This article was originally published on Banter M, our digital mag for Banter Members.
Almost 20 years ago, I came across Robert Greene’s iconic book “The 48 Laws Of Power” in a book shop in San Francisco. It was lying on the table I was sitting at, and I found the title so intriguing I started reading it, despite being there with a friend. The introduction was so compelling that I completely lost track of time and sat there devouring it for the next hour or so, much to my friend’s displeasure. After getting to law 15, I decided to buy the book, and have gone back to it many, many times over the years.
It is a sobering, brilliant book that I found as unnerving as it was intriguing. Greene opened up a new way of looking at the world that I could never quite forget — a world where power was neither good nor bad, just fact, and where those who eschewed the laws were the ones most guilty of using them for personal gain. The laws Green laid out enabled me to spot the games people played to attain power, and made navigating social hierarchies considerably easier (and far more fun).
I recently revisited Greene’s book after several years and found myself in a state of shock as I went through the list again. Having covered Donald Trump’s rise to power in America for the past three years, it began to dawn on me that despite his brazen ignorance, his lack of intellectual curiosity, and his shocking ineptitude as a leader, he was remarkably adept at using many of Greene’s laws.
There is little I like to give Trump credit for, but after reviewing the 48 Laws of Power again, I have to be completely honest in my assessment: Trump is, at least partially, quite brilliant at attaining and keeping power. And those who underestimate him (as I have) do so at their own peril.
This piece will be divided into two parts — the first, below, is a review of Trump’s adherence to many of the laws Greene lays out. The second, to be published next week, will look at where he flouts them. As you will see, the picture is a complex one, and Trump’s ability to play this game well will decide his political future.
Trump’s Adherence to the Law
“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, envelope them in enough smoke, and by the time they realize your intentions, it will be too late.”
It isn’t clear whether Trump does this deliberately, but he most certainly adheres to this law religiously. No one knows what the president is doing, and that is because he likely doesn’t know either. The effect is the same however, and his opponents are kept of balance while he forcefully enacts his agenda (think immigration and tax cuts).
Law 6: Court attention at all cost. Everything is judged by its 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.
This is a law Trump understands perfectly. He is obsessed with media attention and his ability to stay in the headlines. When he is not the center of attention, Trump will drum up a new scandal for the media to devour in the blink of a tweet. Trump believes there is no such thing as bad attention, and he courts it at all costs.
Law 11: Learn to keep people dependent on you. To maintain your independence you must always be needed and wanted. The more you are relied on, the more freedom you have. Make people depend on you for their happiness and prosperity and you have nothing to fear. Never teach them enough so that they can do without you.
Trump’s team are now completely dependent on him for their survival. Without him, they are lost in the political wilderness and they know it. He has applied this strategy throughout his life, buying people’s loyalty and keeping them dependent on him. Cross Trump, and you pay the price. Just ask his once loyal attorney Michael Cohen, who is now surviving on public donations to feed his family.
Law 12: Use selective honesty and generosity to disarm your victim. One sincere and honest move will cover over dozens of dishonest ones. Open-hearted gestures of honesty and generosity bring down the guard of even the most suspicious people. Once your selective honesty opens a hole in their armor, you can deceive and manipulate them at will. A timely gift – a Trojan horse – will serve the same purpose.
Trump is masterful at manipulating people around him through a mixture of charm, selective honesty, and kindness. I know this first hand because while working for ESPN, I once spoke with him on a conference call about a Mixed Martial Arts event he was funding back in 2009. I was stunned by how sincere he was, how helpful he could be in giving journalists good quotes for their stories, and how committed he was to ensuring the event was a success. Just as abusive spouses keep their partners captive by turning on the charm after beating them within an inch of their lives, Trump knows exactly how to get what he wants by playing Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Law 15: Crush your enemy totally. All great leaders since Moses have known that a feared enemy must be crushed completely. (Sometimes they have learned this the hard way.) If one ember is left alight, no matter how dimly it smolders, a fire will eventually break out. More is lost through stopping halfway than through total annihilation: The enemy will recover, and will seek revenge. Crush him, not only in body but in spirit.
Trump’s total domination of the Republican primary field in 2015/2016 was a perfect example of his mastery of this law. Trump did not seek to win the nomination, he wanted to obliterate the competition and humiliate them into submission. Trump’s victory was so complete that the GOP meekly lined up behind him and have refused to challenge him on, well, anything. After insulting his wife’s looks, his father, and his integrity, Ted Cruz officially embraced the Orange King at a rally in Texas this week in the ultimate expression of submission from a major Republican politician.
