Machiavelli on Trump


Un principe che può fare ciò che vuole è pazzo — a prince who can do what he wants is crazy.”
(Niccoló Machiavelli)

This was one of the opening statements made by Stephen Holmes, an NYU Law professor who led a La Pietra Dialogue entitled “Machiavelli’s Advice to Citizens on How to Chose a Leader,” a continuation of the Fall dialogue series: Inside American Politics. Professor Holmes both addressed the potential reasons for the rise of Trump through a Machiavellian lens and applied Machiavellian ideas as suggestions on how to choose a leader. Holmes’ talk applied the 500 year old advice of Florentine political theorist Niccoló Machiavelli to the upcoming presidential election.

Nicolò Machiavelli worked as a diplomat for the Florentine Republic during the exile of the Medici family. Upon their return to power, Machiavelli was jailed and wrote The Prince, which described a ruthless and unforgiving method of political reign. The Prince established Machiavelli as the father of political theory and outlined the ruling dogma of what was eventually called Machiavellian politics.

Professor Holmes began with a brief introduction of the historical context from which Machiavelli emerged; an era of regime shift from the nation-state to a larger, centralized government. Similar to Machiavelli’s time, the contemporary political world is witnessing a massive shift in the balance of power. The potential collapse of the European Union and the re-alignment of the U.S.’s two-party system is casting doubt on the viability of current political relationships. Simultaneously, China’s rise on the global stage is threatening the hegemony of the ‘West’. Though Machiavelli’s advice may be old, it is still as relevant as ever.

Many citizens use their vote as an expression of anger and resentment, something Holmes’s son, he said, refers to as “middle finger voting”. Trump, Holmes argued, appeals to this emotional resentment in order to cast himself as a sort of protest candidate against the status quo. Trump harnesses this frustration and turns it against a fabricated “other”, in this case immigrants, Muslims, racial minorities, or women. This relates to a fundamental Machiavellian principle, which addresses the role of passion in political choice. Political competition, especially the winner take all system, is highly emotional. When constituents feel disillusioned with their political representatives, they begin to vote on their passions and not their politics.

Holmes then turned to “The Prince” to examine which candidate, according to Machiavelli,  citizens should choose as leader in the upcoming election. Here are two stand out pieces of advice:

The number of good advisors a candidate has is irrelevant if they are unprepared, their advice is useless if a leader does not understand the context of the situation.

Trump may arm himself with an arsenal of highly educated and informed advisors (a statement in itself worth investigating), but according to Machiavelli, this is irrelevant. If he doesn’t understand the political context of advice, and doesn’t have good judgement, the advice is effectively useless.

The people should chose a leader who “doesn’t get euphoric when they have good luck, but doesn’t get depressed when they have bad luck.”

The size of Trump’s ego, i.e his tendency to attribute successes in his business ventures (another statement worthy of further investigation) to his own personal merit  pose a lot of questions about his ability to stay level headed as a leader. Machiavelli insists that a leader must be thick-skinned and remain calm at all times in order to maintain peace while in power, qualities seemingly unknown to Trump.

According to Holmes, if we were to apply Machiavelli’s suggestions to the upcoming presidential election, Hillary Clinton would be the natural choice. However, the assumption that the American populace is familiar with the intricacies of The Prince is naive, and, in fact, it is the lack of awareness that has contributed to the rise of Trump as a candidate.

We now must wait until November 8th to see the extent to which the American public implements the advice of the father of political theory, or whether they will reject his teachings in a decision that would be sure to send shockwaves throughout the world.

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