As I watch the Trump Administration deteriorate into the political equivalent of the Fyre Festival, my thoughts naturally turn to Machiavelli.
Both Niccoló Machiavelli and Sun Tzu would agree that the point of engaging in a campaign of threats is to not have to ever actually deliver on those threats — the point is to intimidate rather than to actually inflict harm. Threats are a bid for power, an attempt to dissuade the victim from ever offering a challenge back to the one delivering threats. And threats, when delivered with a tone of confidence and from a posture of apparent strength, can indeed be quite persuasive to both their target and to third parties observing the power transaction in play when a threat is made.
I’m more familiar with Machiavelli, so his is the work I’m going to quote here. In The Prince he makes no bones about the fact that threats are a principal tool of statecraft. While Trump has not been reticent to make political threats, Machiavelli would be gravely disappointed with the first hundred days of Donald Trump’s Presidency.
[I]t is impossible for the new prince to avoid the imputation of cruelty, owing to new states being full of dangers. Hence Virgil, through the mouth of Dido, excuses the inhumanity of her reign owing to its being new, saying:
Nevertheless he ought to be slow to believe and to act, nor should he himself show fear, but proceed in a temperate manner with prudence and humanity, so that too much confidence may not make him incautious and too much distrust render him intolerable.
Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.
Niccoló Machiavelli, Il Príncipe.
In the eighth grade, I confronted a bully. For weeks, he’d been challenging me for my seat on the school bus, humiliating me in front of other kids at school, and otherwise using me as a way of demonstrating his strength and fearsomeness to the other kids. One day he tripped me at the bus stop, and I’d had enough, so I picked myself up while he was snickering at me and said, “All right, let’s go.” All the other kids gathered around in a circle to watch us fight.
He took the first swing, a big roundhouse punch with a big drawback. Even for an unskilled, unpracticed shrimpy eighth-grader like me, it was easy to see it coming and to dodge and counter. I ducked below his swing and popped up again as quick as I could and landed a rabbit punch on the other kid’s mouth.
He immediately turned and ran away. I was actually disappointed: I wanted there to have been more of a fight.
There’s more to my story about the bully, but the interesting thing for today’s purposes is the brief public fight that he and I had. He had prosecuted a campaign of fear and intimidation against me. My rabbit punch couldn’t have actually hurt that other kid all that much. I don’t remember that I even drew blood (though I may have — I just don’t remember it that way). But it unmasked him as vulnerable. He couldn’t handle that, either psychologically or politically, so he ran away.
My own experience is near the root of my great dislike for President Trump. I see much in common between President Trump’s personality and that of the kid who tried to bully me. Of course, it’s hardly a novel insight to call Trump a bully even though he may not quite fit the personality profile exactly. And my own experience is that once a bully is exposed as not being nearly so strong and scary as initially perceived, it’s basically impossible for him to regain the power that the aura of fear once gave him.
At nearly every turn, at least in matters of significance and political prominence, Trump has demonstrated that his political threats may be safely ignored. Machiavelli counsels that this is a breeding ground for contempt, subversion, and even deposition and rebellion.
A prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred: because he can endure very well being feared while he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from despoiling the property of his citizens, and from their women. … Men love according as they please, and fear according to the will of the prince. A wise prince should establish himself on that which he controls, and not in that which others control. He must endeavor only to avoid being hated.
Niccoló Machiavelli, Il Príncipe.
Of Trump’s campaign promises, the easiest ones for me to remember are: a “temporary” ban on Muslims entering the United States, a wall on the border with Mexico to be paid for by Mexico, and the repeal and replacement of Obamacare, something he said would be “so easy.” Trump promised to move quickly on all three of these, and in partial credit to him, he’s tried.
Let’s start by looking at the “Muslim ban.” Not one but two consecutive executive orders have been found unconstitutional, heavily based upon recorded statements of Trump himself openly stating what he really wanted to do: ban Muslims from entering the United States. The first time, Trump withdrew the order rather than defend it; the second order, he got the same result of an injunction against him, based upon his unconstitutional use of religion. As of the time I publish this article, no “Muslim ban” in effect. Eventually, we’ll see what the Supreme Court has to say about the issue, and it’s not a clear prediction either way there.
