On Machiavelli and contemporary political discourse.
Several anti-Trump conservatives, including Jonah Goldberg, William Kristol, Peter Wehner, along with several others, have maintained that Donald Trump will fail or be drummed out of office due to defects in his character. Mr. Trump lies, dissembles, exaggerates, mistreats subordinates, does not listen to advisors, dismisses critics, bullies or belittles opponents, and brags about his wealth—just for starters. Such attributes are most unflattering and self-destructive in an individual, more so in the President of the United States and the leader of the free world.
As Mr. Goldberg writes:
For a very long time now, I have been predicting that the Trump presidency will end poorly because character is destiny. I’ve said it so often, I occasionally need to be reminded that I didn’t coin the phrase. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus did when he observed “ethos anthropoi daimon,” most often translated as “man’s character is his fate.”
Some have quibbled as to whether or not this is an appropriate interpretation of the philosopher’s words, but that seems beside the point. Aristotle said much the same thing, as have other moral philosophers through the ages. Character is destiny, both in individuals and political leaders.
The problem with this proposition, at least as it applies to politics, is that Machiavelli destroyed it five hundred years ago in The Prince, and thereby laid the foundations for modern politics. This is not to say that Trump’s character and norm-breaking style are unimportant or irrelevant to his performance in office, but that the general proposition (“Character is destiny”) is generally false as applied to political life. Trump may fail, but most likely for reasons unrelated to his character.
Machiavelli wrote in The Prince that
many have dreamed up republics and principalities which in truth have never been known to exist. The gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done learns the way to self-destruction rather than self-preservation. The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among the many who are not virtuous. Therefore, if a prince wants to maintain his rule he must learn how not to be virtuous, and to make use of this or not according to need.
There are times when a prince, to preserve his rule, must lie, cheat, dissemble, flatter the mob, and even kill his rivals and enemies, while preserving the appearance of virtue, to the degree it is necessary.
Machiavelli said that a prince should seek to be both loved and feared, but if given a choice he is better off being feared. The prince must always be on guard against adversaries, and being feared is the best way to deter them. A wise prince must be prepared to take brutal steps against adversaries who might challenge his rule. In some cases, he is well advised to delegate that task to subordinates, thereby gaining the benefit of brutal suppression while avoiding blame for it. He tells the story of Cesare Borgia, who sent a deputy to pacify one of the cities under his jurisdiction, using brutal methods. Once the city was pacified, the prince judged that such methods were no longer useful. In due course, he had his subordinate murdered, with his body set out on the public square for all to see. In that way he achieved his ends, but escaped the blame for the methods needed to accomplish them.
Machiavelli taught that a prince must choose his advisors wisely, because he will be judged by their competence and he may be undone by their treachery. He advised his prince to beware of any deputy who thinks more of himself than of the prince: such a man can never be trusted. On the other hand, he advises the prince to flatter his deputies, promote and enrich them as best he can, for in that way their own fortunes are interconnected with his.
A wise prince, he said, must be partly a lion to scare off wolves, partly a fox to smell out traps. “Those who act simply like lions are stupid. And so it follows that a prudent ruler cannot, and should not, honor his word when it places him at a disadvantage and when the reasons for which he made his promise no longer exist.” But it is not to his advantage to gain a reputation as a liar or someone not to be trusted. He writes that “one must know how to color one’s actions and to be a great liar and deceiver.”
Machiavelli lamented that the weak condition of the Italian city-states in his time compared to the vast power of the Roman Empire at its peak. He suggested that such a collapse might have been due to the spread of Christian moral principles, which, however appropriate they may have been for individuals, were ineffective and out of place in the governing of states. For this reason he said that princes must be prepared to discard virtue for the greater glory of their principalities.
Machiavelli’s teaching was controversial in its time, but it was also influential. Shakespeare referred to him as “the evil Machiavel.” Shakespeare’s great tragedies are grounded upon the assumption that “character is destiny,” and that bad deeds unravel and lead to the undoing of their perpetrators. This is certainly true in Macbeth and Richard III, and to some extent in several other of his plays. Shakespeare even mentions Machiavelli here and there as a moral antagonist. In Henry VI, Part II, Richard III (here the Duke of Gloucester) says to himself, “I can add colors to the chameleon; change shapes with Proteus for advantages, and set the murderous Machiavel to school.” We know what later happened to that particular Duke, as the wages of a bad character eventually came due. On the other hand, Shakespeare draws his Prince Hal as something of a Machiavellian figure who disavows and discards poor Falstaff, his youthful drinking companion, when that association later turns out to be embarrassing and inconvenient for a king.
