Donald Trump’s victory demonstrates that virtue is not necessary for political success. For those who value virtue, Trump’s victory comes as a blow. But we should not be surprised.
We’ve known that virtue is irrelevant to politics since Machiavelli first explained how princes obtain power. A Machiavellian leader is bold, shameless and aggressive. He is not constrained by truth or morality. He gains power using fear, threats and false promises.
And it works. The people love their Machiavellian princes. He flatters their egos and fulfills their desires. The people can quickly turn against him, since their loyalty is based on mercurial emotion. So once the prince takes power, he must continue to manipulate desire and fear, pride and hope.
In his victory speech, Trump claimed he wanted to “bind the wounds of division.” He said, “It is time for us to come together as one united people.” He said he wants to be president for all Americans.
Those words ring hollow for those who remember his divisive campaign. But most people have short memories. And we want to believe him. We also want to believe that there is a united America, despite the deep and obvious divisions that Trump’s victory exposed.
The red states throb in the middle, while the blue states hug the coasts. In California, the Valley bleeds red (with the exception of faintly fuchsia Fresno). But in the true blue Bay Area they are already marching in the streets, yelling “not my president.”
Our disagreements run so deep that Trumplandia must seem a foreign country to the liberals of Berkeley or Westwood. We disagree about the death penalty, abortion, homosexuality, climate change and so on. Some believe in Jesus, others in Mohammed, and some in science. Thankfully, the Constitution allows us to co-exist without killing each other.
But it is inevitable that Americans will continue to take to the streets, the courts and the ballot box. If our team wins, we praise the inherent wisdom of the voters. If our side loses, the system must be rigged. And off we go again.
This generation did not invent political turmoil. Nor did we invent lying, corruption, racism, misogyny, murder or war. Human beings have always been venal and vicious. And Machiavelli has always been watching from the wings.
Republicans obstructed Obama. Democrats hated George W. Bush. Clinton was impeached. Reagan was shot. Nixon resigned. Unprincipled opportunists often rise to power in both parties.
Nor has our polity ever been at peace for long. First-time voters already have witnessed Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and 9/11. Each generation has its riots and revolutions. There are more to come.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus explained that war is the father of all, and strife is necessary and common. Machiavelli would agree. He described Fortune as a two-faced female dog who must be beaten into submission. A successful prince rides the wild beast of political discord, holding on long enough to triumph.
The ugly truth is that Machiavellians often prevail. They understand that we define ourselves in opposition to others. They manipulate our hatreds, loves, fears and desires. They pander and cajole, soothe and provoke – as it suits their purposes.
There is no permanent solution to this problem. Education can help. But the will to power cannot be eliminated. It can only be channeled and directed by laws and social norms.
Unfortunately, our social norms have been weakened by TV, Twitter and internet trolls. We succumb to shysters and charlatans. And we tolerate outrageous behavior.
This is a bipartisan problem. If Trump had lost, Republicans would lambast the Clinton machine. But Trump is the ultimate Machiavellian – a paradigm case of how power comes to the bully who grabs her by the crotch.
It’s going to be a long four years. The comedians are licking their chops. The critics are sharpening their knives. And we’ve got a lot of thinking to do.
We ought to begin by reading Machiavelli. But then we ought to dust off the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. The only known antidote to Machiavellian disease is a division of powers, a system of checks and balances, and the right to protest, criticize and think for ourselves.