saul alinsky
© AP PhotoSaul Alinsky, a professional organizer with a strong aversion to welfare programs, is pictured on a street on Chicago's south side where he organized the Woodlawn area to battle slum conditions on Feb. 16, 1966. He was opposed to the government war on poverty as a political welfare scheme. He said the poor must organize and help themselves.
When Ben Carson, in his speech at the Republican National Convention, drew attention to Hillary Clinton's tribute to the radical community organizer Saul Alinsky (1909-72), no eyebrows ascended. But when Carson went on to invoke Alinsky's admiration of Lucifer, and tie Clinton to that community organizer, the guffaws began in earnest.

"So are we willing," Carson asked, "to elect someone as president who has as their role model somebody who acknowledges Lucifer?"

Anyone who has actually read Alinsky, I believe, would have to take the question seriously. Alinsky's most famous book, the 1971 Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, includes a dedication to "the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom - Lucifer."

As for Clinton, there is no doubt that she was deeply impressed by Alinsky's work. In 1969, she wrote "'There Is Only the Fight ...': An Analysis of the Alinsky Model," a 92-page senior thesis at Wellesley College on the elder radical's tactics. At the Clintons' request, the thesis was embargoed until after they left the White House.

Readers hoping for evidence of wild-eyed revolutionary sentiment will be disappointed. It is plodding student work, admiring of Alinsky's goals while quietly taking exception to some his more extreme tactics.

Alinsky corresponded warmly with the young Clinton through the early 1970s. In 1969, he offered her a job. What did he see in her? For one thing, as he noted toward the end of Rules for Radicals, she had the right pedigree. In the coming decades, he noted, radical organizers will focus their attention on "America's white middle class. That is where the power is."

But Clinton, though flattered, decided to go to Yale Law School instead, because, she later recalled, she believed that "the system could be changed from within." She then interned at the left-wing California law firm of Treuhaft, Walker and Burnstein, which represented various Vietnam War protestors, the Black Panther Party and other radical organizations.

But what about Lucifer? From the perspective of orthodoxy, he is the embodiment of evil. But radicals from William Blake on down regarded him as an apostle of freedom, the ultimate anti-establishment figure whose Miltonic motto "better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n" has provided a rallying cry for generations of revolutionaries.

And a revolutionary was exactly what Alinsky was. He angrily rejected the label "communist." Like another of his acolytes, he aimed to "fundamentally transform the United States of America," but not by subjecting it to communist discipline. The most important words in his book's title are not "rules" or "radicals," but "pragmatic" and "realistic."

There was a sense in which he, like Clinton, sought to work within the system. "We will start with the system because there is no other place to start except political lunacy." But his goal, as he said again and again, was revolution. "My aim here is how to organize for power: how to get it and to use it" for the sake of revolution.

Rules for Radicals is a curious book. It is impressively literate, with apposite quotations from Lincoln, Shakespeare, Tom Paine, Tocqueville and others salted throughout the text. I particularly admired a quotation from Tocqueville that begins, "It must not be forgotten that it is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life." That, of course, is precisely what the intrusive regulatory state excels at.

But it would be a mistake to see Alinsky as an enemy of the regulatory state or as apostle of individual freedom. His pragmatism was cold, ruthless and thoroughgoing. He might employ the soothing rhetoric of individual freedom, but his unwavering goal was the acquisition and deployment of power.

It is in this Luciferian context, the worship of power, that his influence on Clinton is most patent.

One of the most eye-opening chapters of Rules for Radicals is given over to a meditation on means and ends. Does the end justify the means? That depends, Alinsky says. He then provides a chilling anatomy of that calculus that winds up justifying the use of any means provided that the desired end can be obtained.

He admiringly cites Lenin's observation that the Bolsheviks "stood for getting power through the ballot, but would reconsider after they got the guns."

