clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Donald Trump, Uber and the Viet Cong have something in common — they are all asymmetric warriors

They have disrupted traditional industries with strategies and tactics heretofore unknown and unimagined — even unimaginable — by traditional warriors.

Alex Wong / Getty

A lot of people are calling Donald Trump a lot of things.

President. Liar. Hero. Crook.

What we can all agree on is that he is America’s first modern asymmetric warrior president.

That’s not a criticism. Nor a compliment. It’s simply a fact.

It’s what he has in common with Airbnb and Uber, Instagram and YouTube, Kim Kardashian-West and Kylie Jenner. They are all asymmetric warriors, disrupting traditional industries with strategies and tactics heretofore unknown and unimagined — even unimaginable — by traditional warriors.

We have had asymmetric warfare since the first caveman crafted a spear to defeat stronger, faster, bigger-fanged enemies. From time immemorial, under-resourced foes have devised new strategies and tactics which defy norms (and often laws) to build advantage from weakness.

Historically, larger institutions, despite their myriad advantages, have struggled to deal with asymmetric foes. The nature of their size, stature, staffing and status lead to the implementation of process, procedure, rules and regulations which make adapting to these insurgents difficult. Think the warriors of the American Revolution. Think the Viet Cong. A big established army marches in formation; young, scrappy and hungry troops break rules and create new norms, shocking the enemy.

The difference today is that technology and the fragmentation of media have accelerated the pace and broadened the range of battlegrounds on which asymmetric warfare can be waged.

That is literally the case with Al Qaeda and ISIS, which have taken advantage of modern communication and financial instruments to organize and fund terror campaigns globally.

It is figuratively the case with Uber and Lyft, which have flouted laws to build massive global companies and undermined taxi and black-car businesses in the process, while fostering the growth of the gig economy and creating new services that millions of people around the world rely on daily. The very nature of employment and transportation have changed because of these businesses.

You can’t open a newspaper (or more likely a news app on a phone) without seeing another article about the death rattle of brick-and-mortar retail. Sears shutting down stores. Macy’s in a tailspin. On exiting the extraordinary business that he led to enormous success, visionary J. Crew CEO Mickey Drexler said, “I’ve never seen the speed of change as it is today. If I could go back 10 years, I might have done some things earlier.”

Meanwhile, the artist Donald Robertson (an asymmetric warrior himself — just follow him on Instagram) has stopped calling the Kardashian-Jenners, Jeffree Stars and Lilly Singhs of the world “influencers” and has started calling them “retailers.” They are building massive new businesses from the tools of the internet along with open-sourced product development and distribution networks while traditional rivals are captive to the innovator’s dilemma, petrified by the prospect of cannibalizing their own businesses and, for public companies, frozen by the need to show quarterly growth.

It is happening in media, as well. Roughly 40 years ago, cable companies emerged, delivering not only programming bundles to viewers at efficient prices, but generating a second reliable revenue stream for TV networks. At its height, ESPN had more than 100 million cable subscribers paying roughly $7 a month for their networks. But insurgents have created new options for the attention economy — as YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat grab share with new business models, ESPN is down to 88 million subscribers — still a massive number, but that nets out to a billion dollars in yearly revenue down the drain.

A billion.

In the very same time frame, more than three-quarters of every advertising dollar migrating to the internet has gone to two companies (Google and Facebook). For decades, luxury advertisers had to be in Vogue magazine. They had no choice. Today, the French billionaire and chair of Gucci’s parent company Francois-Henri Pinault is acknowledging, “If we were to launch a brand today, all the communication to start would be online.” Maybe spending with Vogue. But maybe not.

Which brings us to politics. Barack Obama was an evolutionary campaigner. He raised more money, organized more support and spread his message more efficiently using the new systems made available by high-speed internet than anyone in history because he got the power of those new systems right as they emerged.

Donald Trump is revolutionary in that he not only has evolved the use of those same tools, but because he has flouted the rules of engagement. Trump has been engaged in asymmetric warfare from the very beginning. His detractors detest him for it. His supporters relish it.

We see it in how he governs. He declares for reelection within days of assuming office. He opens the White House press corps to blatant propagandists. He credits the fired FBI director when it suits him, disparages him when it doesn’t, and refers to any media report that doesn’t fit his narrative as “fake news.”

Why? Well, why not? Traditionalists wag tongues. Trump cackles and holds rallies. Asymmetrically.

Like asymmetric warriors throughout history, Trump doesn’t give a whit about the institutions at work or the normal rules of engagement. He has thereby created advantage from disadvantage. It’s not just the Democrats who are caught flat-footed. The establishment GOP candidates who had all the right credentials, funders and staffing got their clocks cleaned because they failed to adapt to the changing landscape (See, for example, Jeb Bush).

To be clear, being an asymmetric warrior does not guarantee long-term success. We are seeing that with Trump and Uber in real time. That said, betting on execution risk when the consequences for the Republic are this massive is a risky play, particularly when Trump is deploying historically devastatingly effective strategy.

In “The Art of War,” Sun Tzu wrote:

“Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out victory in relation to the foe who he [or she] is facing. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.”

Those words were written in the fifth century B.C. They have never been truer than they are today.

If we have learned anything from Donald Trump, it is that no industry or institution is immune. No one can stand their ground while it shifts beneath their feet. Past is prologue. Only those who can adapt quickly will survive, much less thrive, in the new world order.

Most of these legacy entities (from the Democratic and Republican parties to Fortune 500 companies) are built as luxury liners. Increasingly, they are heading for icebergs. They need to become more like their competition — flotillas of speedboats, nimble, agile and opportunistic. ASAP.

Jeff Berman is president of Whalerock Industries, a media and technology company based in West Hollywood. Before joining Whalerock, Berman was the general manager of digital media at the NFL. He previously held a series of positions at Myspace, ultimately serving as president of sales and marketing. He also served on the board of Buddy Media (acquired by Salesforce) and as an adviser to a broad range of companies. Prior to entering the media space, Berman served as chief counsel to U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer, and as a public defender representing children charged in the District of Columbia's adult criminal courts. He also held an adjunct professorship at the Georgetown University Law Center. Reach him @bermanjeff.

This article originally appeared on