As the press repeats ad nauseam, the major party choices are between the most disliked and the second-most-disliked candidate ever to run for president, or at least since 1884. The main problem with both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is that nobody trusts them. Some of their other faults—like his tone-deafness, her pandering, his lack of discipline, her terrible speech delivery, his tactlessness, her flip-flopping—are completely overshadowed by their non-stop lying.
Unless you vote for a third party, you will most likely be voting for somebody you don’t love or trust. As Matthew Dowd, a former George W. Bush strategist, put it recently in The New York Times: “It’s like two villains from a Batman movie are running against each other and voters say, ‘I’m going to go with the one who isn’t the crazy Joker.”
To choose between Trump and Clinton is to be forced to consider the various merits of non-virtues in leaders provided by Niccoló Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” When the people must decide between two such loathsome candidates, we have truly entered the Age of Machiavelli.
Caught Between Courtiers and the Masses
Pragmatists will argue politicians have always misled the people way before the Florentine put pen to parchment to advise a Medici prince in the early 1530s. The more literal-minded will argue Machiavelli’s advice cannot possibly benefit the chief executive of a modern republic.
Yet even they cannot help but admit the presidency has become increasingly powerful, and does hold many of the powers Machiavelli attributes to the monarchic prince. Machiavelli announces rules that would not apply to hereditary rulers from established lines. The old ruler could afford to embrace gentleness. The new ruler must be swift in punishment, and offensive in war: “Injuries must be afflicted all at once, so as not to have to repeat them every day,” he writes in Chapter VIII, “Of those who have become princes through wickedness.”
The princes Machiavelli had in mind were not elected, but they were powerful because they had the support and trust of the people, like the emperors of Rome he references often. The popular consensus of civilians partly enables the prince to hold his petty aristocratic antagonists in check.
Aside from the military—the backbone of any sovereign state—the other factor that provides for a secure state is to keep the nobles in continual enmity. To keep them at bay and at each other’s throats, the prince may lie to aristocrats outright, mislead them, or away with them.
One of my favorite examples: Agathocles the Sicilian, a potter’s son who became no less than King of Syracuse. “One morning he called together the people and the senate of Syracuse as if he were going to discuss some matters concerning the republic. At a prearranged signal he had his troops kill all the senators and the richest citizens; and when they were dead he seized and held the rule of the city without any opposition from the citizenry.” Over and over, Machiavelli juxtaposes the cruelty of the successful ruler toward aristocrats against his loyalty to his commoner subjects.
This invites comparisons with Trump, whom the so-called establishment loathes. He says things that are wicked and offensive, and the public loves it because in a sense he is doing as the King of Syracuse: rounding up the patricians for punishment. We can only fantasize about what he might do should he ride into Rome right under his newly erected, gilded triumphal arch. People who think of Trump as completely anomalous should attempt to strain their short-term memories to Barack Obama’s harnessing of resentment toward the “establishment” and his iconography of Styrofoam columns. Trump captures the anger and resentment toward what Machiavelli calls the “stato di pochi,” literally the “state of the few,” referring to oligarchy.
When Cruelty Is a Virtue
When my friends argue about whose candidate is more worthy of the frozen circle of Dante’s Cocytus than the Oval Office, it always comes down to: you may hate my candidate, but he or she will fight for things that will serve you better. You’ll see! This utterly Machiavellian approach requires us to turn to specifics in “The Prince” to choose not the lesser of two evils, but the more effective evil.
One of Machiavelli’s favorite political figures is the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, who “never did anything else, nor thought of anything else, than to deceive men, and he always found someone to whom he could do this” and his son Cesare Borgia, whom “I shall never hesitate to cite.” This isn’t a bad thing for Machiavelli if the result is greater security for the ruled.
In an example of his machinations, Roderic Borgia lures the King of France into Italy to “throw the Italian states into turmoil.” He deceives his adversaries into a reconciliation then “into his clutches” to finally wipe them out. In Romagna, he appoints a “cruel and unscrupulous man” to break the backs of corrupt, small-time rulers. When he has disposed with his services, “one morning at Cesena he had Remirro’s body laid out in two pieces on the piazza, with a block of wood and a bloody sword beside it. The ferocity of such a spectacle left that population satisfied and stupefied at the same time.”
These actions speak to Machiavelli’s notion of “inhuman cruelty” as a “virtue” when it results in the greater good. Machiavelli has no problem “throwing somebody under the bus,” in modern parlance. More important, as the example he provides of Remirro’s fate, the people must be appeased through punishing the aristocrats or the foreman who executes the evil deeds.
Let’s contrast this with the botched spectacle of Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s ousting. Rather than a ritual repudiation, the Democratic National Committee chair was not even immediately forced out of office, but allowed to plead her case to continue. Rather than follow through on the public shaming the Bernie Sanders crowd craved and that would reestablish some public credibility for Democratic Party leadership, Obama praised her work and Clinton immediately hired her.
The problem here is that Obama is not Machiavellian enough to realize that the loyalty of the people is worth more than that of the DNC chair. Likewise, Clinton acted with contempt for the people rather than ruthlessness toward her accomplice. In an analogous situation, however, Machiavelli applauds the King of France because “a prince must respect the nobles but not make himself hated by the people.”
You’re Not Marrying Your President
Machiavelli distinguishes between the “effectual truth,” which “it seemed more suitable for me to search after” than “its imagined one.” He has history on his side to show that leaders should not be held to the same standards as Socrates’ noble philosopher kings, so for him it isn’t so much a turn to cynicism as a recognition of a different paradigm.
