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Trump Needs To Reread His Machiavelli

Renaissance politico Niccolo Machiavelli advised rulers to not delegate decisions to advisers, the way Donald Trump says he will.


Sometimes, even Donald Trump loses.

In Wednesday’s Republican primary debate on CNN, radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt pressed presidential contender Donald Trump on foreign policy. Hewitt tried to get Trump to identify specific principles or advisers that would guide his international conduct as president. Here is how Trump responded:

Okay. So I will say this, though, Hugh was giving me name after name, Arab name, Arab name, and there are few people anywhere, anywhere that would have known those names. I think he was reading them off a sheet.

And frankly I will have — and I told him, I will have the finest team that anybody has put together and we will solve a lot of problems.

You know, right now they know a lot and look at what is happening. The world is blowing up around us. We will have great teams and great people.

Trump’s comments referenced his September 3 interview on Hewitt’s show, in which Hewitt asked Trump about key players in the Middle East. The transcript (or, better yet, the audio) speaks for itself:

HH: Are you familiar with General Soleimani?

DT: Yes, but go ahead, give me a little, go ahead, tell me.

HH: He runs the Quds Forces.

DT: Yes, okay, right.

HH: Do you expect his behavior…

DT: The Kurds, by the way, have been horribly mistreated by …

HH: No, not the Kurds, the Quds Forces, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Forces.

DT: Yes, yes.

HH: …is the bad guys.

DT: Right.

HH: Do you expect his behavior to change as a result…

DT: Oh, I thought you said Kurds, Kurds.

HH: No, Quds.

DT: Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you said Kurds, because I think the Kurds have been poorly treated by us, Hugh. Go ahead.

In the same interview, Trump accused Hewitt of asking a “gotcha question.” He also promised that, as president, he would “know more about [foreign policy] than you will ever know,” and—presaging his debate response—would delegate the responsibility for knowing whatever he didn’t know to the best people: “I think what is really important is to pick out, and this is something I’m so good at, to pick out who is going to be the best person to represent us militarily, because we have some great people, militarily. I don’t know that we’re using them.”

How to Choose Advisers

Whether Hewitt’s questions were unfair—Hewitt thinks not, while Trump took to calling him a “third-rate radio announcer”—Trump ought to be wary of excessive delegation to advisers. In fact, he ought to know better. According to presidential historian Tevi Troy, Trump recommended in his book “Trump 101” that aspiring leaders read Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”

Don’t let your preconceived notions of Machiavelli—or of Trump—mislead you: “The Prince” is a great book, full of profound advice. Trump is wise to recommend it. But he might need to reread it—specifically, “Chapter XXIII: How Flatterers Should Be Avoided.” In this chapter, Machiavelli describes the necessary balancing act a leader must execute when choosing and consulting with advisers: If they know too little, then they will only ever agree with their superior; if they know too much, they will take advantage of him and take control of decision-making. “Therefore,” Machiavelli advised,

a wise prince ought to hold a third course by choosing the wise men in his state, and giving to them only the liberty of speaking the truth to him, and then only of those things of which he inquires, and of none others; but he ought to question them upon everything, and listen to their opinions, and afterwards form his own conclusions. With these councillors, separately and collectively, he ought to carry himself in such a way that each of them should know that, the more freely he shall speak, the more he shall be preferred; outside of these, he should listen to no one, pursue the thing resolved on, and be steadfast in his resolutions. He who does otherwise is either overthrown by flatterers, or is so often changed by varying opinions that he falls into contempt.

Because of these dangers, a leader must not rely totally on his advisers for knowledge in a specific situation, but come in with preexisting knowledge. He must also consult them only when he wishes, not when they do, and strictly concerning the situation at hand:

A prince, therefore, ought always to take counsel, but only when he wishes and not when others wish; he ought rather to discourage everyone from offering advice unless he asks it; but, however, he ought to be a constant inquirer, and afterwards a patient listener concerning the things of which he inquired; also, on learning that anyone, on any consideration, has not told him the truth, he should let his anger be felt.

And if there are some who think that a prince who conveys an impression of his wisdom is not so through his own ability, but through the good advisers that he has around him, beyond doubt they are deceived, because this is an axiom which never fails: that a prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice, unless by chance he has yielded his affairs entirely to one person who happens to be a very prudent man. In this case indeed he may be well governed, but it would not be for long, because such a governor would in a short time take away his state from him.

There is, however, another possibility. According to National Review Online’s John Fund, Trump’s secretary once confessed, “I’ve kept my job this long by knowing I must never bring him bad news.” Such unwillingness to tolerate negativity suggests that a President Trump might surround himself not with those who could somehow outsmart him—for how could the Donald allow anyone to outsmart him?—but rather with those who would only flatter him. Neither possibility bodes well for a Trump administration.