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The Mixed Martial Philosophy of Donald J. Trump

A look at the 45th President's obsession with Sun Tzu and 'The Art of War.'

Donald Trump puts up his dukes for the crowd after speaking during the Presidential Inauguration today. Photo by Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY

Is Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the United States, a closet martial artist? He's certainly a patron of mixed martial arts and boxing, his favorite film is Bloodsport (watched on fast forward), and he makes Shaolin iron-palm hand gestures whenever he addresses a crowd. Trump… a martial artist? Gimme a break. Trump doesn't roll, he rips off. Trump doesn't grapple, he gropes. So sad, as The Donald himself might say. Yet even he would have to admit he wouldn't last 5 seconds in a cage with Chuck Norris and even Trump knows that there's a big difference between fighting and deal making.


But while Trump might not be a martial artist, a striker or a grappler, he is definitely a "martialist," someone who understands the Way (always with a capital W) of the warrior and applied much of the principles and philosophy of the Way to his own business and political career.

But hang on. Is the bizarrely coiffed erstwhile property tycoon and reality TV star, from now on the leader of the free world, a mixed martial philosopher? Think again. Forget the hairstyle, the louche reputation and the nightly flow of Tweeted insults. Could he be a secret disciple of the immortal Sun Tzu?

Sun Tzu (544-496 BC) was a Chinese general and philosopher. His great work, The Art of War, has provided advice on tactics, managing troops, terrain, and employing deception and trickery for 2000 years. Beyond the battlefield, this manual gained uncanny prominence in the 1980s as a guide to fighting for power. Indeed, it became indispensable to that decade's upthrusters in business and politics -- among them a wildly aspirant tycoon busily buying up and tearing down properties all over New York and publishing his celebration of it, The Art of the Deal by Donald J. Trump. Now it turns out that it was ghost written but, hey, isn't that a cunning deception straight out of Sun Tzu?

Trump's admiration for Sun Tzu goes way back. In his 2007 book, Trump 101: The Way to Success, the billionaire turned politician recommends Sun Tzu as one of the best books on leadership. And in 2010's Think Like a Champion, Trump weighed up Machiavelli and Sun Tzu.


"One book that I would suggest to you, because it is valuable for business and managerial strategies, is The Art of War by Sun Tzu. It may sound like an unusual business school recommendation, but believe me, it isn't. It's valuable and worth your time. By comparison, another famed book is Machiavelli's The Prince, which is more about political conflict and qualities necessary for leadership than war or business, but its emphasis on power becomes a negative factor. Ethics and integrity seem to get lost somewhere in the shuffle, and therefore the word Machiavellian has become a pejorative term. It's a better use of your time to read The Art of War."

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Trump is certainly a fan of Sun Tzu. Much more than We the People realize. Recently, he has quoted the 6th Century B.C. treatise three times on Twitter here, here and here. Members of his cabinet are disciples too. Trump has nominated General James "Mad Dog" Mattis, a Sun Tzu quoting jarhead, to serve as his Defense Secretary. "The Marine Corps," said Mattis approvingly, "has always been more Eastern-oriented. I am much more comfortable with Sun Tzu and his approach to warfare."

Was even the title of Trump's first book, The Art of the Deal, ("the best-selling business book of all time"), a homage to Sun Tzu? Quite possibly. Unless it was Trump's ghostwriter, journalist Tony Schwartz, who gave it that particular touch of ancient class. But how much does the public life, career and philosophy of Donald J. Trump really mirror the teachings of Sun Tzu? Here are some examples of note.


Sun Tzu believed that "all warfare is based on deception." So does Trump. He calls it "truthful hyperbole." "I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular."

Sun Tzu's advice was to avoid conflict whenever possible: "Ultimate excellence lies not in winning every battle, but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting." It is a belief firmly shared by the new President: "Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war."

But avoiding conflict is something that our new Prez has doing since 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive. Despite being 6 feet 3 inches and playing football, tennis and squash at University, the Trumpinator famously avoided the draft during the Vietnam War. His fifth and final deferment for military service was for "bone spurs in his heels". Fortunately, for Trump, such princely infirmities were covered in The Art of War. "Appear weak when you are strong," said Sun Tzu, "and strong when you are weak."

What makes a rich kid draft dodger go on to be an unstoppable winner in the big wide world? This quote from Sun Tzu sums up Trump's achievement so far. "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle." Trump knows his enemies but his enemies don't seem to know him, and, what's more, they don't appear to know how to deal with him. Maybe they need to take a crash refresher in Sun Tzu.


Photo by Porter Binks-USA TODAY

Meanwhile, don't try to argue with Trump. His counter-measures are straight out of Sun Tzu's book. "If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected."

Admittedly, Trump's apparent inability to read a book whole and entire, as famously noted by ghostwriter Tony Schwartz, makes him an unlikely student of an ancient Chinese philosopher. But think of those Shaolin type hand gestures, is that index finger nuclear tipped or is The Donald merely working up to a heart palm strike on a smug journalist from the elite press?

Now Trump is following the Way of the warrior as a warrior proper, not as a mere Wall Street version. Time and time again, the businessman outsider applied the cunning of Sun Tzu and won. What's more, he's gone one further than Sun Tzu. The Chinese philosopher was only a mere general. Trump is now the Commander-In-Chief of the most powerful military force in the world. Could he have gotten there without the fortune cookie philosophy? Perhaps. Will he be referring to Sun Tzu in times of crises? You betcha!

For Trump, the real Art of the Deal was the Presidency for the Steal. Forget Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho; forget Machiavelli's Prince; Trump is a Sun Tzu warrior, with finishing touches of Friedrich Nietzsche's Übermensch and George Orwell's Big Brother. The real deal. But us dunderheaded fight fans need not worry about the prospect of impending dystopia. Trump is the first real President to be an investor in MMA, and though he might declare martial law, or do something equally scary down the line, he will never ban the fights. Or start World War Three (because that would get in the way of the fights, you see). This will be an interesting presidency for voters, fellow disciples of Sun Tzu and MMA fans everywhere. You have been warned.