This is the fourth installment of our series examining Donald Trump’s campaign for president in 2016 through the lens of Robert Greene’s classic The 48 Laws of Power. You can read part three here.
Law 19: Know Who You’re Dealing With – Do Not Offend the Wrong Person:
There are many different kinds of people in the world, and you can never assume that everyone will react to your strategies in the same way. Deceive or outmaneuver some people and they will spend the rest of their lives seeking revenge. They are wolves’ in lambs’ clothing. Choose your victims and opponents carefully, then – never offend or deceive the wrong person.
This is also one of those laws that don’t seem to apply to Donald Trump at first glance. He is certainly not afraid of offending anyone. For this reason, in such a stultifying, politically correct world, he is a breath of fresh air, and it is a big reason for his support.
I wonder, though, if The Donald had, as Greene advises, carefully studied this in advance because he knew it was what people wanted to hear. What of the opposite though? Has Donald Trump turned this on its head and carefully studied the people he would offend instead, because that was a path to power?
In any case, it is at present difficult to study the veracity of this law in regards to the campaign. Donald Trump is largely in a position that is untouchable, so it simply isn’t important for him to be so analytical and introspective for this maxim of power’s interpretation. In other words, there appear to be, at present, simply no “wrong people” of enough consequence for him to offend.
We will see how he plays this when the stakes get higher. It won’t be too much longer.
Law 20: Do Not Commit to Anyone:
It is the fool who always rushes to take sides. Do not commit to any side or cause but yourself. By maintaining your independence, you become the master of others – playing people against one another, making them pursue you.
There are two parts that Robert Greene highlights in exploring this law:
Part I: Do Not Commit to Anyone, but be Courted by All:
If you allow people to feel they possess you to any degree, you lose all power over them. By not committing your affections, they will only try harder to win you over. Stay aloof and you gain the power that comes from their attention and frustrated desire. Play the Virgin Queen: Give them hope but never satisfaction.
This law has concrete parallels before Donald Trump decided to run. He was constantly courted by politicians of all stripes, which he duly gave money to and thus built a power base around himself in the political realm. Oftentimes, according to his early campaign manager, Roger Stone, he would give the maximum amount he could give legally so he could then turn everyone else down.
Donald Trump has also, because of his dominance and his lead, been courted indirectly by his opponents. In the beginning stages, at the first debate on FOX on August 6th, John Kasich made faint overtures of praise to Trump as he was “striking a chord.” His opponents have refrained from attacking him too fiercely until recently, when it became clear that he would not flame out like the ivory tower intellectuals religiously assumed.
Donald Trump has power because he currently has the largest share of voters of any candidate – voters that his opponents will need, especially his GOP ones, to win any general election. By courting Trump, they are courting those voters, who they do not want to offend by offending Trump.
As he was being courted so often, so early, Donald Trump came into the contest with a tremendous foundation of power.
Part II: Do Not Commit to Anyone – Stay Above the Fray:
Do not let people drag you into their petty fights and squabbles. Seem interested and supportive, but find a way to remain neutral; let others do the fighting while you stand back, watch, and wait. When the fighting parties are good and tired they will be ripe for the picking. You can make it a practice, in fact, to stir up quarrels between other people, and then offer to mediate, gaining power as the go-between.
Donald Trump in this contest has existed only for one purpose: to promote Donald Trump. He does not commit to anyone, but he has no need to commit to anyone anyway, because he is the one currently with all the power.
When the primaries are over, and if he does not get the nomination, we’ll see where this part of Robert Greene’s law takes him. Perhaps he won’t commit his support to the GOP nominee unless he can secure concessions on certain policies like building the wall. Perhaps he has it in the back of his mind to play the role of kingmaker if he does not get the nod. If he sees more things from the GOP that he doesn’t like, he might threaten to run as an independent and take his voters with him.
We shall see.
Law 21: Play a Sucker to Catch a Sucker – Seem Dumber than Your Mark:
No one likes feeling stupider than the next person. The trick then, is to make your victims feel smart – and not just smart, but smarter than you are. Once convinced of this, they will never suspect that you have ulterior motives.
This power play is a bit difficult to see if Donald Trump is applying or not. The establishment class that he is causing to stampede in panic certainly think that they are smarter than Trump. Is this something he is cultivating carefully? I suspect that he may be making this power play, but it ties into another strategy that will be outlined shortly.