Another promise Trump made at every rally and debate was to “repeal and replace Obamacare.” When it turned out that this was going to be a harder thing to do than simply saying those words over and over again, Trump put close to zero thought into what the replacement was going to look like, failed to seek consensus on the replacement even within his own party, and instead threatened the members of his own party who weren’t reflexively on board with the idea with primaries. Since the people he wound up having to pressure were members of the House Freedom Caucus who don’t particularly fear primary challenges from their right, they stuck to their guns. Result: Trump backed down and Speaker Ryan pulled the vote. Trump ran away from the fight.
The other centerpiece campaign promise he made was the construction of a wall on the border with Mexico. And Mexico is going to pay for it. An extravagant promise, one which prompted former Mexican President Vicente Fox to find a native English speaker and double-check his translation before saying “No fucking way I’m paying for that wall.” Well, so far President Fox is on the better end of that exchange: Trump threatened to cut off remittances to Mexico only to find that he can’t do that, and when Candidate Trump took a trip to visit with the current President of Mexico, he carefully avoided his demand that Mexico pay for the wall. This demand, it appears, has not been renewed in any meaningful way during actual discussions with actual Mexican governmental officials.
He threatened to declare China a currency manipulator. That would have triggered some substantial responses at the WTO and called into question China’s Most Favored Nation status as a trading partner. Now that we need China to work in concert with us to rein in an aggressive North Korea, he backed off of that, too, breaking a campaign promise in the process.
He threatened to veto the spending stopgap bill if majority Republicans didn’t include startup funding for the border wall in this week’s spending limit vote to prevent a shutdown of the government. Again, not popular with the Freedom Caucus types who wanted to see spending cuts elsewhere to pay for it, so he had to take his threats elsewhere. Then, he threatened Democrats, saying they’d be blamed for a government shutdown if they didn’t agree to defund Obamacare insurance subsidies and Planned Parenthood. Democrats responded by saying, “Hey, do what you’ve got to do, Mr. President,” and Trump once again backed off rather than follow through.
Frustrated with his inability to get what he wanted out of Congress, that very same day he leaked, or had leaked, that he was going to sign an executive order indicating the United States’ intention to withdraw from NAFTA. Two telephone calls later — one from the President of Mexico and one from the Prime Minister of Canada — and that turned into “okay, we’ll renegotiate some key points instead of withdrawing.”
Then, there there was the “sanctuary cities” warning: certain jurisdictions were put on notice that Federal funds might not be sent to them unless they cooperated with Federal law enforcement’s efforts to deport undocumented aliens. That, too, has been shot down as unconstitutional. Now, like the “Muslim ban” order, it’s entirely possible that SCOTUS will reverse and allow the order to go forward. But this is far from certain, even with Justice Gorsuch now providing a fifth “conservative” vote.
Trump’s response to the “Muslim ban” and “sanctuary city” injunctions has been to threaten to “break up” the court that’s given him the most trouble in this arena, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But the judges on the Ninth Circuit aren’t going to care a bit about this threat. First of all, even Trump’s biggest fans know it’s very unlikely to happen. But even if their court is broken into two or three different appellate courts, the existing Ninth Circuit judges know that they’re going to continue being judges on one of those new courts, because the Constitution provides them with lifetime appointments so even if their court is split in two, they’re still going to be making the decisions on whatever new court they are assigned to serve.
Even the thing that actually got him some upward ticks in his approval ratings — shooting a phalanx of Tomahawk missiles at an airbase in Syria that had apparently been used to launch chemical warfare attacks on civilians who opposed the Assad regime — was quickly demonstrated to have done no significant damage to the Syrian military when more air strikes were launched from that same base within 24 hours. And even then, Trump was exposed to have disclosed the strike before it happened to the Russian military, which may well have been the right thing to do (we don’t want to start a war with Russia directly) but nevertheless made the whole missile strike thing look like a double nothingburger with cheese.
