“Machiavellian” is a term attached to any leader we see as dangerous. But which modern nutcase actually fits the definition?
If you’re looking for an embodiment of what we commonly understand the word “Machiavellian” to mean, it’s hard to go past the House of Cards character Francis Urquhart (UK)/Francis Underwood (USA). Using, where appropriate, a combination of double-crossing, blackmail, acute political nous, ruthlessness – murder doesn’t faze him in the least – he rises to the top political position. He lets nothing stand in the way of his ambition and yet he turns out to be an effective leader, enabling good things to happen economically and socially, charming his constituents along the way.
It’s not precisely what Florentine writer and diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) had in mind when he wrote his most famous book The Prince (written in 1513 but not published until 1532), long considered to be some kind of manual of how to get to the top via dark political deeds. In fact, he’s been given a bit of a bad rap over the centuries and been credited with statements he didn’t expressly make.
In a nutshell, The Prince describes the various states or principalities that were part of the Italy in which he lived and, being desirous of stability of governance and ultimately a united Italy, its author proposed some characteristics he felt were important for a prince – read: political leader – to be an effective head of state.
Among those characteristics were a strong connection with the military and power brokers, the assembly of a trusted team of advisers, and a willingness to act expediently if necessary, so if it was crucial to tell the occasional lie (or worse) to achieve a goal, then the prince should go ahead and do that. There’s nothing new there – governments have always lied by obfuscation or omission, twisting the facts or keeping information from the public when it suits their interests.
Although Machiavelli said that cruelty could sometimes be justified, he didn’t espouse violence as such, preferring the concept of “necessity.” If something was necessary to maintain a thriving nation, then certain acts were not only acceptable but desirable. Machiavelli was a realist in many respects. He didn’t advocate unscrupulous actions, although he felt there were times when such actions were justified. Rather, he urged leaders to see the world as it really is, not as it should be. He discerned the difference between personal morality and political morality. So he wasn’t overly concerned that a leader had to be a “good person” as long as that leader acted in the best interests of the state. He understood the role fear played but, recognizing the benefits of a loyal population, he wanted his princes to look after their people to gain their admiration and respect.
He was definitely one of the first modern political analysts, a writer who understood political power as deeply as the personalities and mental processes of those who would be leaders.
In today’s political climate, there are some leaders who may have a few Machiavellian attributes and it’s worth having a brief look at a few to see how – or if – they fit into the sixteenth-century model.
First off, President Donald Trump. He fits some Machiavellian criteria, but falls short on others. He’s been a hugely successful businessman building his empire with ambitious projects and trading on his name and celebrity, all the while acting in the best interests of his bank balance. We’ve all read reports of his bullying in business, a personality trait he brought with him to the presidency; he would say the end justifies the means. So he fits that Machiavellian criterion.
Then there’s his freedom with the truth. Trump doesn’t mind a bit of deceit when it suits his purpose, and he certainly doesn’t apologize for telling lies.
On the not-so-Machiavellian side is Trump’s inability to appoint appropriate advisers and largely surround himself with family and lackeys. This may do his self-esteem some good, but it’s contrary to the doctrines laid down in The Prince which states that a good leader should be smart enough to rely on the expertise of specialist advisers, even where their views may conflict with his own. Trump fails on that account: it seems pretty difficult to hold a job in his administration.
President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has embraced at least one element of Machiavellianism. His zero tolerance policy on drugs and other crime is nothing short of ruthless. Citizens are simply shot gangland-style – no arrest, no trial, just execution. Machiavelli wrote that it is better to be loved than feared, but if a choice has to be made it is “far safer” to be feared than loved. Yes, fear prevails under Duterte’s leadership.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and China’s Xi Jinping are clever politicians, adherents of the doctrine of realpolitik where principles are rooted in the practical rather than the theoretical. They’re ambitious, exploit opportunities, and have managed to manipulate the systems under which they work to their own advantage. Unbending in many respects, these men have been labeled Machiavellian because they have the requisite amount of cynicism tempered with charm, but more importantly they get things done the way they want them done and do not tolerate opposition. Political commentators can provide detailed analyses of these leaders. For the purpose of this article, suffice to say that politicians who are prepared to do whatever it takes to get what they want are often branded Machiavellian.
But a final word on the man and the reputation he acquired over time. Machiavelli was a highly intellectual and patriotic Florentine keen to see a united republican Italy. He died in 1527. Five years later, The Prince was published and criticized almost immediately for promoting immoral and duplicitous political methodology. Among other things, Machiavelli accused the Catholic Church of dishonesty and that institution wasted no time in banning all his books, labeling them evil. The Church had enormous power at the time and, with no one to defend him, his reputation continued to be maligned so much so that almost 500 years after his death, we still hear the word “Machiavellian” and immediately think of an evil manipulator who will do anything to gain and consolidate his power.
Smarter people than I can offer more detailed evaluations on Machiavelli and the totality of his message. He was definitely one of the first modern political analysts, a writer who understood political power as deeply as the personalities and mental processes of those who would be leaders. And those psychological insights may help the rest of us make a little sense of some of the leaders who’ve been foisted on the world.