It’s common to describe ruthless or devious politicians as “Machiavellian.” But rarely in the United States have we seen an embodiment of the traits Machiavelli admired quite like Donald Trump, the president-elect.
Go down the list of Trump’s controversial characteristics and you will find many of the qualities the cynical Machiavelli thought were essential for a tough leader. Trump can be a liar, which the Florentine philosopher believed was sometimes a necessary part of leadership. He can be a bully, like some of the Italian potentates Machiavelli lauded. He has boasted of a voracious sexual appetite, like Machiavelli himself.
To say that Trump displays attributes that Machiavelli deemed necessary in the fractious, perpetually warring states of the 16th century is not to recommend him as a modern leader. Nobody would want a neo-feudal dictator to lead a 21st-century democracy, you might think. But the American public voted Tuesday for Trump, perhaps in part because it shares Machiavelli’s concept of strength, or as he liked to call it, “virtue.”
I came to my interest in Machiavelli in a somewhat unusual way: I wrote the libretto for an opera about him, composed by Mohammed Fairouz, which will premiere in March at the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam.
One thing I discovered in the process was that Machiavelli mocked the version of “political correctness” of his day. He thought most advice manuals for princes were nonsense, in calling for saintly goodness rather than strength. For Machiavelli, leadership was about the decisive exercise of power, not about morality. The prince’s task was to create a strong state, not necessarily a “good” one.
“Everyone knows how laudable it is for a prince to keep his word and live with integrity instead of by trickery. But the experience of our own time shows us that the princes who have accomplished great things are those who cared little for keeping faith with the people, and who used cleverness to befuddle the minds of men,” he wrote in “The Prince.”
The leader’s responsibility was to see the world as it truly was, not as a morality play: “A man who wishes to always do good will surely be ruined among so many who are not good. Thus it is necessary for a prince wishing to retain power to learn how not to be good, employing this art or not according to need.”
Trump’s hunger for public affirmation might have worried Machiavelli. Leaders inevitably want to be both feared and loved, but Machiavelli famously warned that if they have to choose, “it is far safer to be feared.”
Machiavelli’s model of a virtuous leader was Cesare Borgia, who in most historical accounts comes across as a bloodthirsty and rapacious military commander. But Machiavelli thought those qualities allowed Borgia to govern decisively. “Cesare Borgia was considered cruel, yet his cruelty brought an end to the disorders in the Romagna, uniting it in peace and loyalty,” he explained.
Machiavelli had a chip on his shoulder, politically. He had served as a senior adviser to the republican government that briefly ruled Florence after the Medici dynasty was toppled in 1494. This experiment briefly empowered the fanatical monk, Savonarola. When the Medici regained power in 1512, a cash-strapped Machiavelli tried desperately to gain their confidence. He actually wrote “The Prince” to curry favor with the Medici, but they spurned it. His masterpiece wasn’t published until 1532, five years after his death.
Machiavelli’s free-wheeling sex life contributed to what was, bizarrely, his greatest renown later in life. He became celebrated as the author of sex farces, including one called “The Mandrake,” about a randy old man’s misadventures with a Florentine herbal version of Viagra.
In an excellent 2011 biography, Miles J. Unger writes that Machiavelli’s personal insecurities help explain his deep cynicism: “Disappointed in his hopes, burning with unfulfilled ambition, he wrote a pugnacious work that makes a fetish of strength and oozes contempt for anything that smacks of weakness or vacillation.”
We live in a world in which Machiavellian personalities — ruthless leaders with a cynical view of human nature — seem increasingly dominant. Atop the world stage these days are autocratic tough guys, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Trump may be tempted to take his place beside them on the rostrum. But when he takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, he will represent a democracy whose Constitution and Bill of Rights remain the hope of the world.