Scheming. Cunning. Amoral. Unscrupulous. Duplicitous. Deceitful. Unethical. Strong words that pull up feelings of angst and disgust. They are words that paint frowns leave darkness in their wake. Dramatic, I know.
As it turns out, at the turn of the 16th century, there emerged one word that encompassed all of the above. ‘Machiavellian’. It was derived from a book called ‘The Prince’ written by political theorist Nicoló Machiavelli and ever since - his surname has been synonymous with the kind of social and political manipulation that we now take for granted today.
I recently read this book in response to the news that Donald Trump (or Drumpf as I prefer to call him) had all but secured the nomination for the Republican party in the lead up to the presidential election in the United States. Trump’s candidacy has been shocking to watch as he has shouted his way into the lead and somehow has energised a worn-out electorate to vote for him despite his machiavellian tendencies.
(I still don’t quite know how I would feel if a book I wrote turned my surname into an adverb. It must be strange.)
So I picked up ‘The Prince’ which had been sitting on my shelf for a while - and I dug in. It was quite the experience.
Machiavelli writes to the Roman leaders of the time - explaining his theories and ideas for how to rule their people and maintain power in the midst of unrest and uncertainty. It is essentially a political treatise that would become the market-leading political playbook going forward. A lot of the ideas in the book would seem to us to be of second-nature, because we are so used to politicians (both locally and abroad) weaving their stories and attacks into the political narrative and using that to gain power. However, we must remember that at this time (16th century) this was a revolutionary way of doing things. Previously you gained power through iron, blood and brute force. Now, for the first time, Machiavelli suggests that you can achieve the same control over your people using softer skills such as influence, persuasion and social manipulation. He suggests it is not necessary to be the strongest or to have the most powerful army - but rather by using strategy and gamesmanship, you could achieve the same result, if not better.
This fundamental notion was like dark magic at the time. The careful consideration of various actions and reactions in order to manipulate the circumstances - in order to keep a firm grasp on the power that you so desperately craved. It gave you the reins in a very literal sense.
You could build the biggest tower in the city - not by destroying everyone else’s - but rather by subtly undermining the foundations of other towers and letting the masses do the destruction.
It’s a sobering thought.
Well… Is it really?
If I look at politicians today, everything I have just described seems to be fair game. It seems to be part of the lexicon. In fact, it seems to be a necessary strategy if you want to win elections. We have taken those tactics for granted and have created a new industry called ‘politics’ where those tactics are best practice. That is terrifying to me.
I see it with myself as well. I find myself watching House of Cards and I marvel at the way that Francis and Claire Underwood weasel their way through the White House. I find myself in awe of the chess moves they make and how they plot people against one another in order to advance their own interests - while maintaining the upper hand in the eye of the public.
Why do I find that so awe-inspiring? I really shouldn’t. I should be disgusted at the way they use people.
But I’m not. That’s just the truth.
And that, I think, is the real point here.
Shows like House of Cards and books like The Prince are making that exact point.
Politics is merely a game. It is a game played by a small minority of power-hungry people who will stop at nothing to grab at that mantle. People who will stop at nothing to tear others down on the way to the top. People who will do all they can to become the puppet masters they always dreamed they could be.
Now of course, I am generalizing. And thank goodness I am.
Because politics is also what keeps our society together. It gives us democracy and freedom and promises to speak up for the man on the street. Whether that happens or not is another issue, but the promise is there. As a country and as a world we are crying out for leaders that can lead with their moral compass held up to the sky. Leaders that can lead with the nation’s interests in pole position, sacrificing their own.
And yet I don’t see them.
I see Donald Trump. With a machiavellian election strategy unlike anything I have ever seen…
To think that he has a 50% chance of becoming the leader of the free world leaves me speechless.
I hate writing about politics. I’d much rather write about leadership.
We need real leaders. Today. Let’s make Nicoló Machiavelli’s book obsolete.