On the surface, the current US President Donald Trump and the 1960s radical activist Saul Alinsky could not have less in common. Trump is currently overseeing what has become the longest government shutdown in US history due to his budget negotiations with Congress over his desire for appropriations to fund a wall on the southwest border of the United States. Alinsky wrote a book entitled Rules for Radicals, originally published in 1971, which outlined grassroots community organizing principles for leftists to challenge the conservative establishment Alinsky and his fellow Marxists wished to destabilize. Yet although Trump is a former businessman, conservative, and supporter of virtually every cause Alinsky opposed, Trump has positioned himself as an outsider figure and used many of Alinsky’s techniques, consciously or unconsciously, to thwart his opposition. Unfortunately for the country as well as for Trump, he has also ignored some of Alinsky’s critical advice, which has resulted in a standoff that has neither helped Trump nor offered a solution to the polarized debate in Congress over immigration.

Trump is not the first conservative figure use Alinsky’s techniques, it should be noted. Many members of the Tea Party that challenged the Obama Administration’s liberal agenda did so as well. But Trump is unusual that even from a position of power he is positioning himself to suggest that government is the problem, not the solution, as famously declared by Ronald Reagan so many years ago. Trump has managed to bring the government to a standstill and force people to consider a proposal that was widely mocked during his campaign, and which even many objective authorities have alleged will have little efficacy in ceasing illegal immigration or enhancing security, the ostensible purposes of building the wall.

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Alinsky’s Ethics: Rules Do Not Matter

In Rules for Radicals, Alinsky famously declared that “One’s concern with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with one’s personal interest in the issue, and one’s distance from the scene of conflict” (Alinsky, 2010, p.26). Alinsky stated that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter—hence, those opposed to the Nazis regarded members of the Resistance as heroic figures, while the Nazis themselves regarded the Resistance as the enemy. Similarly, during the Civil War, the Confederate Army regarded themselves as noble defenders of their way of life, while the federal government regarded them as traitors. Donald Trump has positioned himself as a defender of border security, while those who oppose him regard his position as racist. Alinsky would suggest that this polarization cannot be overcome easily through compromise, and is not based in rules or genuine outrage over Trump’s manipulation of the political system, but the simple fact that more liberal members of Congress and more liberal constituents dislike Trump, while conservatives support him.

The question of distance from the issue also impacts the degree to which perceptions of the shutdown are shared by members of Congress, Republicans as well as Democrats. Although in the past Republicans have formed a united front against Democrats for Trump, including in engaging in ethically questionable actions such as confirming accused sexual predator Brett Cavanaugh to the US Supreme Court, Republican-represented states are some of the hardest hit in the nation, given that so many workers who reside in such states are employed by the federal government (Viser, 2019). As a result, some Republican members of Congress are pressuring Trump to compromise, despite their previous support for a border wall. Again, their lack of distance to the issue, combined with their close, personal interests in representing their constituents and being reelected, has an inevitable impact upon how they perceive the issue. Conversely, Trump, who staked his reputation on building a border wall, feels quite differently, since caving to Democratic resistance would be seen as a substantial concession to the opposition and an admission of political weakness.

Although Alinsky saw political actions as fundamentally selfish or partisan in nature, however, he also stressed the need to paint the image of the cause in black and white. “Our cause had to be all shining justice, allied with the angels; theirs had to be all evil, tied to the Devil; in no war has the enemy or the cause ever been gray,” he says, when discussing the original defense of the colonists of revolutionary opposition to the British crown (Alinsky, 2010, p.3). Today, many American historians will point out that while it was true many of the British restrictions placed upon the colonists were onerous, they were done in part to make up the debt the British had incurred defending the colonists in the French and Indian Wars. Yet in colonial rhetoric, there was no discussion of this fact from the past. Similarly, in his rhetoric defending the border wall, Trump has entirely blamed the opposition in their failure to honor the need for national security. Whether one agrees with him or not, he has consistently demanded during this current impasse that the wall is moral and just.

