By Antonia Alksnis
Donald Trump claims that The Prince, Machiavelli’s infamously pragmatic handbook for tyrants, is one of his favorite books. The thing is, the historical Niccolò Machiavelli was quite a bit more complex than the exaggerated portrayal of his views in the popular conception—and he would have hated Donald Trump.
It’s true that a casual read-through of The Prince, let alone a couple of wikiquotes, is quite incriminating from an ethical point of view. But Machiavelli’s thought was a great deal more complex than it may appear on the surface. He was far from a defender of tyranny; his longer but lesser-known work of political theory is focused on how to maintain a free republic, and he was an important member of the government when Florence became a free republic.
In Machiavelli’s time, anyone involved in politics had an extensive education in what we would refer to today as the humanities. Knowledge of classical history and literature were a must. Not only were prominent members of society expected to be, you know, eloquent in prepared speech and writing; there was also a robust culture of spectated semi-formal public discourse, which required interlocutors to debate and even compose poetry on the spot. Machiavelli excelled at this. His acerbic wit is preserved in his extant correspondence and published plays. In contrast, Trump’s ineloquence makes some even wonder whether he would pass the Turing test. So even setting ideological differences aside, Machiavelli certainly would have had a healthy contempt for Trump’s repeated failure to feign lucidity in speech.
While Machiavelli was technically from a noble family, his branch of the tree had become progressively impoverished to the point where he lacked the material means to be part of the Florentine ruling aristocratic class. His story doesn’t involve a small loan of a million dollars and a subsequent rise to “self-made” fortune. Rather, Machiavelli took low-level government positions he could acquire based on merit alone, and flourished as a public servant and diplomat. Most in Florence considered private and public interest to be fundamentally reconcilable, but Machiavelli considered the pursuit of wealth to be antithetical to the public good. He found it ridiculous that personal wealth (or lack thereof) could limit who could hold political office. Trump’s only “qualification” for the presidency was his fortune—in the monetary sense, as well as in the lottery of birth. Machiavelli would have both denied that Trump’s business experience qualified him for office, and rejected the idea that a businessman could make an effective political leader at all.
When Florence ousted the dominant political family and became a free republic, the aristocrats elected one of their own to the highest government position in the hope that he would promote their interest over that of the less influential and non-voting population. He didn’t. Instead, he maintained a policy which strictly put the interests of Florence over any one class. Machiavelli was one of the only government officials to support him over the aristocrats. Trump has repeatedly professed he aims to “drain the swamp” and help the little guy, but his policies don’t back this claim up. His cabinet picks are all trust fund babies and social elites—part of the social and economic establishment, if arguably not the political one. His plans—such as they are—include nothing which would actually curtail the undue influence of these elites and help the disenfranchised of America.
In The Prince, Machiavelli professes the importance of swift and decisive action, and in some ways Trump’s impetuous disregard for norms appears to fit this criteria perfectly. Yet when Machiavelli advocated decisive action, he assumed that the actor would have, like, basic intelligence and talent. It’s safe to assume that if Trump had the chance to meet the author of his favorite book, that author would laugh in his face and verbally eviscerate him so effectively that Barron’s grandchildren would still be feeling it forty years in the future. And then he would wonder how someone as blatantly stupid and greedy as Trump could ever have been elected.
Friedersdorf, Conor. “Trump Has Filled, Not Drained, the Swamp.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 21 Sept. 2017.
Gilbert, Felix. Machiavelli and Guicciardini: Politics and History in Sixteenth-Century Florence. Princeton University Press 1965.
Horner, Charles. “Trump’s Conference Recalls the Turing Test.” Financial Times, 15 Jan. 2017.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Translated by Harvey Mansfield. Second ed. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
[Also private letters & Discourses]
Antonia Alksnis is a student at University of Toronto. She is a philosophy major, with minors in political science and classical civilization. She is also an artist and her work is posted online at antoniaalksnis.weebly.com.