Commentators have ranged far and wide looking for historical precedents in their efforts to describe the rise of Donald Trump. Some rifle through the American experience, citing the cases of Andrew Jackson or Barry Goldwater; others rummage through the European experience, turning up the instances of Benito Mussolini or Silvio Berlusconi, Jean-Marie Le Pen or even Adolf Hitler. This makes for a club as exclusive as Mar-a-Lago, but where one mostly wears jackboots and black uniforms rather than white shoes and lime green pants.
One of the most intriguing members to this club, it appears, is Niccolò Machiavelli. From the conservative Weekly Standard and Forbes to the liberal Huffington Post and Washington Post, pundits tell us that The Prince explains The Donald’s success. (And when it is not The Prince, it is modern distillations of Machiavelli’s book like Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power.) This claim seems straightforward. The real estate magnate’s 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.
Such comparisons, however, give Trump too much credit and Machiavelli too little. While he may well be a Republican, Trump fails miserably at being a republican. As Maurizio Viroli makes clear in his short, sharp, and sobering How to Choose a Leader: Machiavelli’s Advice to Citizens, the GOP’s presidential nominee would have horrified the Florentine political thinker — not because he has grasped Machiavelli’s advice — he hasn’t — but because he scorns Machiavelli’s values.
A professor of politics at Princeton and the University of Texas, Viroli had already written several scholarly works on the life and work of Machiavelli, including an earlier version of this book published in Italy in 2014, where the specter of the buffoonish, yet brutal Berlusconi hovered over the original edition. It was just one year earlier, in 2013, that the billionaire media magnate and longest serving prime minister since WWII had finally fallen from power. By then, his career, which had transformed Italian politics into a reality television show replete with financial and sex scandals, had left deep and lasting scars in the Italian political landscape.
Trump was still an orange blip on our radar screen when Viroli revised his book for an American audience, yet the political theorist nevertheless anticipated the strangeness of our present moment. More strangely, given Machiavelli’s bad reputation, Viroli also shows, in clear and convincing language, why the author of The Prince, far from being the source of our ills, instead offers a cure.
Let’s begin with, well, the hands of a political leader. Midway through The Prince, Machiavelli declares that we must judge politicians by the hands, not the eyes. Not by the size of their hands, mind you, but by the work of their hands. In other words, a politician’s vows are verbiage until he proves otherwise. Take Pope Alexander — please, Machiavelli might have added sotto voce — a sceptered wheeler-dealer whose lies were as legion as his bastard children. Alexander “never did nor ever thought of anything but to deceive, and always found a reason for doing so.” No one swore oaths with greater flourish, Machiavelli observes, and no one broke them with fewer qualms. And yet, Alexander’s fibs never failed him for a simple reason: “He knew the weakness of men in that particular.”
We are as weak now as we were then. We still want to believe, and not the small stuff. We want, instead, to believe the big stuff. The bigger the lie, the greater our satisfaction; the greater our satisfaction, the deeper our credulity. Yet Machiavelli, contrary to popular belief, does not applaud this sort of dissimulation. Instead, he agonizes over it. Time and again, he urges citizens to exercise their reason, to beware of leaders who appeal to their passions. In troubled times, he warns, citizens turn against minorities within their countries by turning them into scapegoats. This reflex, in turn, lifts to power those who promise to protect the people against their imagined enemies. The enemy of my enemy is not just my friend; he is my leader.
How do we guard the republic — just another way of saying we, ourselves — from ourselves? Machiavelli would urge us, first, to commit ourselves to the essential virtues. Whether Machiavelli was an atheist is still debated, but also still irrelevant. The pagan virtues of ancient Rome and Greece — courage, strength, justice, and compassion — that Machiavelli praised were, he believed, also the foundations of the Christian religion. Just as there are good and bad Christians, so too is the case with atheists. An “atheist” inspired by these virtues, no less than a Christian (or Jew or Muslim), would make for an honorable leader. What Machiavelli feared, instead, was a leader who scorned both the pagan and religious varieties of these particular virtues. The sort of leader, one imagines, who mauls scripture while his followers maul opponents.
Machiavelli believed “glory” to be a great and good thing. In the pursuit of glory, individuals not only raise themselves, but they also raise their nations. Such was the case with ancient Athenians like Pericles and ancient Romans like Cato. But — and this is his second point — Machiavelli distinguished between those who seek glory and those who thirst for power. Whereas the former benefit the nation, the latter benefit only themselves; the former devoted to honor and the latter merely to a brand.
Is it not possible, though, to pursue both a personal brand and the people’s security? Why not, especially if the brand name loudly brandishes the threat of torture and terror, trade wars and real wars in order to secure his country? After all, this seems to be one of Machiavelli’s major points: “Where the very safety of the country depends upon the resolution to be taken, no considerations of justice or injustice, humanity or cruelty, nor of glory or of shame, should be allowed to prevail.” Machiavelli was not alone to believe that when the nation is truly endangered, leaders must set aside moral and religious scruples to defend it. If they refused to do so, their scruples would remain intact, but their country, not so much. As Abraham Lincoln demanded to know when he suspended the writ of habeas corpus in 1861: “Are all the laws but one [i.e., habeas corpus] to go unexecuted, and the government itself to go to pieces, lest that one be violated?” But a careful reading of both Lincoln and Machiavelli’s words force us to measure the distance between their stance and that of a leader who believes we should go, as Trump said, “much harder” than waterboarding suspected terrorists — even if it isn’t effective. As he shrugged: “If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway.”
Machiavelli is even more severe with the republic’s citizens than its leaders. It is, he wrote, the duty of citizens to “keep their hands on the republic.” Once again, the size of the hands is irrelevant. As Viroli argues, Machiavelli means voting, but also participating in political debate and engaging the issues as beings fully endowed with reason. While Machiavelli was criticizing the apathetic response of his fellow Florentines to political and financial corruption spawned by the Medici family, his warning is timeless. It comes with a jolt to recall that Machiavelli was a sincere democrat and republican (both, importantly, with lower case letters). As he wrote in his Discourses on Livy, citizens “seldom find that after hearing two speakers of equal ability urging them in opposite directions, they do not adopt the sounder view, or are unable to decide on the truth of what they hear.”
This belief was put to the test in 16th-century Florence and, well, it was found wanting. Come November, it may be found no less wanting in 21st-century United States. Much will depend on whether American citizens follow through with another civic duty Machiavelli lists in The Prince. He reminds his readers that common sense helps us distinguish among various troubles, and that whatever else we do, we must “choose the lesser evil.”
Robert Zaretsky is LARB’s history editor. His most recent book is Boswell’s Enlightenment, and his A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning was published by Harvard in November 2013. He also teaches at the Honors College at the University of Houston.