I can think of exactly one thing that Trump has gotten done that is of tangible political benefit to him: his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court was confirmed. But really, was this such a great accomplishment for Donald Trump? The credit (or blame, depending on your political perspective) for Justice Gorsuch’s seating really belongs to Mitch McConnell, who threw principle and precedent to the wind and flexed his own political muscle to keep that seat vacant for long enough and in the face of what at the time seemed like daunting odds to give Republicans a chance to fill it. McConnell’s gamble paid off, and realistically, wouldn’t ANY Republican President have nominated Gorsuch, or some other judge very much like him?
So thinking back to my junior high school bully — after taking one punch to the face before a crowd, he knew, instinctually, that his gig was up and he’d never be feared or respected again. How many punches to the face has Trump taken in these past three and a half months?
What has been Trump’s fundamental mistake? In my estimation, it’s hubris.
It makes [the prince] contemptible to be considered fickle, frivolous, effeminate, mean-spirited, irresolute, from all of which a prince should guard himself as from a rock; and he should endeavour to show in his actions greatness, courage, gravity, and fortitude; and in his private dealings with his subjects let him show that his judgments are irrevocable, and maintain himself in such reputation that no one can hope either to deceive him or to get round him.
That prince is highly esteemed who conveys this impression of himself, and he who is highly esteemed is not easily conspired against; for, provided it is well known that he is an excellent man and revered by his people, he can only be attacked with difficulty. For this reason a prince ought to have two fears, one from within, on account of his subjects, the other from without, on account of external powers. From the latter he is defended by being well armed and having good allies, and if he is well armed he will have good friends, and affairs will always remain quiet within when they are quiet without, unless they should have been already disturbed by conspiracy; and even should affairs outside be disturbed, if he has carried out his preparations and has lived as I have said, as long as he does not despair, he will resist every attack, as I said Nabis the Spartan did.
But concerning his subjects, when affairs outside are disturbed he has only to fear that they will conspire secretly, from which a prince can easily secure himself by avoiding being hated and despised, and by keeping the people satisfied with him, which it is most necessary for him to accomplish, as I said above at length.
Niccoló Machiavelli, Il Príncipe.
The President, on his own, can’t repeal and replace Obamacare or indeed any other law. He needs Congress to do that. He can rally his own party in Congress, if his partisans see advantage to themselves in picking up the President’s ball and moving it forward — or if they see risk to themselves in failing to do so. But Trump didn’t have a ball for them to move at all, and offered neither advantage nor the mitigation of risk. What he offered instead was bluster, and that bluster did not match political reality.
Similarly, shutting down the government is incredibly unpopular. It only makes sense to threaten this if you are sure you can pin the blame for it on someone else. A brand-new President, with majorities of his party in both houses of Congress, has nowhere to shift blame. Similarly, Obamacare subsidies are also popular, especially with constituents of Democrats, so Democrats had nothing to lose by resisting Trump’s demands. Indeed, they looked like heroes for standing up to Trump to protect peoples’ health insurance. And they couldn’t lose: the alternative was a government shutdown, for which Trump and the Republicans would take the blame, not themselves.
Without having first maneuvered the political landscape, he had only his own inherent power as President and that isn’t enough under the Constitutional system of checks and balances to carry the day.
The President can’t control the courts; at best, he can, over time, fill vacancies on the courts with judges who seem likely to issue rulings favorable to himself, but he can’t get rid of the judges who are there already and he can’t guarantee that even his own appointees won’t rule against him.
It’s not clear to me that the President can unilaterally withdraw the United States from NAFTA. The negotiation of that treaty was fast-tracked, meaning the Senate pre-approved the President’s negotiation of the deal. Then, afterwards, it ratified the deal, making it the second-highest law of the land, subordinate only to the Constitution. So it appears to me that, at some point although maybe not at the beginning of the process, Congress has to be involved to actually withdraw the U.S. from NAFTA.