Law 17: Keep others in suspended terror: cultivate an air of unpredictability.Humans are creatures of habit with an insatiable need to see familiarity in other people’s actions. Your predictability gives them a sense of control. Turn the tables: Be deliberately unpredictable. Behavior that seems to have no consistency or purpose will keep them off-balance, and they will wear themselves out trying to explain your moves. Taken to an extreme, this strategy can intimidate and terrorize.
This is similar to law no. 3 — Trump’s extreme unpredictability makes him very difficult to fight. His opponents cannot formulate a strategy to defeat him if his tactics continually change. Again, Trump may not be doing this intentionally, but the effect is the same.
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.
When Trump does not get what he wants from the GOP, he threatens to work with the Democrats. When he does not get what he wants from America’s allies, he threatens to work with her enemies. It may well be that Trump does not commit to anyone because he is only committed to himself, but it has the effect of keeping everyone around him off balance. (NOTE: This may end up working against Trump in the future if the rest of the world decides they don’t need American any more. We will explore this in next week’s piece).
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 may have ulterior motives.
The jury is out on this one, but Trump has definitely cultivated an image of extreme stupidity. This has undoubtedly helped him in several ways, most notably when his opponents underestimate him. When this happens, Trump wins. We don’t know how deliberate this is, but it has most definitely worked.
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 every 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.
Trump does not bother pandering to anyone outside of his base. He knows there is no point, and that his power lies with his ability to motivate his core followers. His control over his supporters allows him to control the Republican party. And by controlling the Republican party, he has a solid grip on power over the rest of the country.
Now available for Banter Members: How The 48 Laws Of Power Could Destroy Trump
Law 27: Play on people’s need to create a cultlike following. People have an overwhelming desire to believe in something. Become the focal point of such desire by offering them a cause, a new faith to follow. Keep your words vague but full of promise; emphasize enthusiasm over rationality and clear thinking. Give your new disciples rituals to perform, ask them to make sacrifices on your behalf. In the absence of organized religion and grand causes, your new belief system will bring you untold power.
Case in point:
Law 28: Enter action with boldness. If you are unsure of a course of action, do not attempt it. Your doubts and hesitations will infect your execution. Timidity is dangerous: Better to enter with boldness. Any mistakes you commit through audacity are easily corrected with more audacity. Everyone admires the bold; no one honors the timid.
Trump is most certainly not afraid of being bold. He is disgusting, dishonest, and overtly ignorant. Yet he parades these traits like virtues and rolls out even the most idiotic plans with great fanfare and ceremony. His summit with North Korea was by most sane accounts, completely pointless. But Trump calculated that the boldness of the move will be remembered, not the substance. And he may well have been right.
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 for 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.
Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” was cynically created to convince angry white Americans that they could return to a fictional time in America with no immigrants, no feminism, and no uppity black people. Trump’s entire brand is predicated on selling people his garish lifestyle, and his supporters voted for him hoping they too could become millionaires and billionaires. Trump made much of his money playing a billionaire on reality TV, so he knows exactly how to sell people on fantasies.
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.
On top of his humiliating nicknames, Trump’s mastery of this law was on full display when he went into his second debate with Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. After the famous “pussy grab” tape was leaked to the press, Trump went on the counter attack inviting women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual abuse to sit in the family area close to the center of the debate. He knew this was a huge weakness for Hillary Clinton and could be used to shift the focus away from him. And it kind of worked, as many Americans bought into the false narrative that “both sides” were “just as bad”.
Law 39: Stir up waters to catch fish. Anger and emotion are strategically counterproductive. You must always stay calm and objective. But if you can make your enemies angry while staying calm yourself, you gain a decided advantage. Put your enemies off-balance: Find the chink in their vanity through which you can rattle them and you hold the strings.
While Trump rarely stays calm and objective, he is a master at stirring up waters to catch fish. This is a key part of his strategy when it comes to maintaining power, and his ability to perpetually create political scandals is second to none. Trump does not capitalize on the chaos he creates strategically necessarily, but it does enable him to survive. He calculates that by creating enough controversy, he’ll be able to find something to distract the media with while he moves on from whatever unconstitutional/illegal activities he was previously engaged in.
Now available for Banter Members: How The 48 Laws Of Power Could Destroy Trump