Before Machiavelli, the rhetoricians Cicero and Quintilian influenced how we thought about politics and politicking for a long time. There was an indissoluble connection between a leader telling the truth, being virtuous, and governing justly. A politician who corrupted the truth in his speeches to the public was not just a poor orator, but lacked virtue and therefore could not govern well. Machiavelli represents a dramatic change to this thinking, especially because he emphasizes the difference between qualities that are necessary in a politician but unacceptable in our friends or family.
The most subversive contribution of Machiavelli to ideas of governance was his distinction between honestum, which in Latin translates as honesty or virtue, and utile, the useful and beneficial. Truthfulness is, according to Machiavelli, not at all a quality rulers must have, nor are most of the virtues that we associate with a just ruler.
For Machiavelli, vice and virtue are not easily recognizable polar opposites. They are relative categories for rulers, as opposed to regular people. He gives examples of Roman emperors and other rulers who were principled, peace-loving, and honest, but who were bad leaders because they jeopardized the security of the people.
Consider the case of that wicked Borgia pope himself, whom Machiavelli praises. Yet 200 years earlier, Dante had put Guido da Montefeltro deep in hell for doing many of the exact same things as the Borgia pope would later do, down to the details.
Perhaps leaders need to have many vices. Think of Jimmy Carter, whom most people, aside from those truly blinded by partisan loyalty, will acknowledge was probably too principled to be an effective president. Likewise, Obama, who has been as scandal-free as any president, stumbled in his first years. He believed he could transcend politics and bring Democrats and Republicans together in contrast with the nasty tried and true methods of the Clintons in the 1990s.
Although Machiavelli acknowledges that virtue becomes a ruler, nevertheless he states unequivocally that “A man who wishes to profess goodness at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not good. Therefore, it is necessary for a prince who wishes to maintain himself to learn how not to be good…” Learn not to be good? Already we see how Trump and Clinton might be well-suited to rule, the wicked shepherding the good.
Learn Not to Be Good (They’ve At Least Got That Down)
If we consider some of the other vices, such as miserliness versus generosity, the paradox of Machiavelli’s logic comes into even sharper focus. One would think it befits a ruler to be generous with his allies and servants. But Machiavelli prefers a ruler who keeps his hands off people’s property. Indeed, it is far worse to steal than to kill, in his eyes.
Seen from this angle, Trump does not score well because he has a record of get-rich-quick schemes that could be considered stealing. Likewise, Clinton’s lucre, not stolen, but joyfully thrown at her by oligarchies at home and abroad, make the people intuitively feel as if something were stolen from them. She has used public office, bestowed to her by the people, to personally enrich herself and distribute figurative “I owe you’s” to parties other than those she was meant to represent.
Machiavelli’s examples show over and over that deceit toward other elites is acceptable, as is brutalizing them. Few Trump loyalists probably minded his feuds with folks like House Speaker Paul Ryan or Sen. John McCain. These seemed to be instances of Trump fighting the establishment and validating what the rest of us commoners saw so clearly.
On miserliness, Machiavelli writes, “In our times we have not seen great deeds accomplished except by those who were considered miserly” because these leaders do not rob their subjects. Trump is notoriously cheap. He has spent no money on television advertising, whereas Clinton spent the money she raised lavishly, extravagantly. Yes, the money was given freely by donors, but does it not suggest a cavalier disregard for other people’s money?
Trump is stingy with his own money and probably, based on the delay in donating money to the veterans’ fund and his unwillingness to disclose his taxes, also parsimonious in his charity. Machiavelli might compare Trump’s miserliness with that of the King of Spain, Ferdinand II of Aragón: “If he had been considered generous…[he] would not have engaged in or successfully carried out so many enterprises.”
In Short, Evil Has Gradations
Finally, there is the issue of impetuosity—one that would seem very hard to justify in a ruler, especially given how instantaneously technology can provoke the apocalypse. Even die-hard Trump supporters like my mother get upset every few weeks when he veers off-message into pettiness and vindictiveness. “I have to turn him off the television for a week before I can bring myself to forgive him,” she said to me. Her girlfriends concurred.
Trump is as reckless and self-destructive as anybody I have ever seen in the public eye. It’s not his tough stance on immigration or caution about Islam, but perhaps his impetuosity that disturbs people. In judging the relative merits of consistency versus impetuosity, Machiavelli concludes, “it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because Fortune is a woman, and if you want to keep her under it is necessary to beat her and force her down. It is clear that she more often allows herself to be won over by impetuous men than by those who proceed coldly.”
Now there’s a quote Trump would savor, both for its substance and style. It ratifies his idea that our enemies will never know the next move. His appeal to less cautious, more ferocious, actions are Machiavelli’s mark of an effective ruler.
This contrasts with Clinton’s focus group-tested attempts at consistency. She is equally changeable, but does not seem impetuous. Rather, she is consistently beholden to whatever may get her into office—be it Saudi princes or Bernie progressives or Republican billionaires. Flip-flopping is not impetuous, nor is pandering; rather, it is calculating, and of course Clinton is consistent in her scheming if nothing else.
If we take a deep breath and read our Machiavelli, so many of the values we hold dear show up in a different light and virtue and vice become relative categories. This won’t appeal to the fundamentalist moralist in most of us. However, the naughty Florentine with the little glass eye may sharpen our lens to parse the nuances of vice: lying (lying to whom? For whose sake?), miserliness (maybe it’s a good thing?), impetuosity (strategy or a liability?), and ruthlessness (does it bring about the end of the republic or the conquest of our enemies?).