Team Clinton should think counterinsurgency when trying to neutralize Trump

Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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If ever there were an insurgent candidate in American politics, it is surely Donald Trump. Which may explain why military metaphors seem so appropriate in describing how he captured the Republican nomination. Coming up with a strategy to defeat him in tonight’s debate must be a hair-pulling experience for the Hillary Clinton campaign. But, it’s also a great opportunity for Clinton to finally take the fight straight at her shifty adversary.

Trump didn’t sweat how to actually organize a campaign for the nomination. He rallied the troops with crude, effective rhetoric, demeaned his opponents to the point of name-calling and picked them off one-by-one, all via his unique amalgam of free media and Twitter. In broad terms, Trump became the standard-bearer pursuing his own brand of what military theorists call asymmetric warfare.

In previous campaigns, we could assume a great deal of symmetry between the two major party candidates. They would both raise lots of money, have massive ground operations, hit the airwaves hard and–this being a digital age–target individual supporters in increasingly precise ways, like that ad on your Pandora station. Sure, Barack Obama did it better than Mitt Romney in 2012, but their campaigns followed similar principles.

Generals from centuries ago suddenly forced into the role of campaign managers in 2012 might find social media truly baffling and rub their eyes at the very notion of elections where every adult can vote, but they would have appreciated very quickly that the two sides had roughly the same capabilities. Any strategy one side followed, the other side could more or less copy.

Not so in 2016. It would take a Mao Zedong or Ho Chi Minh, or even the lefty pop icon Che Guevara, to have an intuitive grasp of how Donald Trump managed to get as far as the Republican nomination. Trump, like these legendary insurgent leaders, hit the enemies in ways they never expected, exposing weaknesses they didn’t know they had.

Mao, in particular, recognized that his troops could operate in the rear of his enemy, as long as they didn’t make enemies of the population itself, and grind away at the opposition forces. I can’t think of a better nutshell explanation of how Trump quickly won over a huge portion of the Republican base and turned it against his opponents. Mao would have been impressed

This is asymmetric warfare: waging a war using tactics far different than your opponent, and lulling your opponent into pursuing tactics that don’t work, or are counterproductive.

Hillary Clinton prepared, far earlier than previous candidates, for a conventional American presidential campaign, and it does not reflect badly on her that she now has to grapple with an unconventional opponent. Who could have known that the Republican pool of candidates would slowly fall to the tangerine-faced terror of Trump, a reality show star whose insurgency brought him into the general election? Trump has torn up the terrain of American presidential campaign with apparent relish, like a tank chewing up the greens on one of his precious golf courses.

The classic text for fighting this kind of war is Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, by the French military theorist David Galula. A military attaché in China and later during France’s savage war in Algeria, Galula was able to, quite literally, write the book on how to fight insurgents. He adapted the conventional tactics of the French army to the unconventional fight his country faced in Algeria, and distinguished himself well enough. Galula, a conventional solder, adapted to the insurgent.

The debate presents Clinton with the rare opportunity for doing precisely the opposite. She can force Trump, the insurgent, to fight like a conventional campaign warrior, to fight the battle for which she’s prepared for so long. In a one-on-one debate, live for the whole nation to see, the insurgent is facing an open, conventional confrontation with a well-armed and well-trained opponent.

The conventional rules of a presidential debate dictate that lies get you in trouble, getting nasty and personal doesn’t work, and conveying the sense that you’re worthy of the office of Lincoln and Roosevelt is part of the task. And a convincing mastery of the issues matters.

Start with the part about lying. Trump is good at this one–think of his oft-repeated and false line that he opposed the Iraq War. There will be others on Monday night. We don’t know exactly how debate moderator Lester Holt will handle the role of fact-checker, if he chooses to embrace it. What we do know is that Clinton is promising to seize the role if Holt does not.

“I think what’s concerning overall about Donald Trump is that, first of all, he doesn’t often tell the truth,” Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, told CNN. “So she’s going to have to spend some time probably correcting the record and making sure voters understand the facts.”

Nasty and personal defined a lot of what Trump had to say about anybody who called him out, from Megyn Kelly at Fox News to Khizr Khan at the Democratic convention. What about “Crooked Hillary,” Trump’s preferred moniker for his opponent? That will be a tell, whether he’s willing to go that far and say it to Clinton’s face. Certainly his supporters relish those kind of red-meat, alpha-male moments, but we’re about to learn whether decorum matters at all to Trump.

When he met Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto, Trump didn’t raise his oft-stated demand that Mexico pay for that wall he’s planning. Will there be limits to how far even he will go in insulting someone, especially a person who is there to punch back? Is he the bully who cowers when faced with a real challenge?

Whether Trump can even give a head fake in the direction of being presidential in the traditional sense remains to be seen. So far, he’s been graded on only his past performances, so that after calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and insinuating that a woman with a tough question was having her period, a speech in which he follows the text seems like an improvement. But this time, he will be standing next to Hillary Clinton, doing her level best to be the one who seems presidential.

Finally, the issues. Oh, the issues! If Clinton debate preppers dream of anything, it’s probably that Trump would be magically forced to debate the issues–tax rates, financial regulation, policy toward China, military alliances, infrastructure investment–for 90 minutes with the famously wonky former secretary of state. Just ask him to explain something–anything. They surely yearn for such a moment. Unless Trump has crammed the details of policy in secret for the last few months, a capacity he seems to lack entirely, this would surely be a Clinton victory of the first order.

If Clinton pulls of that big win–her Cannae, her Battle of the Bulge, her Stalingrad, to name a few of history’s overwhelming victories–it won’t be because she fought Trump’s battle. It will be because he fought hers.