Everyone knows former President Barack Obama drew inspiration from Chicago activist Saul Alinsky, author of the 1971 community organizer handbook Rules for Radicals. It is believed that Obama even taught Alinsky techniques during his days as a community organizer in the 1980s as seen in this photo.
We’ve probably all seen links to those 13 “Rules,” including the most infamous organizing rule of all: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it” — so I won’t go into detail.
But, in a nutshell, Rules for Radicals, starting with its dedication to Lucifer, shows would-be agitators how to milk grievances, gin up conflict and rally a community against a common “enemy” — something Obama did very well during his two terms as president. Think Ferguson. Think “the cops acted stupidly.” Think sending Republicans to the “back of the bus” or “punish your enemies.” Obama’s political opponents were always his “enemies,” as was half the country. Indeed, one of the primary criticisms of “Alinskism” was its ideological rigidity and complete reliance on “artificially stimulated conflict.” (Alinksky also had no respect for private property or capitalism, but that’s another story.)
This overly ideological approach bore out as President Obama had one of the worst legislative records in history. His two most important pieces of legislation (the 2009 economic stimulus and the 2010 Affordable Care Act) passed with zero Republican votes. Throughout his presidency that began with such fanfare, Obama was unable to bridge differences and work with members of Congress to spur economic growth and opportunity.
This was especially true after he lost control of Congress starting in 2011, and then completely in 2015. Obama was the only president in U.S. history to have never had a year of 3% GDP growth and his average approval ratings over eight years were on par with Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, two of the most unpopular presidents in recent history. (We can blame both Obama and Congressional Republicans for failing to work together — yet somehow managing to spend $30 trillion over eight years, nearly doubling the national debt.)
The Art of the Deal
On the flip side, President Donald Trump famously wrote The Art of the Deal, a primer on how he became the most recognizable real estate developer in perhaps the history of the world. In this best-seller published in 1987, Trump provided a blueprint for how he (or anyone) can achieve success.
Trump’s Art of the Deal “rules” included:
1) Think big
2) Protect the downside
3) Maximize your options
4) Know your market
5) Use your leverage
6) Enhance your location
7) Get the word out
8) Fight back
9) Deliver the goods
10) Have fun
While Trump has been criticized for dividing people, The Art of the Deal actually does just the opposite — it brings people together in a win-win — and it’s quite likely we’ll see this bear out over time. We’ve already seen a demonstration of its effectiveness in just the first week of Trump’s presidency — and the unprecedented transition — in terms of sheer productivity.
How does The Art of the Deal translate into President Trump’s process for governance? And how will his process differ from President Obama’s?
In the Art of the Deal, Trump writes about how there’s rarely a day in his life when he doesn’t make 50 to 100 phone calls, and have a dozen meetings. (It has been reported that Obama despised meeting with members of Congress, even from his own party. He has been described as a solitary executive. Even his vaunted golf outings were usually with aides or friends, not members of Congress or business leaders.)
What does Trump’s bonanza of meetings and phone calls mean? He’s reaching out to a wide variety of people, seeking input, guidance, friendship, potential collaboration and information. Notice how he met with both business heads and union leaders in the Oval Office. At Trump Tower, he met with those who were ideologically not always in alignment: Romney, Gore, Emmanuel, DiCaprio, Harvey, King III. (When did Obama ever reach out to pro-lifers, for instance? Obama famously mocked the idea of even having a drink with Mitch McConnell, while he met with his IRS chief and Chicago Democrat operatives dozens of times.)
Another guiding principle for Trump is that he doesn’t get weighed down by details when he’s making deals. As he wrote in Art of the Deal “You can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure.” The structure comes later in the form of a contract which both sides voluntarily agree to sign. But in the negotiating phase, Trump tries to get as many ideas as possible on the table, and sort through them quickly, and efficiently, before making a decision — while never being afraid to walk away from the table. This is the polar opposite of Alinskism that uses structure to produce unrelenting pressure. Think lawsuits and astroturf protests.
Trump thrives in a more-or-less open environment (perhaps not by accident, he often doesn’t even button his suit coat.) We’ve seen that as he’s been interviewed by members of the hostile press. Trump doesn’t shy away from talking to people who despise him. (If you haven’t seen his interview with ABC’s David Muir, you must.) He can calmly (and openly) explain why he disagrees with someone — and defend his principles — without losing his temper. (That Muir interview is an example of Trump’s temperament, which, contrary to popular opinion, he has always said is one of his strengths.)
Indeed, Trump’s most important rule may just be Rule #8: Fight back. Trump’s infamous squabbles with Rosie, Kazir Kahn, Miss Universe, Mexico, even the press, have all been about defending himself, or American interests, or as he might put it: counterpunching. Unlike Rules for Radicals which thrives on drawing first blood, on ridiculing and alienating your “enemy,” the Art of the Deal is about refusing to be a victim, refusing to become alienated — even when ridiculed (a rule of self-defense Governor Sarah Palin also adhered to).
The biggest difference between the Art of the Deal and Rules for Radicals is that one seeks agreement and the latter seeks surrender/concession.
I’ll admit that I’m ideologically predisposed to like Trump, and to not like Obama. But I truly wish Obama had succeeded — especially in improving lives in the very communities he long attempted to organize.
Bottom line: Success goes beyond ideology. Success is a process. And it will be interesting over the next four (to eight) years to watch President Trump operate — to see him bring people together, as he has throughout his career — to make great deals for the American people.