Trump and Machiavelli: Does Morality Matter?

Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito

Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.

Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light And the Children of Darkness

To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record . . . Remember who you are and whom you serve.

– Mark Galli, editor in chief of Christianity Today

“There’s never before, ever before, been an administration that’s so open and transparent.”

– Donald Trump, June 4, 2019

Anyone familiar with President Donald Trump’s behavior since taking office can be excused for believing that morality and politics are unrelated. Perhaps the current state of affairs in Washington is normal. Perhaps it can’t be any other way.

“I have tremendous respect for women.”

– Donald Trump, March 8, 2017

It’s a kind of a moral trap all-too-easy to fall into, but it is simply not true. It has not always been this way. In fact, it has arguably never before been this way before, not even in the most corrupt times in America’s checkered political history.

If and when Donald Trump goes on trial in the U.S. Senate, America will be on trial, too. As John Galli wrote to readers of Christianity Today: “Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency.”

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”

– Donald Trump, January 11, 2018

Is the conduct on display in the White House and Congress true of the entire federal government? Is all of Washington a moral wasteland? Or, at the cost of mixing metaphors, is draining the swamp an impossible dream?

The Ghost of Machiavelli

The radical separation of politics and morality is incompatible with democracy. It’s an idea, however, with roots in Western political thought traceable to a specific time and place.

The Italian Renaissance cast a long, dark shadow over the role of religion in both private and public life in modern society. The Reformation broke the Vatican’s monopoly on religious truth.

Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532) not only dismissed religion as a basis for keeping order in society but also in effect weaponized morality. Otherwise put, Machiavelli, “emancipated politics from theology and moral philosophy,” in the words of Notre Dame professor Joshua Kaplan. Machiavelli is often associated with the idea that ends justify the means.

A few examples of Machiavelli’s advice to the prince will suffice to make this point:

1) “The lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.”

2) “[A] question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

3) “Moses, Cyrus, Theseus and Romulus couldn’t have got people to respect their new laws for so long if they hadn’t possessed armed force.”

Small wonder that practicing deceit to gain supreme power or using violence to punish critics is often behavior described as “Machiavellian”! For example, Machiavelli writes admiringly of how the Italian strongman, Cesare Borgia, “turned to trickery”. Indeed, Borgia, we are told“ was so good at disguising his intentions that even the [arch-rival] Orsini made peace with him . . . ”.

Borgia was apparently better at dissimulating than Donald Trump. A CNN story reported on December 21, 2019, carried this headline: “Trump makes 99 false claims in two weeks.”

“In 1,055 days, President Trump has made 15,413 false or misleading claims.”

– Fact Checker, The Washington Post, December 10, 2019.

Power Without Principle

Not a few scholars believe, as I do, that Machiavelli has been widely misinterpreted, misrepresented, and, as a result, he is often unjustly maligned as a proponent of force and fraud in politics. Machiavelli described and elucidated the ruthless political ways of rulers within and between Italian city-states in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Whether he morally approved is an open question. As a prisoner falsely accused of disloyalty, he was tortured—hoist up by a rope attached to his wrists and tied behind his back—but eventually released after not confessing. So Machiavelli knew firsthand the meaning of raw power without moral principle.

It’s not true that politics and morality are poles apart or that, like oil and water, they can never mix. Politics without morality is a form of war, a struggle for power, a “continuation of politics by other means” to quote Clausewitz.

What we are seeing in Washington has more in common with war than politics. Words and tweet are used as weapons, the moral equivalent of bombing raids intended to inflame, ridicule and vanquish. Let us destroy reputations. It’s all about power. Any references to moral principle are purely instrumental.

The Morality of Democracy

Ironically, the Renaissance and Reformation set the stage for the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, and the establishment of a representative democracy—a republic—based on a higher law (a.k.a., a “constitution”). Investing or imbuing government, law and policy with a moral dimension is what makes politics different from the mere exercise of power. It’s also what makes democracy different from dictatorship.

There is a clear and present danger that America is losing its way, that moral truths and scientific facts have no value. In the absence of a moral code—what political philosophers like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau called a social contract—there can be no civil society. If facts and reasoned opinion have no value, democracy is impossible.

One of the most popular quotes from the New Testament is about truth and freedom. It’s found in the book of John and it goes like this: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Amen.

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