“Art of War” and “Art of the Deal”: What Donald Trump has learned from Sun Tzu

He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain

As of this evening, billionaire real estate tycoon Donald Trump has decided not to participate in Thursday’s FoxNews debate. It will be the last debate before Iowa and will put Trump back in the crosshairs of FoxNews host Megyn Kelly (as well as other Fox personalities). You’ll remember that Kelly started the first debate with an attack on Trump’s perceived misogyny. The next day, Trump insinuated that Kelly was going after him because she was menstruating.  Suffice it to say, there’s no love lost between the two. Added to the mix this time is the fact that Trump is leading (though within the margin or error) in Iowa over Texas Senator Ted Cruz. The two have been engaging in a fairly savage war of words that has generally put Cruz on the defense.

Buoyed by the endorsements of Sarah Palin as well as Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Trump is in an excellent position to get his voters to their caucuses next week and win the first in the nation contest. A win in Iowa for Trump would give him massive amounts of momentum going into New Hampshire a week later where he is already leading his closest rival by double-digits. Trump is also benefiting from some brutal attacks from establishment Republicans (including the four-term Governor of Iowa) against Ted Cruz.

All-in-all, Donald Trump is peaking in Iowa at the perfect time.

But… there’s an obstacle: the FoxNews debate. “Back to where it all began” in a sense. But, this time, there’s six months of history of Trump going after Megyn Kelly and a ravenous Ted Cruz determined to attack Trump and reclaim his hold on Iowa. In effect, it’s a major variable.

Enter Sun Tzu, the brilliant 5th Century BC Chinese general and strategist: “He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.

The Thursday debate is a fight that Donald Trump would not win. For all the bravado, machismo, or Trumpiness you want to attribute to the billionaire, we have seen his evolution as a candidate (from a novelty to a sustained frontrunner). Thursday’s debate would be potentially catastrophic for Trump.

Here’s the scenario: Cruz rehabilitates his image, Trump and Kelly get into a vicious back-and-forth, Trump gets attacked by Cruz, Trump gets attacked by Rubio, Trump is on the defensive for hours. While being on the defensive isn’t the worst-case debate for Trump, it alters the battlefield at a time when Trump has the high ground. If Cruz successfully rebounds off of the defense and goes after Trump, we all know that the billionaire will jump down into the mud with Cruz. Cruz is the more skilled debater and we can assume that the fight will favor Cruz. (Sun Tzu: It is the rule in war, if ten times the enemy’s strength, surround them; if five times, attack them; if double, be able to divide them; if equal, engage them; if fewer, defend against them; if weaker, be able to avoid them.)

So, what does Trump do? (Sun Tzu: Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans) He decides not to engage. Ostensibly because of a, admittedly very very dumb, PR release from FoxNews that challenged Trump’s temperament, Trump will hold (possibly?) an event for “the troops” on the same night at the same time as the debate.

Let’s be clear: this is not Trump winning. Winning would be engaging and crushing his rivals and putting to rest any dissent from FoxNews. However, despite Trump’s myriad protestations and statements to the contrary, he’s not a great debater. He’s certainly gotten better, but he’s just not that skilled. But, what Trump is not doing is providing his rivals with new, live, on the fly, ammunition against him (Sun Tzu: To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself).

So, Trump has opted for a small loss instead of a potentially catastrophic failure. Again, with a lead and the high ground in Iowa, there was really no upside for Trump’s participation in the debate (if you’re cynical, you’d say he’s never planned to participate in the debate all along).

Thus, in the end, despite the gamble, perhaps Trump has adhered to Sun Tzu: If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.

Matt McDaniel

Attorney and Political Commentator

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