Although I’ve read with interest a decent portion of the how-to-explain-Trump commentary, it is only via Robert Zaretsky in the Los Angeles Review of Books that I’ve become aware of what you might call the “Machiavellian explanation”: “From the conservative Weekly Standard and Forbes to the liberal Huffington Post and Washington Post,” writes Zaretsky, “pundits tell us that The Prince explains The Donald’s success.” They cite his “proclivity to present lies as truths, his penchant to instill fear among both supporters and opponents, his push for power for the sake nothing other than power: all of these are traits seemingly drawn from Machiavelli’s little book.”
The key word in this sentence is “seemingly.” (How appropriate for Machiavelli, who was so attuned to the complex relationship between appearances and reality.) After all, as Zaretsky notes, these comparisons “give Trump too much credit and Machiavelli too little. While he may well be a Republican, Trump fails miserably at being a republican.” And Machiavelli was emphatically the latter. Thinking of Trump as a Machiavellian prince tells us little about Trump, and much more about the one-dimensional, caricatured understanding we have of Machiavelli.
This is somewhat discouraging, partly because—as Zaretsky goes on to note—the Florentine was actually one of the greatest writers on the qualities of an empowered citizenry, not just an effective prince. And yes, it’s easy to note the ways in which Trump fails as a Machiavellian prince: he lacks the polished dishonesty of, to take one example, Machiavelli’s contemporary Pope Alexander VI (“there has never been anyone,” observed Machiavelli, “who was more convincing when he swore an oath.”) He has none of the apparent moral qualities that Machiavelli advises princes to affect: “a ruler need not have all the positive qualities,” writes Machiavelli, “but he must seem to have them….He must seem, to those who listen to him and watch him, entirely pious, truthful, reliable, sympathetic, and religious.” Has Trump succeeded in appearing to have any of these qualities?
His current struggle to win over evangelical leaders calls to mind this memorable quip from last fall: “The Bible means a lot to me, but I don’t want to get into specifics.” This hardly fits with Machiavelli’s counsel—especially when it comes to appearing religious, about which he remarks: “There is no quality that it is more important he should seem to have than this last one.” This is only a sampling of the ways in which the oafish, distrusted GOP nominee is anything but a practiced Machiavellian ruler.
Less comfortable, perhaps, is an examination of the ways in which the public also falls short of Machiavelli’s ideal. “Machiavelli,” writes Zaretsky, “is even more severe with the republic’s citizens than its leaders.” Machiavelli was in many respects a populist; he expressed more faith in the reliability of a “well ordered” citizenry than in a wise individual leader. But his populism was demanding, and he worried constantly about the tendency of the public to fall into corruption—using the word not in today’s narrow sense, but rather to signal the erosion of public-spiritedness into preoccupation with private and personal concerns. If Trumpism is the result of a withered civic sphere, then his candidacy presents a grim reminder of Machiavelli’s warning: it is exceedingly difficult to maintain freedom among a corrupt people.
As Zaretsky suggests, evaluating Trump as a Machiavellian prince shows that we have done a poor job learning the Florentine’s lessons about rulers. Little surprise, then, that we also seem to have done a poor job learning his lessons on citizenry.