What Machiavelli can teach us about Trump and the decline of liberal democracy

The infamous philosopher had a lot to say about why democracies fall.

“I’d like to teach them the way to hell, so they can steer clear of it.”

The infamous Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli wrote those words in 1526, near the end of his life. He was warning citizens of the 16th-century Republic of Florence not to be duped by cunning leaders.

Machiavelli’s most famous book, The Prince, is widely viewed as an instruction manual for tyrants, and it kind of is. But there’s more to Machiavelli than that. He taught rulers how to govern more ruthlessly, yes — but at the same time, he also showed the ruled how they were being led.

He was, in other words, giving both sides the handbook.

Machiavelli also had plenty to say about things that matter today. He wrote about why democracies get sick and die, about the dangers of inequality and partisanship, and even about why appearance and perception matter far more than truth and facts.

Erica Benner, a professor of political philosophy at Yale, writes about all of this in her new book Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli in His World. I spoke to her recently about Machiavelli’s legacy and what he might teach us about Trump and the decline of liberal democracies around the world.

“When you look at societies like America and Britain and various other liberal democracies,” she told me, “you see the kinds of cracks that Machiavelli warned about — and it ought to trouble us.”

You can read our full conversation below.

Sean Illing

Even by people who’ve never read him, Machiavelli’s known as the great teacher of amorality. Is that reputation earned?

Erica Benner

It’s deserved in the sense that when you read him quickly, especially in translation, it looks like he’s teaching you to be evil, to do whatever it takes to get and keep power, even if that means doing what people think is wrong. But there’s a lot more to him than that. To see it, though, you have to read between the lines and notice all the twists and turns and nuances.

Sean Illing

His most famous book is The Prince. What’s it about and why should people read it today?

Erica Benner

It’s about how ambitious individuals who want to get and hold on to political power can do that. It appears to be an advice book that goes against all the usual advice books for leaders, which tells them to be just and honorable. Machiavelli turns all that upside down and says, “You’ve got to be willing to be ferocious and cold and underhanded if you want to get ahead in a world like ours.”

Sean Illing

But there’s a downside to that kind of ruthlessness, no?

Erica Benner

Absolutely. He’s actually showing how these tactics will get you into trouble if you read this book naively and take it at face value. For the more perceptive, it’s clear that he’s dropping all kinds of hints about why this won’t work in the long run, though it will certainly work in the short term.

Sean Illing

The Prince is also a warning of sorts to citizens. What’s the message?

Erica Benner

He’s trying to show ordinary citizens the ways that ambitious people get to power, and how those people may appear to be solutions to problems but in the end only make things worse. He tells the people, if you indulge a politician who promises to fix everything if only you give up a little more power, you will suffer far more down the line.

Sean Illing

Machiavelli was among the first to popularize this notion that perceptions matter more than reality, that a cunning leader should bend the truth to his or her will. I wonder what he would think of phrases like “post-truth” and “alternative facts.”

Erica Benner

I think he would say, “Nothing new.” This has been going on since humans started doing politics. But he thinks that citizens are responsible more than politicians. Yeah, you can sit there and say, “Look at Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin,” or whoever it might be, and point out how they lie here and there and how that gives them an advantage or allows them to exploit fears. But at the end of the day, it’s up to us, it’s up to citizens, to see through these manipulations.

One thing Machiavelli tries to do is to get citizens to see through the tricks that politicians use to get one over on them and to manipulate them into submission and a more uncritical stance. If he were alive today, I suppose he’d repeat all of these warnings and probably say, “I told you so.”

Sean Illing

But Machiavelli had little faith in the average person’s capacity to notice that they were being duped. He knew that the pusher of alternative facts would find an audience among those who wanted what he said to be true, even if it obviously wasn’t.

Erica Benner

If somebody wants to set themselves up as a savior in troubled times, he will always find people to support him, and he’ll find it easier to acquire that support if he plays the sorts of games Machiavelli describes in The Prince — namely, using deception in order to exploit people for political gain. But yes, he had no illusions about the credulity of the average citizen.