However, Alinsky might critique some of Trump’s positioning regarding funding for the wall overall, given that during the campaign Trump claimed that he would force Mexico to build the wall using its funding, versus having to appropriate funds from Congress. This has made some of Trump’s posturing seem both practically and morally inconsistent, weakening his position. Alinsky stressed the need to keep the pressure on the opposition, and given Trump’s wavering support for the wall and many of his other sworn campaign promises in the past, his current intransigence seems less believable.

Rallying Your People

Throughout Rules for Radicals, Alinsky stresses the need to keep your supporters enthusiastic and on your side. This is perhaps Trump’s greatest weakness. As noted before, many Trump voters are dependent upon employment by the government, and according to the Washington Post, even those who voted for Trump because of their concerns about immigration have stated that they will no longer do so in the future, because of the personal hardship they have experienced as a result of the border wall standoff (Viser, 2019). “A good tactic is one that your people enjoy” (Alinsky 2010, p.128). Yet Trump voters who elected Trump for economic reasons are certainly not enjoying this particular tactic. Although Alinsky stresses the need for constant pressure being placed upon the opposition to gain traction on one hand, on the other hand he also states, “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag” (Alinsky, 2010, p.128). Many might observe that the current standoff regarding the wall has indeed become a drag upon the country, not simply because of the critical government functions that are not being served as a result of the shutdown, but also because of the seemingly intractable nature of the polarized debate, without any clear means of resolving it, other than total Democratic concession to Trump’s demands, which seems unlikely, and increasingly unlikely, as the president grows less and less popular.

In short, although public, radical techniques and polarization might be useful, Alinsky is more of a fan of pressure through the use of small, winnable public relations skirmishes that are popular with supporters. Examples of this might include Trump’s frequent mockery of Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, and mockery is another technique lauded by Alinsky as a useful tool for radicals. Of course, Trump was accused of being both offensive and unethical in his public relations techniques, and is still criticized for what is seen as racist anti-immigration rhetoric that was popular with his supporters, and still is, even though they deplore the fact that his actions have resulted in a government shutdown that hurts them personally (Viser, 2019). But Alinsky also states that radicals should give little concern to ethics, and ethics are once again a matter of personal taste and the interests of the individual, not rooted in any higher authority. “Any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical” (Alinsky 2010, p.35).

Collaborating or Compromising: Trump’s Way Out?

The heavy consequences of not winning this particular battle for Trump, and ignoring the advice from Alinsky (2010) to always offer constructive alternatives rather than simply to oppose, this making the radical side seem more reasonable and attractive, suggests that collaboration on a solution is preferable. Collaboration, or creating a mutually beneficial and agreeable alternative, differs from actively making concessions to the opposition, because ideally a better solution than what was originally proposed by either party is selected. The principles behind the ethos of collaboration underline the need to avoid hard, positional bargaining which results in a zero-sum game approach to negotiation (Fisher, Ury, & Patton, 2011).

Unfortunately for the future of his administration and the prospects of ending the shutdown, Trump has not been able to find a mutually agreeable solution that allows him to build a wall that the Democratic opposition finds unacceptable. His latest proposal has been to offer to build the wall only in areas he deems strategically necessary (Rappaport, 2019). But he has still not made a case why a wall would be the most effective means for achieving his stated objective of security improvement; suggesting alternative security means to invest in might be the only potential way to save face in light of sustained opposition to a costly border wall.





Alinsky, S. (2010). Rules for radicals. New York, NY: Vintage.

Fisher, R., Ury, W., & Patton, B. (2011). Getting to yes: Negotiation agreement without giving

in. New York, NY: Penguin.

Rappaport, N. (2019). Trump offers to limit border wall to strategic locations. The Hill.

Retrieved from: https://thehill.com/opinion/immigration/426192-trump-offers-to-limit- his-border-wall-to-strategic-locations

Viser, M. (2019). Trump voters now blame him for the government shutdown. The Washington

Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-voters-now- blame-him-for-the-government-shutdown/2019/01/20/416051de-1b55-11e9-9ebf- c5fed1b7a081_story.html?utm_term=.f872f39de275

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