When I taught at Franklin College, one of my favorite courses was about western political thinking. During the course, I would routinely cover more than 20 philosophers in one semester.
In order to provide perspective, I would use my eastern upbringing and experience to interpret the western philosophers’ teachings. In my mind, I think this worked well.
When lecturing about Niccolo Machiavelli, I would get excited. No figure in political philosophy has been the subject of more varied and contradictory appraisal than this Italian philosopher.
At one extreme, he has been denounced as the forefather of modern totalitarianism; while at the other, he has been praised as passionate Italian patriot dedicated to the well-being of his countrymen. Fast forward 500 and with our recent election, these sound eerily familiar.
We now have president-elect Donald Trump who has, to a certain degree, practiced Machiavelli’s political teachings to gain power in this model of western democracy.
How can I not write a column about this?
We all know that our environment influences our views. Environment includes both the physical and the mental. Machiavelli lived in a turbulent era of Italian politics. Italy was divided into several separate states. Internationally, Italy was a pawn in the larger battle of power politics.
With this background of uncertainty and violence, Machiavelli fashioned his revolutionary political philosophy. Even though the United States is still the super power in the world today, domestically, we are divided by: political ideology (blue states and red states); socio-economic class (rich vs. poor); by race (white vs. non-white); and major issues (abortion, gun control, immigration and religion). Internationally, we are at war, especially with international terrorists.
Many believe that this country is declining and that the United States cannot win anymore.
Against this backdrop, Trump wisely used the slogan: Make American Great Again.
Many of Trump’s actions fit well within the Machiavelli theory.
Trump has been labeled by many, including the Republican party, as a con artist. A con artist generally practices one of Machiavelli’s teaching: the end justifies the means. In classical and Christian thought, the means must always be commensurate to the end.
Under Machiavellian theory, a good end is justification for a leader to take any necessary means to attain it. This is justification for Trump’s view on torture, building a wall, a Muslims registry (which by the way is against the 14th Constitutional amendment and laws). Interestingly enough, Trump’s supporters are very much with him on those matters.
Furthermore, we need to ask a question as to whether there is a double standard of ethics that gives to our leaders more latitude than private individuals? For American culture, the answer is no.
We expect our leaders to be good people in their private lives as well as in their public lives. However, with Trump this is not the case as evidenced by his so-called locker room talk, him being accused of sexual assault and harassment by many different women, his use of Trump charity monies to purchase a painting of himself or his operation of Trump University, to name a few.
As indicated by his election, those that voted for him accepted the fact that his missteps in private life were not a detriment to him being elected president.
Furthermore, because he is wealthy, Trump is viewed as a successful businessman despite his numerous bankruptcies and failed businesses. His business success became his credential for his platform for a successful presidential race.
His supporters seemed to have only focused on his success and not how he became successful, solidifying the position that whether he attains his objectives by cheating, wicked means is of no matter so long as his actions are designed to benefit them.
Lastly, Machiavelli suggests that a successful leader should possess the mentality of both a lion and a fox. While the lion can protect himself from wolves, he cannot protect himself from traps. Similarly, the fox cannot defend himself from wolves, but he can protect himself from traps.
Accordingly to Machiavelli, by “being a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten the wolves,” a leader can be successful. Trump called our current leaders weak and stupid and not cunning enough. His business background makes him smart like a fox (for example, not paying income taxes) and his political inexperience makes him brave like a lion.
As we have seen, he likes to talk big to scare his opponents. Of course, many American do not want their president to possess these attributes.
We have a long and storied democratic history. We believe in the rule of law and not the rule of man. While Americans may not like our leaders or our government, we love our Constitution. The Constitution is supreme law of the land and no one is above it.
The founding fathers created a government based on the principle of separation of power with checks and balances. Checks and balances are in place to prevent the possession of absolute power and the abuse of power.
So, to the Trump supporters, enjoy your moment, but do not overjoy. To the democrats, worry, but do not worry too much. At the end of the day, under our excellent political system, anyone can make any promises, but no one can make any guarantees.
Professor Yu-long Ling, a Franklin resident, is an expert in foreign policy. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.