Still, he insists that only the people can defend themselves against this kind of manipulation. He simply warned them that if they failed to do so, if they unwittingly gave themselves over to a lying prince, they’d eventually find themselves under the yoke of an absolute leader. And once that happens, it’s too late — freedom has already been forfeited.

Sean Illing

All of this ties into Machiavelli’s ideas about why democracies get sick and decline, which are maybe his most important ideas and surely the most relevant today.

Erica Benner

Yeah, I think you’re right. The key question for Machiavelli, apart from all the philosophical questions about human nature, is how to defend democracy or a republic. He thinks democracy is the best form of government, and he’s always asking why some last longer than others.

He sees two big problems at the root of democracies. One is partisanship, and by that he doesn’t necessarily mean organized political parties but rather a society that ends up divided into parts or teams or camps. When people start to see themselves as rivals to the death, as groups with divergent interests and visions of society with no compatibility, you can’t sustain a democracy. Civil conflict was a central concern of his for that reason.

When you look at societies like America and Britain and various other liberal democracies, you see the kinds of cracks that Machiavelli warned about — and it ought to trouble us.

Sean Illing

His concerns about partisanship were tied to another contemporary issue: inequality. How were these linked and what were his warnings about inequalities in a democracy?

Erica Benner

You know your Machiavelli! He wasn’t a strict egalitarian. He doesn’t think the best societies are communist, where all property is held in common, but he did think that an excess of inequality would destroy a democracy because it would destroy any sense of a shared project or a shared commitment to common values and institutions.

When you get grotesque inequalities of the sort we see today in the US, democracy gets sick. People stop talking to each other, stop caring about the other’s concerns; divisions deepen as access to resources becomes more and more unequal. He wrote constantly that you have to maintain a reasonable balance of social opportunities and welfare or democratic institutions will collapse.

Sean Illing

He was a historian, so what nations or principalities or republics did he point to as examples of these lessons? And do you see a lot of parallels today?

Erica Benner

Well, Rome was the main one. He paid close attention to the fall of the Roman Republic, and he thought the decline of Rome was propelled by partisanship and inequalities. The parties in Rome that ended up going into civil war correlated roughly with the rich and the poor; it was class warfare.

He faced exactly these problems in his own home city, which had a very long, proud tradition of trying to be a fairly egalitarian republic, but over time was drawn into conflict by these sorts of internal divisions. As the rich get richer, they try to gain more power, and the more political power they gain, the richer they become. At the same time, the poor get poorer. What you get, ultimately, is civil conflict.

He saw this happening in Florence, wrote about how it happened in Rome, and thought future democracies would die if they failed to learn these lessons.

Sean Illing

In what ways are the people responsible for keeping their democracies in good health?

Erica Benner

Lots of ways. The citizenry in Machiavelli’s time didn’t involve as many individuals as it does today, but his lessons are no less relevant. He thought the first responsibility was to sharpen your senses and notice the ways in which power is abused and the ways in which leaders overstep and stealthily strip away freedoms and standards.

You have to pay attention when leaders start making arguments designed to pit one group of citizens against another, when they claim they need more power and have to limit the courts, when they start undermining the rule of law for the sake of expediency.

The key thing for Machiavelli was always to value the rule of law — that’s the key thing for citizens to do. Which is why they have to be careful about who they put into power. Democracies are never entirely stable, and once the rule of law is subverted, it’s very difficult to get it back. All it takes is one authoritarian or one dictatorial party to undermine every norm that sustains democratic life.

Sean Illing

A lot of people see Donald Trump’s indifference to the rule of law as precisely this sort of threat.

Erica Benner

For good reason. Trump’s attempts to weaken the rule of law early in his presidency are pretty brazen. So far, the law and the institutions that prop it up have looked robust. But Machiavelli would say this is not something that you can count on.

Great institutions don’t protect themselves. In the case of the US and Trump’s early assaults on the rule of law, it wasn’t the laws that protected themselves. It was individuals and people who put their foot down and said, “No, this thing you’re trying to do, we will not authorize it.”

Sean Illing

So what would Machiavelli’s advice to democratic citizens be today?

Erica Benner

Don’t take your institutions for granted. Don’t take your laws for granted. Don’t take order for granted. If you do, you’ll lose your democracy.

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