The Full Machiavelli

by Emrys Westacott

How conceivable is this? Trump loses the 2020 US presidential election. But he refuses to concede, claiming that results in the swing states of Ohio and Florida were invalid due to voter fraud and crooked election officials. Fox News, other right-wing media and the Republican controlled congress go along with this. So Trump remains president until, in the words of Senate leader Mitch McConnell, “we are able to clear up this mess.” Clearing up the mess, it turns out, could take some time–even longer than it takes for Trump to fulfill his promise to release his tax returns. Law suits are brought, but guess what? By a 5 to 4 majority, the supreme court refuses to hear them.

Couldn’t happen, you say. The constitution and all that. To which I would say just two words: Merrick Garland. When the Republican-controlled senate refused to hold confirmation hearings for Garland after he had been nominated by Obama for a vacant seat on the Supreme Court, they effectively suspended–some would say “trampled underfoot”–the constitution. Nothing more clearly exposes the hypocrisy of the Republican call for judges who will “uphold” the constitution than that cynical maneuver.

I’m not saying that the above scenario is likely. But I am saying that is quite conceivable. And for anyone who cherishes conventional democratic values, its mere conceivability has to be alarming.

The key player in bringing things to this pass is not Donald Trump but Mitch McConnell–a name that one hopes will live in infamy. As is well known, the key to many conjuring tricks is to divert the audience’s attention, to have them looking away from where the real action is taking place. And this is how Trump and McConnell operate. Trump attracts all the attention, grabbing the headlines every day with some fresh liberal-baiting vulgarity. Meanwhile, off to the side, McConnell’s senate proceeds to stack the federal courts with relatively young conservative judges; appointed for life. Technically, the judges are nominated by Trump. But it’s fairly clear that he has outsourced this task to right-wing organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society.

Meanwhile, Republicans around the country use every tactic they can think of to co-opt the infrastructure of American democracy to their cause: erecting obstacles to voter registration; purging the electoral rolls of voters who are more likely to vote democratic; making voting more difficult in certain areas by reducing the number of polling station or the time available for voting; gerrymandering districts; removing restrictions on campaign financing.

A paradigmatic example of this sort of cynical manipulation of the system is to be found in the current gubernatorial contest in Georgia, where Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate, happens to be the current secretary of state, which means that he is in charge of the electoral process. The conflict of interest is blindingly obvious, but Kemp refuses to recuse himself. Instead, he has spent years preparing the ground for his election by purging the electoral rolls of 1.5 million voters, and suspending the registration of another 53,000 on the grounds that there is not an exact match between the name on their registration and their name on other state records. Needless to say, minorities make up a disproportionate number of those disenfranchised by such administrative methods.

In the US today, the person who holds the office of president lost the popular vote by almost three million votes. The Republicans control both the House and the Senate even though millions more people voted for Democratic senators and representatives than voted for Republicans. The Republicans also appear to have a long-term lock on what has become a highly politicized and partisan Supreme Court. Throw into the mix the dark money flooding electoral campaigns, the nefarious cyber-activities of foreign governments, the increasing difficulty many people have of distinguishing simple truths from blatant lies, and the distressing unconcern that many others show toward this same distinction, and it is not surprising that there is so much discussion these days by scholars and commentators of a crisis in American democracy.  Historian Christopher Browning’s recent essay on “The Suffocation of American Democracy” in The New York Review of Books is an especially incisive analysis of the current situation.

In political decision-making, there are two ideals at opposite ends of a spectrum. One is the kind championed by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas with his notion of the “ideal speech situation.” This is where decisions affecting the public good are arrived at through rational discussion in the public sphere. The speech situation is ideal in that the outcome is determined only by the force of the better argument. Factors such as money, power, tradition, fame, connections, seniority, appearance, prejudice, fake news, or cheap emotional appeals, which obviously play a big part in the actual world, would be neutralized. No-one pretends that we are anywhere near this ideal today; but it can still be a worthwhile goal, an end-point towards which, we hope, the arc of democratic progress bends.

The other ideal is the one memorably portrayed in Orwell’s 1984: absolute power, unchecked and entrenched so deep as to be permanent. This is the secret ideal that dare not speak its name of politicians not constrained by moral or religious scruples. It is the ultimate dream of the Machiavellian manipulator.

Here is Machiavelli’s teaching in a nutshell. Politics is essentially about power. Politics is the game; power is the prize. There are two kinds of players: those whose tactics are constrained by scruples, and those whose methods are unconstrained–the unscrupulous. The latter have a clear advantage since they have many more weapons at their disposal: e.g. lies (big, medium, or small), blackmail, bribery, appeal to prejudice, gerrymandering, election rigging, voter suppression, dirty money, negative advertising, and, indeed, dirty tricks of every kind).

Most people involved in democratic politics occupy some point on the spectrum between these two extremes. If they are too scrupulous, they are unlikely to win or retain power; they would be taking a moral rule book to a gun fight. But most people–even politicians–will draw a line somewhere that they are not willing to cross: e.g. they won’t appeal to racist sentiments; they won’t poison their opponents–either because of moral scruples, or because they believe that if they are too unscrupulous they risk inspiring distrust or being found out.

Pure Machiavellians are rare. Hitler was as ruthless as they come in eliminating his political opponents once he was able to, but his ideology arguably set some limits to what he would do. He was unwilling, for instance, to use Jewish scientists in his weapons development programs (although one could perhaps argue that he would have accepted their input if he had thought it could be trusted). Putin is decidedly Machiavellian, yet his Russian nationalism is probably not just a populist strategy but also, in part, a genuine commitment.

One can make a theoretical distinction between those whose desire for power is driven by some sort of moral, political, or religious vision they wish to realize, and those whose will to power is fueled entirely by vanity, narcissism and subjective cravings. Lenin is often cited as an example of the first type; it’s hard to imagine a purer example of the second type than Trump. In most cases, of course, the two motivations are likely to be intertwined.

A perennial question for political strategists is just how Machiavellian to be–how down and dirty to go. The danger of being a purist is obviously that one will be a loser. The danger of setting aside your scruples–if you have some–in order to win power is that you will never pick them up again and will bring about the degeneration of those ideals you hope to realize.

In the US today there can be little doubt that the spirit of Machiavelli dominates politics more than at any time in living memory. A recent profile of Newt Gingrich in The Atlantic makes it clear that this has not come about by chance. Gingrich consciously sought to refashion political debate away from civility, away from compromise, and toward nasty, no holds barred, partisan warfare. Mitch McConnell is cut from the same cloth.

Why do politicians go for The Full Machiavelli? In some cases, an unshakeable, passionately held belief in the rightness of their cause leads them to justify virtually any means to achieve the desired end. Others are driven by an unshakeable desire to advance the economic interests of themselves and their class: power is used to reduce taxes on the wealthy, cut benefits to the poor, and so on. But the most depressing and dangerous type is surely the political player whose dominant abiding passion concerns neither ideology nor interests, but power itself. For such people, to cite George Orwell:

Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.

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