Edward Gibbon, in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, picked up on Machiavelli’s themes in attributing the fall of Rome partly to the spread of Christianity through the empire, with debilitating effects on Roman spirit and patriotism. That was one of the more influential themes that emanated from the Enlightenment—that Christian morality is not always compatible with the requirements of statecraft. Modern politics, following Machiavelli, rests upon a foundation of competing interests in recognition of the fact that, when push comes to shove, interests will trump morals.
James Madison wrote in The Federalist 10 that a modern state must be constructed on a foundation of interest, not of morality and virtue. Interest in the end is a more reliable foundation than virtue. In Federalist 10 he argued that his continental republic would be stable because the various interests comprising it would check one another, and thereby prevent any narrow interest from getting control of the whole. In Federalist 51, arguing for checks and balances within the government, he wrote the balance among the branches can only be preserved through a clash of interests. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected to the constitutional rights of the place.” Something more than parchment barriers was required to maintain the division among the branches of government. Madison proceeded to write in the same paper that “the policy of supplying by opposite and rival interests the defect of better motives might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public, . . . where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other; that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.” He sought to find a path to the public interest through a Machiavellian route.
The problem with Trump (or any other person in high office) is that it is hard to say what his character is, or where his unusual style ends and his character begins, or whether or not the various things he does actually reveal his character. If Trump’s character is his destiny, then it is hard to understand how he managed to come as far as he has through the ups and downs of a business career and now election to the highest office in the land. If we take his critics at their word, then Trump’s bad character should have taken him out of the business world and certainly out of the presidential race a long time ago. Bad character leads to a bad ending. His success up until now, far surpassing the achievements of most mortals, contradicts the proposition that “character is destiny,” unless one is prepared to say that there are important aspects of Trump’s character that produced to his success—a proposition that is worth pondering.
Trump may be in greater control of himself than his critics give him credit for. The president likes to pose as a tough guy who enjoys a good fight, but how much of that is real and how much of it is a pose designed to have an effect? We know that this is a piece of his well-known negotiating style: let’s scare them first, and then we’ll get a deal more to our liking. This may be true as well of his name-calling and his twittering: it’s all part of a style he has adopted to achieve the ends he seeks because he thinks the “nice guy” routine is stale and does not produce results. There are some who think that Trump is “trolling” America, and liberals in particular, in order to get under their skin, draw a reaction, throw them off balance, and provide entertainment for his supporters. If that is so, then he has certainly achieved that goal. But that implies that he is engaged in an act, a presentation of himself, rather than an expression of his character.
Trump ran against political correctness in the media, the universities, and the Washington establishment in general. In order to succeed in that campaign, he understood that he had to challenge political correctness in both speech and deed: he had to be politically incorrect himself. High-minded critiques and calls for civility were not going to do the job. Thus he gave us his comments about illegal immigrants coming across the southern border (drug dealers and rapists), Senator Warren (“Pocahontas”), Senator McCain (not a war hero), Jeb Bush (“low energy”), Hillary Clinton (“crooked Hillary”), and all the rest. He never relented and, better yet, never apologized, as most targets of political correctness are wont to do. Is that an aspect of his character (“He’s a mean guy!”) or is it a tactic designed to achieve some public purpose—in this case, to challenge political correctness? He has forced his critics to say that they want to restore a measure of civility in politics—and in that sense he has challenged them to begin practicing it first.
If all this is true, or even a little bit true, then it is unlikely that his “character” is going to bring him down, for the simple reason that he will know when he has gone too far, when he has to beat a retreat, and when it is in his interest to show a different side of himself. If Trump goes down in failure, it will more likely be due to a slowdown in the economy or to some misstep by the Federal Reserve Board, or to some international incident that he cannot handle, or in any case to events not related to his character. Why? Because Trump’s character, far from something that is hardwired internally and beyond his conscious control, may be a mask that he changes to suit the circumstances or his interests.
Is Trump perhaps, then, the ultimate Machiavellian, pretending to be a demagogue, a crude and tasteless public figure like many of our Hollywood celebrities, all for the purpose of achieving some large service on behalf of his country? That is also a possibility worth considering, in which case he would deserve to go down in history as one of the great actors of all time. In a strange way, Trump seems to know what he is doing, even if everyone else thinks he is unhinged or out of control. He also appears to be comfortable in his own skin, likewise a useful quality in a first-rate actor. After all, in a time when celebrity intersects closely with politics, it is possible to think that the Donald Trump we see on stage is not the real Donald Trump at all, but a public concoction made out both to satisfy and to confront the bizarre culture in which we live.
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