Behind this calculating, amoral pragmatism is an utter contempt for the rule of law. As an example, Alinsky once suggested buying a block of 100 tickets for working-class blacks for a quiet classical concert by the Rochester Symphony. An hour or so beforehand he would feed them all a large dinner consisting of nothing but baked beans.

"The people would go to the symphony hall - with obvious consequences. Imagine the scene when the action began! The concert would be over before the first movement!" Among the things recommending this tactic, Alinsky explained, was its deviousness.

There would be "absolutely nothing here that the police department or the ushers or any other servants of the establishment could do about it. The law would be completely paralyzed."

This apparently surreal example brings us to an important point. Social life in a free society requires a certain slack. There are many things that we expect people to do (and not do) that fall outside the purview of the law. But a dedicated mischief maker, which is what an Alinskyite radical is, can frustrate the amplitudes of freedom by always pushing up against the limits of legal behavior.

What Burke called "the unbought grace of life" would soon be shattered as increasing taunts would call forth increasingly intrusive responses from the law.

The prime Alinskyite supposition is that "all life is partisan. There is no dispassionate objectivity." One might - in fact, one should - mouth various nostrums about the welfare of children, access to healthcare, etc.; one might rail against inequality, sexism, racism, homophobia, etc., but at the end of the day, politics was all about the acquisition of power and life was all about politics.

This seems to me to be an accurate epitome of the Clintons' modus operandi. It is not original to Alinsky, but he gave it a distinctively American twist. In his chapter on "tactics," he offers various practical tips that might have come straight out of the Clinton, or the Obama, playbook.

Rule No. 13: "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it ... All issues must be polarized if action is to follow." So if Bill forces himself on a Gennifer or Juanita, you avail yourself of this tactic by having James Carville appear on television scoffing that if you "drag a $100 bill through a trailer park, you never know what you'll find." Or consider the protracted abuse figures such as Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney were subjected to.

One of Alinsky's most potent rules is No. 4: "Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules." That included this: "You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian can live up to Christianity." Note the diction: Alinsky, like the Clintons, assumes he is dealing not with political opponents, people of good will who disagree about some aspect of a problem, but an enemy.

You do not seek to convince or persuade enemies. You seek to destroy them. The Left does not live up to its rules any more than does the Right, but the charge of hypocrisy always seems more pertinent when directed at the Right, primarily because the Left has been more expert in harnessing this Alinskyite tactic.

One last Alinsky tactic: A leader, he writes, "must assume that his cause is 100 percent positive and the opposition 100 percent negative." So, for example, when Clinton addressed an LGBT fundraiser two weeks ago, she infamously said that half of those who support Donald Trump belong in a "basket of deplorables." They were "racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it."

Writing off tens of millions of voters earned Clinton some portion of the obloquy she deserved, but as I think Glenn Reynolds was the first to point out, even more disturbing was her subsequent description of this vast population as "irredeemable" and "thankfully not America." Again, what do you do with people who are "irredeemable"?

If Clinton had been a Republican, the media would have made certain that those remarks were the end of her campaign. Consider what happened to Mitt Romney when he made the far more anodyne and truthful observation that 47 percent of workers were unlikely to respond favorably to his tax plan.

CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times and other outposts of the Democratic National Committee's press office worked overtime to hammer that nail into the coffin of his campaign.

At the end of the day, however, I think it has to be said that Clinton is an imperfect Alinskyite. Not only is she less adept tactically than President Obama, but her overall goal fails the Alinsky test.

In a famous passage near the beginning of Rules for Radicals, Alinsky writes that, "The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away."

The disturbing truth is that both Clintons have employed Alinsky's radical tactics not for the sake of the have-not's but in order to catapult themselves into the gilded ranks of the plutocratic haves.

They left the White House some $500,000 in debt. They now command a personal fortune estimated to be in excess of $200 million. How they did it is common knowledge, even if it goes largely unremarked by their enablers in the media.

One thing we can be sure of: Alinsky would not have been amused.