The President, on his own, can’t make Mexico give us money for any reason at all. Mexico needs a reason to do that. Trump found out he can’t unilaterally obstruct remittances because that’s a substantial interference with individual private property rights. Since Mexico knew this all along, it’s not a surprise that Mexico never took this threat particularly seriously. Similarly, The President can declare China a currency manipulator unilaterally. But doing so carries a price: the loss of Chinese cooperation in other arenas. Trump was unwilling to pay that price once North Korea acted up with its missile testing. Query if he would have been willing to pay the price of a trade war with China at all, even absent belligerence from North Korea: again, he would have faced objections from at least a large faction within the Republican party, which coupled with reflexive and near-uniform objections from Democrats would have put him at loggerheads with Congress. As it turns out, with other foreign policy concerns mixed with economic concerns — and there are always other foreign policy concerns mixed with foreign trade — Trump again chose to withdraw before ever really entering the fight.
In all of these cases, Trump both overestimated his own strength, and underestimated the cost of acting as he threatened. He seems to truly not comprehend that no one, not even a President, can do politics alone. That’s especially true in a system of government deliberately structured to fragment and distribute power. This mistake is why he failed to seek allies before staking his political markers. He publicly demonstrated the limits of his power rather than the extent of his strength. Worse, he’s done so early during his Presidency, at a time when what he needed to do was demonstrate that his ability to make things happen politically exceeds the scope of his formal powers.
A bully needs the mystique of being the biggest, baddest, toughest hombre on the block. If he is seen to take a punch, if it is seen that it’s even possible for him to lose, everyone stops fearing him. That, it seems to me, is precisely what is happening now. For the first time since at least George H.W. Bush broke his “no new taxes” pledge and faced rebellion from his own party, the President appears to no longer be the leader of the government. We are effectively leaderless.
Donald Trump was never going to be loved, by anyone other than the hard core of his support group, representing no more than 45% of the Republican Party and thus about 10% of the people.1 With numbers like that, how’d he get elected at all? He got enough people, in just enough of the right places, to find him less odious than Hillary Clinton, for a variety of reasons. Being thought less bad than the alternative is a very different thing than being loved. His approval ratings reflect that.
And now, no one really fears him. Virtually every time he tries to do something that he can’t do entirely on his own, the political and institutional checks and balances built into our system prove to be too formidable for him to overcome. No one in Congress owes him anything. No one in Washington fears him. Nor anyone in Ottawa, Mexico City, Beijing, Damascus, Moscow, or Pyongyang. He’s tucked tail and ran when rabbit punched too many times now for other political actors to have failed to have noticed this pattern.
So it’s no wonder that he now complains that his job his harder than he expected it to be.
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) April 28, 2017
It didn’t get this way by chance. Having lost the ability to effectively make political threats, Trump must surely feel the absence of a fundamental political tool. The ship, in other words, lacks a captain able to administer discipline to the deckhands. Why, then, should they obey his orders?
Here’s the part that chills me as I see North Korea’s belligerence. Trump himself appears to have never read Machiavelli, or at least never understood him. But he has advisors who clearly have. They must surely be advising him that he needs to gain some political strength, as soon as possible. And just about the only thing that Trump has done that has gained him some level of political support beyond his narrow support base has been the missile strike on Syria.Traditionally, the public rallies around the flag when called to war and that reflects in higher Presidential approval ratings.
For myself, though, I’d much rather he didn’t seek political strength by way of a military confrontation with one or more of North Korea, China, or Russia: we’ve had quite enough unnecessary wars for the past sixteen years, thank you very much. What’s chilling to me is that Trump’s people are going to have to be quite a bit more clever than me to see a way other than this to put their President back into a place where he’s perceived as a leader again.
This past roughly one hundred days, by the way, was your “honeymoon period,” Mr. President. It’s very likely going to harder from here on out.
Image by Metropolico.org Notes:
- I compute this by noting that Trump received a total of 14,015,993 votes in the primaries, reflecting total number of people who preferred him to all other available candidate choices, and 136,669,237 votes were cast in the general election, giving us the total number of voters in the United States. [↩]