This is the sixth installment of our series examining Donald Trump’s presidential campaign through the lens of Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power. The fifth part can be found here.
Law 31: Control the Options: Get Others to Play with the Cards You Deal:
The best deceptions are the ones that seem to give the other person a choice: Your victims feel they are in control, but are actually your puppets. Give people options that come out in your favor whichever one they choose. Force them to make choices between the lesser of two evils, both of which serve your purpose. Put them on the horns of a dilemma: They are gored wherever they turn.
There are many intricacies that Robert Greene lays out in this maxim of power, but for the sake of brevity, I will narrow it down to two major dynamics that I have seen in the Trump campaign so far.
The first I have elucidated on many times. Donald Trump is technically giving the GOP establishment a choice. They can always do mean things to him, but with his threat of an independent run hanging overhead like a black cloud, they have no choice but to rationalize that they actually made a choice on their own in letting him run, despite how much they hate him. They can always “choose” to expel him, but that would be the lesser of two evils.
The next illusion of choice is one that Donald Trump is in some ways giving the American people. At least, that’s the dynamic that’s in play. We can either choose to vote for Trump – who is untested in governing, or we can vote for the same old crap. Many see both of these as bad options, but because of the total disgust with establishment politics, the Trump option is least bad.
Law 32: Play to People’s Fantasies:
The truth is often avoided because it is ugly and unpleasant. Never appeal to truth and reality unless you are prepared for the anger that comes from disenchantment. Life is so harsh and distressing that people who can manufacture romance or conjure up fantasy are like oases in the desert: Everyone flocks to them. There is great power in tapping into the fantasies of the masses.
Once more, “Make America Great Again.”
It maintains, as Greene outlines – a healthy distance. It is ungraspable, but we so desperately want to believe it. “Making America great again” won’t be nearly as simple as Trump outlines, but he instills such a confidence in people that he can get it done by “good management” and “negotiating,” that he gets away with things that would have killed anyone else.
This is a time of desperation, and people are more open to fantasy than ever. Donald Trump’s opponents don’t seem to understand this – precisely because they are so traditional! Donald Trump, by not being a traditional candidate, is more able to exploit this law of power.
He has been consistent on much of the things he actually has said, policy wise, for decades, but what matters here, and what is allowing him to sell it so well, is his appeal to people’s most fervent desires. It is, as Robert Greene would say, what brought him untold power.
Law 33: Discover Each Man’s Thumbscrew:
Everyone has a weakness, a gap in the castle wall. That weakness is usually an insecurity, an uncontrollable emotion or need; it can also be a small secret pleasure. Either way, once found, it is a thumbscrew you can turn to your advantage.
This chapter extensively deals with ways to find someone’s personal weakness and how to exploit it – whether it be greed, lust, timidity, or secrets that are desperately concealed.
I believe Donald Trump has observed this law, most tellingly with Jeb(!) Bush. Their recent spat at the last debate of 2015 is particularly telling:
Observe Jeb’s weakness even when he’s trying to act tough, which he desperately tried to do in this debate. Donald Trump discovered long ago the thumbscrew of Jeb(!) Bush – that he fundamentally is a very weak man, not confident in himself, and he longs to be a dominant, “high energy,” man of high status, capable of commanding attention in the way his father and brother did. This, I believe, is ultimately why, despite his being born into an elite family, he married a troll doll:
Note the nonverbal communication in this picture – obviously she’s fawning, but Jeb is also leading her by the hand as the clear dominant figure. I think that Jeb(!) is so insecure in himself that a lowly peasant like Columba was the only woman he felt he’d be able to pull this type of dominance off with, compared to Melania Trump, who was a successful model on the international fashion circuit before meeting her husband:
Trump has no problem being the dominant figure here, as Melania’s hands and her closeness to him shows.
Yeah Trump has money and status, but so does Jeb(!), and the differences in their wives couldn’t be more stark.
Donald Trump discovered this thumbscrew of Jeb’s – his internal weakness and lack of confidence, and fully exploited it, denigrating it and making it crumble. By forcing Jeb(!) to make himself look tough to compete, he only looks that much dumber.
