In “Here’s what Machiavelli would have to say about the Republican primaries,” Alissa Ardito drew on the Florentine’s writings, especially “The Prince,” to evaluate several of the candidates for the Republican nomination. She found that even Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, the two she deemed to be the most Machiavellian, failed to abide by one or another of Machiavelli’s prescriptions.
To anyone who, like Trump, aspires to rise from private station to princedom, Machiavelli held up Cesare Borgia, the Duke of Valentino, as a model worthy of emulation. In his own words, “I do not know what better precepts to give a new prince than the example of his actions.”
Borgia was the illegitimate son of a cardinal, later Pope Alexander VI. He got his start in power when his father carved out a state for him out of the papal domains. Then the duke branched out on his own. Realizing that auxiliary troops made him dependent on the favors of others and that mercenaries were unreliable, he determined to wage war only with forces loyal to himself alone. He outfoxed his deadliest rivals, ambushing them and having them strangled. According to Machiavelli, he almost succeeded in his ambitious plans of conquering northern Italy but ran out of time, losing it all when his father died and was succeeded by a hostile pope, and Valentino’s own health gave out.
It wasn’t Borgia’s power moves alone that earned Machiavelli’s admiration, but two characteristics of the man. One was virtù, variously translated to mean such things as ability, competence, ingenuity or skill; audacity, boldness, courage, impetuosity, temerity or valor; drive, energy, ferocity, industriousness, spirit or strength. The other was prudenzia, which, again depending on context, is translated as cleverness, far-sightedness, intelligence, judgment, sagacity, shrewdness or wisdom.
Of all the candidates for president, Trump is the one most comparable to the Duke of Valentino. No previous president has been elevated to the White House without prior experience in elected office or attaining high rank in the military. In this sense, Trump can be said to lack legitimacy.
Yet, in a remarkable display of audacity, he entered the race with a big splash. He claimed that, as a billionaire, he wouldn’t need political contributions to finance his campaign and hence would not be beholden to well-heeled lobbyists. He spoke contemptuously of his rivals’ dependence on political consultants. He attacked the elites of both parties and the punditocracy and broke the rules of polite discourse, skewering sacred cows from right and left, hurling insults with calculated abandon.
For a platform, initially Trump offered almost nothing but pure bravado. For months on end he nearly monopolized media attention with clever manipulation of its hunger for the bizarre and the outrageous. And one by one, Trump ambushed his most important rivals in debates and news conferences and on Twitter, ridiculing and even character-assassinating some of them (and not only them — journalists and publishers, too), seemingly taking special pleasure in belittling Jeb Bush.
But bear in mind that the title of the last chapter of “The Prince” is “An Exhortation to Liberate Italy from the Barbarians.” In that chapter, the cynical Machiavelli turns into the romantic Machiavelli. If we take him at his word, it turns out that all along his teachings about how to accumulate power had a higher end in mind: to enable a great leader to emerge and bring about the unification and purification of what was then a divided and abused Italy.
Does Trump’s repeated promise to “make America great again” represent, as well, the more high-minded or romantic aspect of his Machiavellism?
So far, Trump has succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, perhaps even his own. But in the penultimate chapter of “The Prince,” Machiavelli ruefully observes that most political leaders do not adapt to changing circumstances. The impetuous do not turn prudent, nor do the cautious become adventurous as the situation requires. They keep doing what had succeeded in the past, even when the setting demands a very different approach, and thus come to ruin.
Which raises a second question: If what was inconceivable a few months ago were to come to pass, would a President Donald Trump act differently in the White House than he has on the stump?
Alfred G. Cuzán is a distinguished university professor at the University of West Florida. He is the author of “Fidel Castro: A Machiavellian Prince?”