By Howard Green
The last days of Trump have come at last, heralding an inevitably vast amount of journalistic analysis. Trump has been criticised continually through his presidency from many angles by commentators across the media spectrum. Now, as we seek to understand the terrifying exceptionalism of the past four years, classical political thought has once again reared its head. In order to criticise Trump, many invoke writers who have become associated with a collective anxiety – Orwell, Kafka, and, most frustratingly, Machiavelli. Niccolò Machiavelli and his writings have been associated with despotism and evil ever since his works were placed in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum by the Catholic church. But to describe Trump as Machiavellian is a misunderstanding of the controversial but frustratingly correct political theorist who warned against tyrants like him.
Child of a moderate-income family in Florence, Machiavelli was born in 1469, into a climate of ambition and awareness. The Medici family ruled much of Florence until 1494, when the French invaded. The Medicis were exiled, but young Machiavelli had a knack for statesmanship, and became the Secretary of Florence in 1498. He held this post until the Medicis rose to power again in 1512 when the Florentine Republic collapsed. Niccolò was arrested, tortured and exiled by the Medicis. He eventually returned to governance after exile, but died soon after.
The jewel in Machiavelli’s crown of political thought is The Prince. Originally written in the early 1500s to the new princes of Florence, the book is an account of how to be a powerful leader, rather than a morally good leader. Machiavelli, still in exile and desperate to make himself useful to those who had cast him out, describes numerous ways in which a prince can maintain their power and further it, using historical and experiential accounts. With brutal honesty, Machiavelli separates the ethical dimension from the realm of politics, and rarely argues that what he is advising is justified by morality or by God.
The term Machiavellian, properly used, reflects this separation of morality from political pragmatism. However, it is often used lazily as a synonym of evil. It’s true that Trump is an individual who appears to be devoid of any ethics or morality, but that in itself does not make him a Machiavellian figure.
Trump also claims to be a patriot, but his patriotism is voided by his lack of respect for democratic institutions
One of the most important principles in Machiavellian thought is ‘virtù’. The Italian term is difficult to translate into English; it is similar to but distinct from what we know as ‘virtue’. Virtù for Machiavelli means the maintaining and furthering of the state by appearing good without necessarily having to be good. Machiavelli believes that political leaders can and should try to create a facade of being moral whilst doing something that is wicked, if it maintains power. From Machiavelli’s perspective, invading an oil-rich nation for its resources under the facade of humanitarian intervention or the spreading of democracy is a pretty smart move. This is the first reason not to call Trump ‘Machiavellian’: his actions are often completely transparent. Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad, a more traditionally manipulative tyrant, has argued that Trump was the ‘best US president’ from his enemies’ point of view because he was open about his desires to invade Arab nations for material purposes. Although Trump is chronically dishonest, he never dressed up his policies to meet the ethical standards of those around him, like so many of his predecessors did.
Machiavelli was a republican – his employment by the Florentine Republic made him so, but he also seems to have held a strong personal belief in the value of the republic. It’s strange to think that Machiavelli, labelled a traitor by the Medicis in power, wrote The Prince in order to advise the new ruling body on how to operate. The simple explanation is that Machiavelli was a patriot, and cared more about the welfare of Florence than his own. Trump also claims to be a patriot, but his patriotism is voided by his lack of respect for the democratic institutions that are so important to the American nation. His repeated attempts to override Congress and his refusal to accept a peaceful transfer of power mark his brand of patriotism as very different to Machiavelli’s.
In a 2016 Washington Post article, David Ignatius compares the biographical details of then-president-elect Trump with those of Machiavelli. Ignatius argues that Machiavelli spoke against the ‘political correctness’ of the 1500s just as Trump so frequently does over 500 years later. But this is an absurd equivalence. The ‘political correctness’ of 16th century Florence consisted in proscriptive religious rhetoric, and those who spoke against it outright risked death or other violent punishment. Equating that period of time with the modern age is playing into Trump’s narrative that political correctness is somehow oppressing the far-right. Equating Trump with Machiavelli is not only misleading, it actively contributes to the myth-making that Trump’s political career is based on.
Part of the beauty of The Prince is that Machiavelli’s intentions for the text remain uncertain. Yes, it was supposedly written as advice to his ruler, but could it have been intended as a threat? Machiavelli willingly spills the beans on what leaders think and what drives their actions. Was the decision to outlaw his writings motivated by the establishment’s fear of exposure? Jean-Jacques Rousseau put it best:
“This man has nothing to teach tyrants, they already know perfectly well what they must do. He is instructing people how to fear.”
Machiavelli is a revolutionary, and not just because he was a republican with atheistic tendencies in a time of religious monarchical rule. Dissenting subtexts run throughout The Prince; the book was originally titled ‘Of Principalities’, which suggests an intention more analytical than advisorial. He addresses who the book is meant for by saying “My intention is to write something useful to discerning minds” – not just the ruling class. Whatever his intentions were, with centuries of hindsight it is clear that the book fits better in the hands of the oppressed learning the means of their oppression than in those of the oppressors themselves.
So no, Trump is not Machiavellian. If the term is to have any legitimacy, it should be used cautiously. Yes, it is easy to draw similarities between the two men, especially now as Trump enters a political exile of his own. But to compare the harsh pragmatic principles of Machiavelli to the egocentric tendencies of Trump undermines a lot of important political thought. The spectre of The Prince continues to haunt modern politics, but its influence should not be looked for in the actions and words of Donald Trump.
Featured image credit: Project Gutenburg
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