Law 34: Be Royal in Your Own Fashion: Act Like a King to be Treated Like One:
The way you carry yourself will determine how you are treated: In the long run, appearing vulgar or common will make people disrespect you. For a king respects himself and inspires the same sentiment in others. By acting regally and confident of your powers, you make yourself seem destined to wear a crown.
This other of the two most important laws in the book (in my opinion) is another everyone can start today, and Donald Trump of course acts on it.
One cornerstone of this chapter is that it is in your power to set your own price. Again, if you ask for the moon, you will be surprised how often you get it. Columbus, the example used, asked for ridiculous things to people who were nominally well above him, but he was so cool and confident about it that he eventually got what he asked for, even though he was seemingly not qualified to undertake his exploration that discovered the New World.
Unlike traditional politicians, who carefully measure their words and ask meekly for what they think they can get away with and no more, lest they offend someone, Donald Trump goes all in, with brash gusto. He asks for the moon, and that alone shifts the conversation.
Is he a blowhard? Of course. But his boldness and his belief that he (and by extension, the country) deserves more are what gets him what he wants, and he makes unmistakable displays of wealth and power to maintain an aristocratic frame.
Law 35: Master the Art of Timing:
Never seem to be in a hurry – hurrying betrays a lack of control over yourself, and over time. Always seem patient, as if you know everything will come to you eventually. Become a detective of the right moment; sniff out the spirit of the times, the trends that will carry you to power. Learn to stand back when the time is not yet ripe, and to strike fiercely when it has reached fruition.
This is yet another almost-perfect paragraph to describe Donald Trump’s campaign, but Robert Greene highlights three subsets of this maxim of power:
The time span over years that, Robert Greene says, should be handled mostly defensively and patiently – this is the art of waiting for the right moment.
Donald Trump seems to have done this – as he has toyed with the notion of running for president many times, but has never pulled the trigger until now. Perhaps he just thinks the country is so weak that it needs his leadership, but he also must have known, instinctively, that the Overton Window was so far left that it would inevitably provoke a rightist backlash, one which he would be well suited to lead. It helps that he spent that time gathering power and political influence behind the scenes, amassing wealth, and cultivating his celebrity. This mirrors Robert Greene’s example of this law in action – Joseph Fouche, who survived all the turmoil of the French Revolutionary period from 1789 to the Bourbon Restoration by his mastery of patience and sensing where the winds would blow.
This involves upsetting the timing of your opponents, forcing them to act rashly in less accordance with their own plans. Donald Trump has obviously applied this part of the law of power. Again, the perfect example of a victim is Jeb Bush who, instead of being coronated like he thought he’d be, is going crazy with trying to react to Trump. He, and everyone else in the GOP field, are now not running their own campaigns, because they have to react to Donald Trump and his dictation of the frame.
This involves seizing the moment and forcing things to a conclusion. “Use speed to paralyze your opponent, cover up any mistakes you might make, and impress people with your aura of authority and finality,” says Robert Greene.
Donald Trump obviously does all of this.
Law 36: Disdain Things You Cannot Have: Ignoring them is the Best Revenge:
By acknowledging a petty problem you give it existence and credibility. The more attention you pay an enemy, the stronger you make him; and a small mistake is often made worse and more visible when you try to fix it. It is sometimes best to leave things alone. If there is something you want but cannot have, show contempt for it. The less interest you reveal, the more superior you seem.
This very important law of power is too often ignored by those that oppose the left, and failure to abide by it is a major reason why the “social justice” left presently has so much power.
At times I have thought that Donald Trump has violated this power dynamic in his campaign, such as when he doubled down on his “thousands of Muslims” comment and going after a reporter, supposedly mocking his disability. Yet, this was actually the “sour grapes” approach, where Donald Trump did not really complain about the oh-so-offended reporter, so much as expressing his utter disregard for him.
Then of course there was this exchange with Megyn Kelly, where Donald Trump totally ignored the premise of her question, giving it absolutely no heed:
While the traditional, “cuckservative” way would be to try to plead or explain it away, Donald Trump just showed his utter contempt for this politically correct narrative and it vanished on its own.
Law 36 is a power play that the right has all too often ceded entirely to the left. Donald Trump is so successful in great part because he is taking it back.
This concludes the sixth installment of this series. Part seven 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.