If Sun Tzu, author of the 2,500 year old Art of War, was alive and in Democratic politics today, he would oppose impeaching Donald Trump. And in the cliché du jour, Nancy Pelosi gives a masterclass on his approach.
There are roads which must not be followed, armies which must be not attacked, towns which must not be besieged, positions which must not be contested… (Art of War, Ch. 8)
How is this old work relevant? Substitute the word “politics” for “war.” We wage campaigns with words and images to define the situation in ways to move voters and public officials to act. The Art of War’s observations apply to our progressive efforts today.
So what would a Progressive Sun Tzu strategy be? And why?
If asked how to cope with a great host of the enemy in orderly array and on the point of marching to the attack, I should say: “Begin by seizing something which your opponents hold dear; then they will be amenable to your will.” (Ch. 11)
Trump’s vulnerability is his money. How he got it, how little he had and how he monetizes the presidency today. He leads a family criminal enterprise, so the active children are legitimate targets. Dig deep into emoluments, the inauguration fund, as well as look through his financial past.
Appear at points which the enemy must hasten to defend; march swiftly to places where you are not expected. (Ch. 6)
Another issue is migrant children deaths. He kills children, literally. We must be blunt about this. It is a difficult position to defend, that children deserve to die because of immigration policy. The ground gained will not be readily apparent, but its truth is a strong wedge to break his coalition in the suburbs.
Trump expects a direct attacks from Democrats on issues related to Mueller. He is accustomed to charges of racism and rape. Do not give him the battle he is prepared for, but move him into disadvantage by making him defend where he does not want to go. Be unexpected.
Do not act from anger
Progressives have a righteous anger. This anger casts impeachment as a moral necessity that feels to define progressivism. This anger must not be indulged.
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. No ruler should put troops into the field merely to gratify one’s spleen; no general should fight a battle simply out of pique. If it is to your advantage, make a forward move; if not, stay where you are. Anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by content. But a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life. (Ch. 12)
Progressive Democrats can vent spleen in impeachment hearings and get some good licks in. But the GOP will get its own grandstanding time to turn the hearings to their advantage. All while Trump will constantly cast himself and supporters as victim to rouse the base — elite Democrats trying to undue what the “deplorables” wanted. This victimhood rally begins as soon as the first gavel falls. This is ground Trump wants to fight on.
Unless something entirely new and reprehensible, even to the GOP, arises, the effort will gain nothing or lose much ground. Then comes the greater problem.
McConnell can maneuver impeachment two ways to harm Democrats.
One, refuse to schedule the Senate trial, claim people should decide in 2020. We would suffer a national media obsession drowning out all useful debate on important issues. Trump rallies his base still with shared victimhood of an “impending” trial with daily tweets of deep state coups and the system-rigging Democrats. And Democrats are now powerless to stop such a spectacle. This is ground Trump wants to fight on.
Alternately, convene the trial, the Senate will not convict in record kangaroo court time, leaving Trump “exonerated,” free from Russia and obstruction. This will raise more fervor in his base, improve support among the less committed and demoralize opponents. This is ground Trump wants to fight on.
The Best Road
The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive; not on the chance of not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable. (Ch. 8)
We cannot hope impeachment removes Trump, we must be certain of it before taking the step. Progressives feel we should prevail, because our weakness is a belief that simply explaining a thing will convince others to act. Or we will impeach on faith that the statement should be made, in spite little chance of success.
For Speaker Pelosi, there are far too many and likely ways impeachment along the current Mueller lines will cost us ground against Trump, or at best, risk much and gain nothing.
Impeachment would express righteous anger and make us feel bonded together as strong progressives in response to our powerless years. But do we want to feel better today or defeat Trump tomorrow?
Eric Hensal is a progressive strategist based in Washington DC. His A Progressive Art of War, with commentary connecting the text to modern activism, is available on Amazon. He is best known for the Murray Hill Incorporated for Congress campaign launched in 2010 in response to Citizens United.