law 4: Always Say Less than Necessary:
When you are trying to impress people with words, the more you say, the more common you appear, and the less in control. Even if you are saying something banal, it will seem original if you make it vague, open-ended, and sphinxlike. Powerful people impress and intimidate by saying less. The more you say, the more likely you are to say something foolish.
The example of the observance of this law was Louis XIV, whose most famous phrase was his infamous “I shall see” in response to requests from courtiers and ministers. He would then take the appropriate action without consulting anyone, preserving his own power.
The example of the transgression was the Roman general Coriolanus, who ran for Consul but failed and was eventually exiled (narrowly escaping death) for his insults to the people, which destroyed his legend.
Donald Trump relays very much the same thought process in Crippled America:
President Obama makes strong statements and promises us vigorous actions then nothing happens.
So what happens when he makes those promises and never follows through? He loses all credibility.
A very good story recently quoted a businessman describing me as “unpredicatble,” noting it was one of my better qualities and helped me make a lot of money. Now that I am running for president, which so many experts predicted I would not do, that same trait has made it really hard for all my critics to figure out how to compete with my message. (pg. 46)
On the surface, this law does not appear to apply to Donald Trump. He is bombastic. He’s known for loving to be the center of attention and having his opinion heard. His remark about “Mexican immigrants” as the media so loves to say, could be seen by some as a direct contravention of this law.
Yet, Trump has also been very elusive. His bombast can in effect be seen as a smokescreen. It draws people off his real intentions, which he never divulges. The most enduring criticism of Trump that does not come from bleeding heart political correctness is that his campaign “lacks specifics.” Donald Trump, they say, tells people what’s wrong, but not exactly how he’ll fix it.
Yet this is playing it cool. In some ways, part of his bombast also can be seen as a tool of negotiation.
By not revealing too much, by not divulging his plans, he remains in control.
In fact, you could even say that Bush, Rubio, and all the rest of the establishment candidates said too much – that they would support these unpopular policies, which has cost them. They were too upfront. They said too much.
Law 5: So Much Depends on Reputation – Guard it with Your Life:
Reputation is the cornerstone of power. Through reputation alone you can intimidate and win; once it slips, however, you are vulnerable, and will be attacked on all sides. Make your reputation unassailable. Always be alert to potential attacks and thwart them before they happen. Meanwhile, learn to destroy your enemies by opening holes in their own reputations. Then stand aside and let public opinion hang them.
No one has exploited this law better this year than Donald Trump. But before we talk about him, let’s discuss what could possibly (hopefully not) be one of his peers on the world stage.
This year has also witnessed the shattering of Angela Merkel’s aura of invincibility. Once seen as the unassailable mistress of Germany and empress of the European Union, the one that pinned Spain and Portugal to the wall and held Greece under her iron fist, Merkel decided on a policy of “refugees welcome.” Reality soon hit home. The recent attacks in Paris did not help.
Now she is, precisely as Robert Greene said, under assault from all sides. Nationalists across Europe despise her, and rightly so, and are now taking advantage of the great opportunity she’s given them. Portugal just elected a new left wing anti-austerity government, a Brexit now appears far more likely, the European Union is desperately trying to hold on to control of the narrative, and she is under attack from members of her own party in Germany, where some say a coup is brewing.
Angela Merkel threw her reputation for cunning to the wind in a fit of bleeding heart emotionalism. And it has cost her dearly. Her power, once so formidable, has been battered, possibly beyond repair. I believe she is on the way out. I hope and pray that I’m right.
Angela Merkel is this year’s “transgression of the law.”
Donald Trump, on the other hand, is this year’s “observance of the law.”
The most obvious way he has exploited this is that he’s blasted holes in other people’s reputations mercilessly. His remark about Jeb Bush being “low energy” may have been the single shot that sunk his campaign.
Click the link and try not to laugh. It will be difficult. And it’s all the more hilarious because it’s true.
Jeb’s poll numbers have not recovered.
Donald Trump has also done this with the media, relentlessly attacking journalists for their dishonesty and lack of integrity. Whether each particular case is true or not, the public distrusts the media, so the attacks have bolstered him.
He has recently attempted to attack Ben Carson, though it’s far too early to see if any of it has stuck.
Donald Trump has carefully cultivated his own reputation as a larger than life, bombastic showman, an entertainer as much as a businessman. This reputation has also helped him, as people know who he is and know they will have a good time with him. Yes, being a source of pleasure does matter (and is mentioned numerous times in The 48 Laws of Power). A big reason John Kerry and Mitt Romney were said to have lost was because they were unlikeable. It is also why Hillary Clinton has often stumbled in her campaigns over the years.
Donald Trump has established his reputation and gone on the offensive against any who would attack him in a way akin to a preemptive strike.
His poll numbers reflect the result.
Law 6: Court Attention at all Cost:
Everything is judged by appearance; what is unseen counts for nothing. Never let yourself get lost in the crowd then, or buried in oblivion. Stand out. Be conspicuous, at all cost. Make yourself a magnet of attention by appearing larger, more colorful, more mysterious than the bland and timid masses.
Part I: Surround Your Name with the Sensational and the Scandalous:
Draw attention to yourself by creating an unforgettable, even controversial image. Court scandal. Do anything to make yourself seem larger than life and shine brighter than those around you. Make no distinction between kinds of attention – notoriety of any sort will bring you power. Better to be slandered and attacked than ignored.
Need I say more?
Part II: Create an Air of Mystery:
In a world increasingly banal and familiar, what seems enigmatic instantly draws attention. Never make it too clear what you are doing or about to do. Do not show all your cards. An air of mystery heightens your presence; it also creates anticipation – everyone will be watching you to see what happens next. Use mystery to beguile, seduce, even frighten.
Trump has dedicated numerous pages in his “Foreign Policy” chapter of Crippled America to discussing this:
As a leader, I know there are times when you should keep your cards close to the vest. When I was assembling property to build a skyscraper, for example, I had to buy many small lots so I could combine them into one very large and valuable buildable location, and total secrecy was an absolute necessity. If the owners of those properties had found out what I was doing they would have been able to squeeze considerably more money out of me for their properties.
Right now we’re doing too much talking. (pg. 46)
Even beyond this, you never really know what Donald Trump is going to do. Before the first debate in August, people were watching him with enormous anticipation, not knowing how he would act onstage. He prides himself on being unpredictable and his actions in the campaign season certainly have been – insulting Rosie O’Donnell onstage, revealing Lindsey Graham’s phone number, the now-infamous “belt incident” recently in Iowa.
It all makes him unpredictable, and yes, the establishment is running scared. What would normally kill a campaign has only made his stronger. Trump, an astute observer will see, has changed his rhetoric a few times during the campaign about minor details, but no one seems to care, or if they do, they can’t make it stick, because he is always mysterious, always ungraspable, just like when Mata Hari, who Robert Greene used as the example for this part of law 5, was at her height.
He has at times, “deliberately appeared inconsistent” – on those minor details. It works.
This concludes part 1 of this series. For part 2, click here.
Or, you can read Stumped to dive deeper into Trump’s power plays and more easily learn to use them yourself.