David 'Mas' Masumoto

In Trump landscape, 1970s book ‘Rules for Radicals’ is a playbook for both sides


Our new president has been in office for 100 days. Many are sorting out how to work with the new administration. Some are still deconstructing how he got elected. Others are calculating how to fight and resist. For many, we are living in a new, wild world of radical politics from both the left and the right.

I stumbled upon a book I read in the 1970s called “Rules for Radicals.” I realized the ghost of author Saul Alinsky is alive and well. He was an extremist from the 1960s and this book influenced thousands who sought to change power structures with grassroots organizing and adopting combative strategies for creating and maintaining political pressure.

Alinksy’s theory was based on tactics anchored in highly confrontational communication and action. This was not a call for negotiation nor a method for building dialogue. The goal was to overthrow the status quo.

Reading the “rules” reminded me of an uncompromising game plan from the far left, especially in the ’60s and ’70s. But remarkably, it also foreshadowed the rise of the tea party’s demand to be heard and upending mainstream politics and then later the Donald Trump campaign to win an election.

It also offers insight into this presidency and strategies of confrontation. And it could possibly pose as a primer for new progressives as they fight against the current state of affairs. Imagine, a rule book for both sides.

I do not condone nor believe such tactics are totally right nor may be always successful. But the strategies have a ring of truth in today’s politics.

1: Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.

Parade your power. Perception becomes the reality in this new radical era. Change agents claim space and territory bordering on self-centered righteousness as they march forward as apostles of change.

2: Never go outside the expertise of your people.

It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Stay in touch with your base by knowing your base. Build support anchored in personal and heartfelt appeals. Communicate directly to your people, do not rely on messengers.

3. Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy. Here you want to cause confusion, fear and retreat.

Utilize tactics of Twitter and social media to spread stories, blur the lines between real and fake news.

4. Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules.

Your goal is to overthrow the status quo. Promote the rise of the individual to upend embedded systems and the establishment.

5. Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.

There is no defense. It’s irrational. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions. Infuriate the opposition whenever and wherever possible. Elevate the trivial. Fits well in our new age of social media and instant sharing of pseudo news and information that resembles gossip.

6. A good tactic is one your people enjoy.

They’ll keep working for your cause without urging and come back to do more. Learn from the joy found in rallies and marches. Others may perceive your slogans as narrow and hateful, but your chants represent enthusiasm and builds solidarity.

7. A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.

Don’t become old news. Momentum cools; your movement needs to keep reinventing itself. Old formulas for change no longer work today.

8. Keep the pressure on with different tactics and actions.

Never let up. Keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them with something new. Claim your opponents are out of touch with the real world. Mobilize, mobilize, mobilize. Burn down existing systems and replace it with your own reality.

9. The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.

Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist. Talk is cheap – this is not about constructive policy change but winning.

10. The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition. It is this unceasing pressure that results in the reactions from the opposition that are essential for the success of the campaign.

Be relentless. Transform into a realistic radical, not a rhetorical radical.

11. If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.

The public sympathizes with the underdog. Forge transformative experiences in your favor by claiming righteousness. Occupy territory with attitude and action.

12. The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.

Never let the enemy score points because you’re caught without a solution to the problem. Channel Machiavellian ruthless strategies: it’s all political and perception. No compromise, alienate the opposition, surround yourself with winners.

13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it.

Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions. All is fair in this game. Master and control the art of communication. Make it personal.

“Rules for Radicals” launched an extreme action plan for those not in power. It borders on bullying. It alienates and oversteps perceptions of right and wrong. It can transcend into something that sounds sinister and evil. People will lose their moral compass by following these rules.

Do the rules apply once you have power? I’m reminded of the adage: campaign with poetry, govern with prose. Alinsky was a radical poet and not necessarily someone who could govern. But the end goal was to win.

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books including “Epitaph for a Peach.” He can be contacted at masmasumoto@gmail.com.