Machiavelli's Advice for Mr. Trump – and Us
Perhaps the best explanation for the frustration of President Trump's first Hundred Days can be found in a not-much-read book by Niccolo Machiavelli.
The great Florentine political thinker is best-known today for The Prince. But his most extended work -- which also showed the shape of Machiavelli's heart -- are the Discourses on Livy. It's an extended meditation on democratic politics in a republic, as exemplified by the history of Rome. Machiavelli, as always, doesn't mince words -- and he has some extremely pertinent (and uncomfortable) things to say to us.
Here's the question: have the American people been so corrupted by the welfare state that they can no longer reclaim their liberty? Is restoration of the American republic along the lines originally conceived by the Founders, impossible?
Machiavelli offers us ways to think about how to answer these questions. He does it by reviewing Roman history with an eye to contemporary political problems of his own time.
Machiavelli wrote in the 1510s, when Italy was divided into warring city-states, His native Florence had tried to maintain itself as a republic, but foreign invaders and the Medici family overturned that. As a republican, Machiavelli himself lost office and suffered torture and exile when the Medici returned to power.
In Chapter 16 of the Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli remarks that “a people that is corrupted through and through cannot live in liberty for even a short period...” When a state become free, “all those who fed off” the state become “hostile factions.” However, when the Romans overthrew the Tarquin kings in 510 B.C., they were able to establish and maintain a republic which lasted until the time of Julius Caesar.
This was possible, says Machiavelli, because, while the Tarquin kings were corrupt, the Roman people were not. “Had the Roman populace been corrupted, there would have been no effective way for them to keep their liberty.”
In Chapter 17, Machiavelli contrasts this state of affairs with what prevailed in Rome in 44 B.C. when Julius Caesar was assassinated as dictator-for-life by senators anxious to restore the Republic. Also with what occurred when, in 68 A.D., the line of Julio-Claudian emperors expired with the death of Nero. On both occasions, it proved impossible to revive the Republic.
“[W]ith the deaths of Caesar, Gaius Caligula, and Nero, and the whole of Caesar's line extinguished, Rome could not maintain its liberty, let alone lay a foundation for it. Such diverse results came about... because in the era of the Tarquin kings the Roman populace were not yet corrupted, while by the later imperial times they had become quite corrupt. In later years, Brutus' authority and severity with all his eastern legions, were not enough to make the Romans want to maintain the liberty that he, like the first Brutus [who overthrew the Tarquin kings], had restored to them.”
He explains further:
“[T]he institutions and laws created in a state at its birth, when men were good, are no longer relevant once men have become evil. Even if laws in a state vary according to circumstances, its institutions rarely, if ever do. This means that new laws are not enough, because the institutions that remain unchanged will corrupt them.”
It should not have been surprising, therefore, that the Democrats, the MSM, academia, and many corporate and other leaders united with the leftist street to launch the “resistance.” Or that, so far, not one Democrat in Congress has broken party ranks to support Trumpian reforms. This weekend, they will be touting their success in stalling and, sometimes, defeating specific measures taken by the president.
At the moment, the president has just been offered a choice of a government shutdown on Saturday or surrendering his pledge to build a border wall.
As I wrote here back on January 10, the left means to break this president. One hundred days in, quite clearly, that's where we are. The left will defend Mr. Obama's New Normal to the last ditch. If they can regain power, they will expand it. Along the way, they are perfectly willing to undermine the legitimacy of our 2016 election, to impeach this president or to undermine any American institution of government which stands in their way to preserving that New Normal.
Boiled down, the issue is: the New Normal versus Republican rollback. We are going to find out, as Lincoln used to say, which is the stronger.
What corrupted the Roman people two thousand years ago, and ended their republic was the destruction of the yeomen farmers who made up the electorate and the army. The Punic Wars destroyed large swatches of agricultural Italy, replacing it with a slave economy based on large plantations. The two rounds of civil wars which followed only made the problem worse, deepening the conflict between the plebs and the patricians.
It also did something more.
The growth of the empire and the civil wars created immense private fortunes on a scale never seen before, both among military men and the politicians (sometimes, like Caesar and Pompey, the same thing) – and they made Roman generals (and their troops) more powerful than the Senate. Meanwhile the rural poor crowded into Rome. There, they were provided a free daily food ration, public entertainment and cash for their votes -- the infamous “bread and circuses.” The steady flow of talents and sesterces into Rome enabled the populace (and the politicians) to be bought off.
The empire endured for over 400 more years. The proud name of “the Senate and People of Rome” endured too. But the Republic, except for its empty forms, was no more.
And thus, we confront Machiavelli's dilemma.
Has the American voting public been so corrupted by ObamaCare, Medicaid Part B, expansions in food stamps, Social Security, disability coverage, and other benefits that they will sustain the Democrats in their massive resistance? The president will be able to carry out and pursue much of his foreign policy. Without a reliable 60-plus-one votes in the Senate, however, we may be in for a sustained deadlock on Mr. Trump's domestic agenda.
If that's so, much rides on next year's Congressional elections. Will the Trumpsters come out again? Moreover, Mr. Trump will have to buck the historical trend that presidents tend to lose Congressional seats in off-year elections. Gaining a reliable, conservative Republic majority in both Houses so the president can enact reforms may prove as daunting a task as Mr. Trump's quest for the White House itself.
Machiavelli, of course, advised more radical political surgery. (That's in chapter 18 of the Discourses, which I have not discussed here.). But, so far, there's no reason to take Old Nick's prescription on that, only his diagnosis.