Would Sun Tzu Endorse Donald Trump's Total-War Political Strategy?

Forget The Art of the Deal—what does The Art of War have to say about whether the Republican frontrunner’s campaign has peaked?

Donald Trump delivers a speech aboard the USS Iowa in Los Angeles. (Kevork Djansezian / AP)

This time, maybe the Donald Trump bubble really is starting to leak air. For the first time yet, his polling is trending down. He isn’t drawing quite the same crowds he once did, and isn’t having as much fun. On Wednesday, he redoubled his scorched-earth approach to politics as war. He slammed Marco Rubio as naïve. He rekindled his feud with Fox News, breaking a truce and saying that he will no longer go on the channel. He called on the federal government to fine National Review editor Rich Lowry for his comments on Fox and mocked Lowry’s magazine as little-read. One way to distill the claim that Trump is running out of gas is that he’s trying to fight a war on many fronts—against his rivals, the press, the pope, you name it—and that’s a strategy with limitations that will ultimately wear thin with voters.

Of course, we’ve heard all that before. Time and again, the chattering class has declared Trump dead: after he made light of John McCain’s war service, after he feuded with Megyn Kelly, after his first feud with Fox. Each time, he’s sailed along, impervious. So we have appealed to an authority with greater staying power than the average TV talking head. One whose writing is, like Trump, popular among businesspeople. And one who might be unusually well situated to analyze Trump’s strategy of total war all the time.

Forget The Art of the Deal: What does Sun Tzu’s Art of War have to say about whether Trump is toast? (For simplicity, I’ve selected a few important lessons from this Business Insider distillation of the 6th century B.C. Chinese treatise.)

* * *

All warfare is based on deception.

This is the most famous quotation from The Art of War, and it’s one with which Trump the businessman would surely agree. “A little hyperbole never hurts,” he once wrote. “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular ... It's an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.” Trump the politician embroiders his own record shamelessly. His populist pitch, though is built on a promise of honesty and openness: All of these politicians play the game, he tells voters, but I’m the only one who’s truthful about who I am and what I’ve done to play the game—and win it. As Tom Edsall writes, “Trump embodies precisely what his supporters say they hate—the exploitation of money and lobbyists to get his way. Nonetheless, he seems to have turned this to advantage by openly acknowledging how he has worked the system. His promise is to control the system on behalf of those who vote for him, rather than being controlled by it.”

Sun Tzu’s Grade: FAIL

There are five dangerous faults which may affect a general: recklessness, which leads to destruction; cowardice, which leads to capture; a hasty temper, which can be provoked by insults; a delicacy of honor, which is sensitive to shame; over-solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble.

Does Trump seem reckless? Certainly. He seems to lurch from theme to theme on a whim, and he often makes statements that he cannot back up. His success so far suggests he may be choreographing these more than is immediately clear. Is he a coward? Generally, Trump is spoiling for a fight. But his demand Wednesday that the FCC fine Rich Lowry, one of his critics, seems rather cowardly. Is his temper hasty and easily provoked? Undoubtedly. But no one can accuse the man of being sensitive to shame—nor does Mr. “You’re Fired” seem over-solicitous of his underlings.

Trump does not agree. “As far as temperament—and we all know that—as far as temperament, I think I have a great temperament.”

Sun Tzu’s Grade: WASH

Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.

Early in the September 16 debate, Trump’s first chance to speak was in reply to criticism from Carly Fiorina. Instead, he began with a swipe at a different candidate. “Well, first of all, Rand Paul shouldn't even be on this stage,” he said. “He's number 11, he's got 1 percent in the polls, and how he got up here, there's far too many people anyway.” By Trump’s own standard, engaging with Paul made little sense.

Sun Tzu’s Grade: FAIL

No ruler should put troops into the field merely to gratify his own spleen; no general should fight a battle simply out of pique.

Twice, Trump has declared war on the most powerful news outlet speaking to voters in his party, in both cases because he decided it’d disrespected him.

Sun Tzu’s Grade: FAIL

Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.  

Now here’s an intriguing one. What if Trump’s alleged stumbles are simply setting a trap? So far, every candidate who has directly attacked Trump has seen his own stock fall—except Ben Carson, who quickly backed off. Perhaps he’s projecting weakness to lure them in, so it’s too soon to tell.

Sun Tzu’s Grade: INCOMPLETE

If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If we wish to fight, the enemy can be forced to an engagement even though he be sheltered behind a high rampart and a deep ditch. All we need do is attack some other place that he will be obliged to relieve. So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.  

More than anything, Trump has shown his ability to pick a fight where it’s most effective. Needless to say, he wasn’t going to win a wonk battle with Jeb Bush. But by assailing Bush as low-energy, he found his opponent’s weakness and has ruthlessly exploited it; Bush’s standing in the polls has sunk consistently since Trump’s entry.

Sun Tzu’s Grade: PASS

Ponder and deliberate before you make a move .... Concentrate your energy and hoard your strength. Keep your army continually on the move, and devise unfathomable plans.

We’ve already addressed Trump’s apparently rash strategies on some matters, but credit where it’s due: He’s the master of unfathomable plans. “I do know what to do and I would know how to bring ISIS to the table or, beyond that, defeat ISIS very quickly,” he said in May. “And I'm not gonna tell you what it is tonight” because “I don't want the enemy to know what I'm doing.” Often his answer to a quandary is that he’ll hire great people. No one can claim to be fathoming these plans.

Sun Tzu’s Grade: PASS

What enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge. Knowledge of the enemy's dispositions can only be obtained from other men.

Here we have a classic formulation of the need for a good opposition-research team for digging up dirt on political opponents. In his debate performances and on the stump, Trump has demonstrated a strong familiarity with critiques of his rivals that are appearing in the media and has wielded them to great effect, but he doesn’t appear to have any original oppo researchers on his side, nor trackers at his rivals’ campaign events—the modern-day political equivalent of Sun Tzu’s spies.

Sun Tzu’s Grade: WASH

There are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune on his army:

  • By commanding the army to advance or to retreat, being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey...
  • By attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom, being ignorant of the conditions which obtain in an army....
  • By employing the officers of his army without discrimination, through ignorance of the military principle of adaptation to circumstances.

The first of these has little relevance here, but the other two certainly apply, and they don’t look good for Trump. First, his campaign for president is predicated on the idea that the skills he uses in his kingdom—the Trump Organization of businesses—will apply without alteration to the army, his political organization. This has been a frequent foible of businesspeople trying to enter the political campaign, but often they at least pay lip service to understanding it. Trump, in contrast, has largely run his campaign out of Trump Tower in New York, relying on the same staff of confidants he uses to run his business empire—plus a few hired political hands. As became clear when his lawyer Michael Cohen threatened a reporter and denied that marital rape was a crime, skills don’t translate “without discrimination” between the two realms.

Sun Tzu’s Grade: FAIL

It is the business of a general to be quiet and thus ensure secrecy; upright and just, and thus maintain order.


Sun Tzu’s Grade: FAIL

How’d Trump do? Not so hot. The final tally: According to our analysis, Sun Tzu would approve of Trump’s approach on two criteria and condemn it on five, with three inconclusive. This outcome might have been foreseen. After all, Sun Tzu’s most essential piece of advice for war was to avoid it whenever possible. “No long war ever profited any country: 100 victories in 100 battles is simply ridiculous,” he wrote. “Anyone who excels in defeating his enemies triumphs before his enemy's threats become real.”

Alas, it seems Sun Tzu was just another member of the stale Beltway consensus.