Donald Trump has cashed Niccolò Machiavelli’s political support. The endorsement, with important qualifications, comes via Professor Harvey C. Mansfield, a world authority in the field of Machiavelli studies (The Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2016). In his view, Donald Trump puts well in practice Machiavelli’s advice that “winning dishonorably is better than losing honorably.” Trump does not care at all of being regarded as a gentleman, and has openly expressed his disrespect for John McCain and Mitt Romney, two leaders who are, in his mind, gentlemen but losers. He wants, on the contrary, to be a winner.
The problem with Machiavelli’s alleged endorsement is that he would consider Trump a very poor pupil, if he truly believes that to be a good Machiavellian one must endorse the view that to win dishonorably is better than to lose honorably. ‘Donald – Machiavelli would say – I appreciate your efforts, but you have got my counsels wrong. Read my books carefully. I have never ever written, or implied, that to win dishonorably is better than losing honorably. What I have taught is that to win dishonorably is better than to lose honorably, if you cannot win honorably. Your goal, to put it differently, must be to win honorably, unless you are compelled to use dishonorable means.’
Is there anyone prepared to argue that an unescapable necessity forces Trump not to be a gentleman? If he wanted to, he could run his campaign against Hillary with impeccable gentlemanly style. I am almost sure that Professor Harvey Mansfield too would agree that nothing prevents Trump from being a gentleman. Unless it is his very character, his truest nature, and his deepest self that force him to behave in an ungentlemanly manner.
But if this is in fact the case, Machiavelli would severely reprimand the republican candidate ‘Donald, how many times do I have to tell you that if you want to become the president of the United States of America you must learn to simulate and dissimulate? I repeat it: a wise prince must be very careful never to let out of his mouth a single word that would not make him appear merciful, trustworthy, humane, blameless and religious. If you cannot restrain your tongue, just keep being a businessman and leave politics alone. People like you do cause great, and often tragic, damages to their countries.’
If one of Trump’s distinctive qualities is that he is always himself, that he always does things his way, then he lacks yet another virtue that Machiavelli regards as necessary in political leaders, namely the ability of adapting one’s conduct with the times. Although firmness is, in general, a virtue in private life, in politics it is often a vice. The main cause of the success or failure of men depend upon their manner of suiting their conduct to the times. Impetuous and cautious leaders alike may lose, or win, “but he errs least and will be most favored by fortune who suits his proceedings to the times,” Machiavelli writes. On balance, therefore, Machiavelli would endorse Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump: not because she embodies his ideal of a political leader, but because he would consider her less amateurish than Trump. And for him a political amateur in power is a sure recipe for tragedies.
Professor Mansfield maintains that Machiavelli and Trump have in common the mark, of “deplorable, out-of-date sexism.” If by sexism we mean the mentality based on the belief that males are better fit than females to be leaders in the most prestigious social activities, above all in politics, then Trump qualifies as a sexist, but Machiavelli surely does not, even if he was not politically correct either. He has written in the most eloquent manner that women do in fact possess the fundamental leadership qualities of prudence, courage and compassion. Caterina Sforza, the duchess of Forlì whom he met in 1499, was for him the perfect example, but not the only one. It is the princess of Carthage Dido who illustrates, in The Prince, the fundamental Machiavellian principle that it is impossible for a prince new to avoid the reputation of being cruel. In the unfinished poem, The (Golden) Ass Machiavelli puts in the mouth of a women a long and wise lecture on politics, history and the human condition.
Like Professor Mansfield, I mourn and bemoan the fading of gentlemen in political life in particular and in social life in general. I know I will be severely chastised, but I do believe that women can be, and many of them are, perfect gentlemen, if to be a gentlemen means, as Mansfield writes, to be a person “who is gentle by habit and character,” and not because he or she “is somehow forced to be.” By these standards, Hillary is surely a better gentleman than Trump. For this reason too Machiavelli would support her over. Professor Mansfield, I respectfully suggest, should do the same thereby gaining Machiavelli’s admiration. I know that this would mean a lot for him, as it does for me.
Maurizio Viroli is professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University, professor of government at the University of Texas, Austin, and professor of political communication at the University of Italian Switzerland in Lugano. His many works include Niccolò’s Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli (Hill & Wang) and How to Choose a Leader: Machiavelli’s Advice to Citizens (Princeton). His most recent book is The Quotable Machiavelli.