Belmont Club

The Alinsky Man

Watch Jorge Ramos of Univision getting tossed out of a Trump press conference by security after trying to pressure the Donald into answering him in the video below this post.  Instead of responding to Ramos, Trump lets security show him the door.  Afterward Trump allows that he has no problem letting Ramos back in, and the Washington Post reports the subsequent conversation between the two men.

After Ramos was allowed back in, a showdown over immigration ensued. “Good to have you back,” said Trump to Ramos. The two talked about building a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, about Trump’s plan to deport undocumented immigrants and then bring back “the good ones” and about gangs. “I want these people — the good people — I want them to come back,” said Trump. The problem is bad management, he continued, telling Ramos that he’s not “used to good management, ’cause you’re always talking about government…Government is incompetent.”

The real news was not in the words exchanged, but in the picture of Jorge Ramos being escorted out. It was not even borne by that picture, but embedded the emotional calculus of the act. Everyone who thinks Obama was an Alinsky disciple should watch Trump in action. He understands the Alinsky principle that public events are not about bandying words. They are about creating opportunities for transgressing certain emotional boundaries. It’s about “empowering the powerless”.

Ironic as it may sound, there’s a widespread impression that mainstream Americans are not supposed to answer back when men like Ramos take the stage.  It’s verboten. Not too long ago a public figure would have been terrified to confront Jorge Ramos. There’s  was no real intellectual content to Trump’s performance at the press conference. What there is a dangerous, but powerful spectacle of “wow. He’s telling Univision off! Wow!”

It’s William Tell knocking Gessler’s Hat off the pole. It’s the Injuns throwing Tea into Boston Harbor. It’s Donald Trump facing off a sacred cow. It’s dynamite. Other people, especially Ted Cruz, may be better at words than Donald Trump. But it’s not about words. Trumps words don’t actually mean as much as the fact that he’s saying them to the ruling elite’s face.

Worse, Jorge Ramos was shown to be powerless.  This also was a revelation.  In the classic tale The Sword of Welleran, generations of desert brigands are held back by the myth of Welleran, the great warrior who guards the city of Merimna.  It had been generations since anyone saw the famous Welleran, but the terror of his name held the bandits back until one day a desert raider mounted the walls and timidly crept up to the towering figure of the famous warrior.

But when they could hear the name of Welleran no more they arose and came to the ramparts and climbed over them and came at once upon the figure of Welleran, and they bowed low to the ground, and Seejar said: ‘O Welleran, we came to see whether thou didst yet live.’ And for a long while they waited with their faces to the earth. At last Seejar looked up towards Welleran’s terrible sword, and it was still stretched out pointing to the carved armies that followed after Fear. And Seejar bowed to the ground again and touched the horse’s hoof, and it seemed cold to him. And he moved his hand higher and touched the leg of the horse, and it seemed quite cold. At last he touched Welleran’s foot, and the armour on it seemed hard and stiff. Then as Welleran moved not and spake not, Seejar climbed up at last and touched his hand, the terrible hand of Welleran, and it was marble. Then Seejar laughed aloud, and he and Sajar-Ho sped down the empty pathway and found Rollory, and he was marble too. Then they climbed down over the ramparts and went back across the plain, walking contemptuously past the figure of Fear, and heard the guard returning round the ramparts for the third time, singing of Welleran; and Seejar said: ‘Ay, you may sing of Welleran, but Welleran is dead and a doom is on your city.’

When they find that Welleran is nothing but a statue, the spell is broken with  all that this implies. In due degree this can be very beneficial. It is also potentially dangerous. Any real Alinsky organizer — and the principles of rebellion leading are universal — knows there’s a thin line between starting a protest and touching off a riot. In Trump’s drama there’s a similarly thin line between standing up to pompous PC people and encouraging real bigotry. The trick is to calibrate the defiance so that the positive effects do not spill over into wholly destructive ends.

The chief aim of an agitator is to get people across an emotional Rubicon.  By contrast men like Rubio and Cruz might give you many convincing arguments for wading across that river and describe in detail what they will do when the hour strikes.  But they never cross the Rubicon.  Only when someone actually does and picnics on the other side brandishing a chicken drumstick  is the barrier is broken.

The feeling of empowerment is very potent; but like every powerful thing, you have to be careful with it. People will follow you in the intoxication of the moment. One must lead them well, because in that moment, they will follow you anywhere. Dan Daly, one of only 19 men who won the Medal of Honor twice understood the power of that rush.   One didn’t intellectually convince people to attack the German lines. One led them — a wholly different thing.

Daly is popularly attributed in Marine Corps lore as yelling, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” to his men during the Battle of Belleau Wood. Daly later told a Marine Corps historian that his words were “For Christ’s sake men—come on! Do you want to live forever?”

Robert Reich called Trump a “human wrecking ball”. That’s pretty accurate. It’s also a messy, impolite and cheesy thing to be. But the sans culottes:  that’s how the Bastille was stormed.

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