Most students of international affairs, power, and diplomacy are made to read Machiavelli’s The Prince, usually within their very first year of study. While Machiavelli is often misunderstood on moral terms (ie, being amoral as opposed to immoral), the one part of The Prince universally understood is how it is meant to be a primer on how leaders can first get and then keep power. Now that we are more than six months into the Trump presidency one thing is clear: Donald J. Trump has NOT read or understood Machiavelli. If anything, he has employed the chief principles of Machiavelli in reverse, thus begging the question: is the American president trying to oust himself?
First, the pinch of corruption. Whether it is the loose application of quasi-nepotism, the impression of not wanting to do much work in serious terms, or the attempt to implement policy choices that are engineered to only bring himself and his immediate top 1% allies benefits and advantages, Trump has angered many people with what seem like rather brazen grabs at self-indulgent aggrandizement. Even worse is a record of playing purposely fast-and-loose with the truth that is at the least extremely unbecoming for the Office of the President. This is not to say the White House does not have a long and rich history of subterfuge and misleading statements from both parties holding the chief office. Rather, it is the growing societal impression that Trump doesn’t just lie: he lies rampantly and almost incessantly over nearly every issue he tweets about.
Second, a trace of treason. Even if the likely outcome of the Russia investigation reveals no ‘smoking gun’ piece of evidence to prove actual collusion and/or the purposeful undermining of the 2016 presidential election, the vast majority of people in America now believe Trump or his team had numerous meetings with Russian agents for nefarious purposes and intentions. Not succeeding in actually corrupting the presidential election does not, for many, forgive the fact that it seems like some on the Trump team wanted to do just that. In standard American law, the attempt to commit crimes is in fact still illegal. We do not wait to see if the illegal behavior is actually successful. Especially when the issue being discussed involves potential treason by the chief executive of the United States.
Third, a double-cross of your allies. Trump is a Republican. Or, rather, Trump was elected running as a Republican. Ever since that moment he has done one maneuver after another where he has either confused his GOP allies or has had them call into question his competence and/or understanding of how to be a good Republican. This reached its nadir just last week when a media story leaked how some Republican Senators were actually overheard joking in horror about how crazy the president was and what a nightmare his presidency has become. Just yesterday the estimable conservative lion, Sen. Lindsey Graham, declared there would be ‘holy Hell to pay’ if the rumors proved true that Trump was considering firing Attorney General Sessions for…well…for reasons no one really seems to have even an inkling of understanding.
Fourth, a broadside of the Intelligence Community. I have already written openly about the perplexing and dangerous animosity that exists between the president and the United States Intelligence Community. Even worse, this animosity doesn’t just have the president questioning the integrity and relevance of the IC: it has the disturbing potential consequence of turning the IC into an openly politicized entity aligned against the president. If you ever want to know how bad it can be when a country’s intelligence community becomes openly politicized, then just examine Russia, Iran, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, China, and the like. NOW remember that those examples are cases of the intelligence community being politicized but aligned WITH the ruling leadership. Just imagine how much chaos can be caused when it is politicized and aligned against?
Fifth, a disrespecting of military leadership. Trump likes to claim being a great friend to the military. But so far, he has been disjointed and inconsistent in his pronouncements about military policy or military initiatives. That reached a peak this week when Trump once more tweeted out a major policy change when he basically said all transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve their country. A controversial point without doubt, but Trump mentioned specifically in his tweet that he came to this conclusion only “after consultation with my Generals and military experts.” Could this be a welcome departure for President Trump, having finally reached out for advice and guidance from relevant officials before making a decision, even if one packed with political dynamite? Apparently not, given that immediately after the tweet the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the literal top leadership of every branch of the United States military) came out with their own statement that gave the impression that a) they were utterly dumbfounded by the President’s tweet and were not consulted at all and b) existing military policy regarding respect and equality to all serving members would continue. Given how fresh this is, it is still too early to figure out which is more shocking: that the President can claim to have been consulted by ‘top military experts’ but those experts do not apparently include his Joint Chiefs of Staff or that said group has basically issued a public declaration that the President’s desired policy change is going to be ignored and disobeyed.
So welcome to the apparent inversion of Machiavelli. The current President of the United States seems to be making every maneuver to ensure failure in office and, if the circumstances were different and the case study scenario moved to another location, could very easily end up in the blossoming of a coup d’etat. When you take the five ingredients elaborated above and mix them together with the robust energy of dismissive arrogance and insulting machismo (the two things that most embody Trump’s brand of public speaking), then it is fortunate that the United States has such a strong structural history of political stability and democratic process. Because in many other countries all over the world these exact same ingredients, mixed in the exact same way, would have already produced a forceful change of power.