Law 22: Use the Surrender Tactic: Transform Weakness into Power:
When you are weaker, never fight for honor’s sake; choose surrender instead. Surrender gives you time to recover, time to torment and irritate your conqueror, time to wait for his power to wane. Do not give him the satisfaction of fighting and defeating you – surrender first. By turning the other cheek you infuriate and unsettle him. Make surrender a tool of power.
This is not a maxim of power that Donald Trump seems to employ. He never subordinates himself to anyone or apologizes for anything. I had expected that he might be missing out on the effectiveness of this strategy by doubling down on things that are not true, like his “thousands and thousands of Muslims” brouhaha recently, but the reports of celebration are now coming out (though they consist of nowhere near the numbers he claimed). Had he “surrendered,” he would not have been able to experience a sort of vindication like this.
Why employ surrender when you do not have to? Donald Trump currently has all the power. No reason to lose a bit of it, as yet.
Law 23: Concentrate Your Forces:
Conserve your forces and energies by keeping them concentrated at their strongest point. You gain more by finding a rich mine and mining it deeper, than by flitting from one shallow mine to another – intensity defeats extensity over time. When looking for sources of power to elevate you, find the one key patron, the fat cow who will give you milk for a long time to come.
Robert Greene details this law of power as concentrating on a single goal, a single patron, a single effort. Many of the pundits, especially at first, but even to this day, have wondered whether Donald Trump was serious about winning the presidency or whether he was just doing this for publicity.
Yet this was really just the “rationalization hamster” talking. It doesn’t pay with the entrenched media to be politically incorrect these days. Throughout this entire campaign, Donald Trump has conveyed the fact that he is for real and he’s in this to win it. He’s focusing all his energies on winning. Decades ago on Oprah, Donald Trump said that were he to run for president, he wouldn’t go in to lose:
He’s reiterated this as Iowa and New Hampshire draw closer – all of what he’s done so far mean nothing if he does not win. All of his energies are concentrated on that fact. As Robert Greene outlined in this part of The 48 Laws of Power, Casanova, one of the examples used, said this:
I have always believed that when a man gets it in his head to do something, and when he exclusively occupies himself in that design, he must succeed, whatever the difficulties. That man will become Grand Vizier or Pope. (pg. 175)
This is a formula that Donald Trump certainly appears to be following. It’s also a reminder to me that this is what I should be doing, and not doing it has always been my worst habit.
Donald Trump also largely employs this strategy with his opponents. First he concentrated the large bulk of his attacks on Jeb(!) Bush, because he was the clear one to beat. When Jeb(!) sunk, Donald Trump began focusing his biggest guns on Ben Carson. Now that it appears Carson has been warded off, I suspect that Donald Trump will soon focus his biggest plays on Marco Rubio, the last great hope of the GOP establishment.
Note also that Donald Trump ignores his vastly inferior opponents. We talked earlier about how Donald Trump said that counterattacking Kasich in New Hampshire was “not worth the money.” He has also barely attacked Jeb(!) at all since his drop. That is concentration of forces in the most classical sense.
Law 24: Play the Perfect Courtier:
The perfect courtier thrives in a world where everything revolves around power and political dexterity. He has mastered the art of indirection; he flatters, yields to superiors, and asserts power over others in the most oblique and graceful manner. Learn and apply the laws of courtiership and there will be no limit to how far you can rise in the court.
This game of subtlety that Robert Greene extensively outlines is not one we normally associate with Donald Trump – the brash billionaire is certainly the man whom the court revolves around, rather than him being a courtier. Still, the aspect of mutual dependence between ruler and court is outlined in the book, and as I covered in the first installment of this series – Donald Trump seems to relish the prospect being a servant of the American people. He flatters, and, when you think of it, he does assert power in manners that are surprisingly graceful at times, like when he invited his wife, who at 45, is still gorgeous, onstage to display his status.
One crucial portion of this law of power however, is to be a source of pleasure. Donald Trump, with his charisma, his flattery, and his saying the things that people have so long wanted to say and hear, causing the politico-media-academia class to panic in his wake, is certainly a powerful source of pleasure to so many.
Simply by being humorous and gregarious, and by scattering the people that the grassroots hates, Donald Trump is giving people cause to vote for him.
This concludes the fourth installment of this series. Part five can be found here.
Or, you can read Stumped to dive deeper into Trump’s power plays and more easily learn to use them yourself.