CLEVELAND ― Quick question: Which candidate for president is using the methods of Saul Alinsky, the ‘60s-era activist and author whom Republicans love to hate and who ― as Dr. Ben Carson noted Tuesday night ― once described Lucifer, not disapprovingly, as “the very first radical”?
Donald Trump, of course.
Yes, Hillary Clinton studied, knew and admired Alinsky when she was a student at Wellesley in the late 1960s. For earnest, well-meaning, young leftish elite students, it was the fashionable thing to do.
In fact, Clinton even wrote her thesis about him.
Republicans usually don’t mention that she rejected Alinsky’s view, which was that the poor could never be helped by working within the political system ― only by attacking it from the outside.
Now, nearly a half a century later, it is Donald Trump who is running on Alinsky-like contempt for the system, doing everything he can to destroy and discredit it on his march to power in the name of rescuing the white middle class.
And where Alinsky used “radical” tactics to battle poverty and injustice, Trump is using them to steer his own ego-driven Trump Train of accusatory authoritarianism.
Ironically, it was Alinsky himself, shortly before he died in 1972, who foresaw the rise of a Donald Trump, and who planned to organize among the very voters Trump now targets.
The “silent majority” cultivated by President Richard Nixon, Alinsky told Playboy magazine, was “ripe for the plucking by some guy on horseback promising a return to the vanished verities of yesterday.”
Trump is that guy, and he is plucking them with Alinsky’s own methods.
“Rub raw the sores of discontent,” counseled Alinsky, whose lifelong work began with trying to organize poor black people in the fetid neighborhoods of Chicago that Upton Sinclair had depicted in The Jungle.
Updating the Alinsky playbook for the 24-hour news cycle and the social media age, Trump scours Americans’ sores with fear ― fear of protesters, fear of cop-killers, fear of Mexicans, fear of Muslims ― and offers a message of closed borders, military and diplomatic isolationism and Nixonian “law and order.”
At the same time, and in a manner that Alinsky would surely recognize, Trump taunts, cheapens, undermines and ultimately discredits the political mores, traditions and institutions with the power to judge and exclude him.
The louder the outrage of any “establishment” figure or institution ― be it the “mainstream media,” historians, college presidents, the Republican Party, former GOP presidents or members of Congress ― the sweeter the music to the ears of an Alinskyish provocateur like Trump.
“The job of the organizer,” Alinsky wrote in his seminal 1971 book Rules for Radicals, “is to maneuver and bait the establishment so that it will publicly attack him as a ‘dangerous enemy.’”
Agitators who go this route will find that “the hysterical instant reaction of the establishment [will] not only validate [the organizer’s] credentials of competency,” Alinsky wrote, “but also ensure automatic popular invitation.”
Trump relishes the attacks; they make him seem strong.
The Republican National Convention is turning out to be a weeklong troll of political tradition on Trump’s part. And Republican delegates ― those who actually like him and those radiating sullenness from their seats ― are all bit players in his parade of disrespect for the institutions he is conquering.
The tradition is for the candidate not to appear on stage until the final night of the convention? Trump was there on the first night, smoke machine and all.
The winner is supposed to let the losers blow off steam by allowing a symbolic protest roll call vote? Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s answer to that was the procedural equivalent of piano wire. He choked off every avenue of dissent on the floor.
A typical speaking lineup includes respected figures from politics and the arts? How’s an underwear model for you?
The nominee’s wife gives a speech partially cribbed from the current first lady ― of the other party, no less. Shocked? Get over it. No one cares, the actual words don’t matter and all publicity is good publicity.
You’re supposed to do everything you can to have the governor of the host state on your side? Reports are mixed on this point, with one source telling The Huffington Post the Trump camp is wooing Kasich, and another insisting later that “we are not trying to bring him in” and that Kasich is “bitter” and untrustworthy. But the point is that Trump himself, to all appearances, doesn’t really care. It’s not hard to imagine that he loves the idea of playing take-it-or-leave-it with someone he’s expected to publicly make nice with (someone who’s a former presidential rival, at that).
Conventions are meant to be the “pivot point,” when the campaign “reaches out” from a solid and secured party base to “introduce” the candidate to undecided voters and even voters from the other party. Not so with Trump. His convention is about throwing red meat to his followers ― making them want to walk through walls for him ― and calling for Hillary Clinton to be put in jail.
And so what if one of his supporters suggests that Clinton be made to face a firing squad for her handling of the Benghazi attack ― which, by the way, even GOP investigators could not find serious fault with?
Anyone who objects, of course, is just caving to the tyranny of “political correctness.”
Trump hasn’t suggested that you get the firing squad for that. But it is only July.