Alex Priou is a teaching Assistant Professor in the Herbst Program for Engineering, Ethics, and Society at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is the author of Becoming Socrates: Political Philosophy in Plato’s Parmenides.
Faced with the dispute of “whether it is better to be loved than feared,” Machiavelli answers that it is best to be both. In reality, however, they are difficult to combine, for one would have to be all benevolent and all powerful, a rare combination. Since, then, a prince must ordinarily choose between them, Machiavelli submits that it is much safer to be feared. Why safer? He explains that, “since men love at their convenience and fear at the convenience of the prince, a wise prince should found himself on what is his, not on what is someone else’s.” Capable of doing only limited good, and so of accruing only limited love, a wise prince will rely only on what he can control, his fear-inducing actions. Machiavelli’s advice serves as a basic maxim of modern politics; in practice, however, it is more useful to princes than to Presidents, since elections leave the people free to exchange a leader they fear for one they hope to love. So much is this the case that the history of electoral politics could well be viewed as a series of fleeting dalliances between the American electorate and their favorite of the day.
Machiavelli does give some advice of use to a wise President, namely, that as circumstances change so too must the prince change the mode in which he conducts himself. For example, during a period of rampant crime, such as our own, a President would do well to emphasize law and order and to give examples of his toughness and even cruelty, however gentle or indifferent he may actually be as a private individual. So conducting himself, he or his administration would give the people reason to fear the state, and so obey the law; he would also give them reason to love him, in the relief he brings. Thus, an elected President might be able to manage the fickle love of the people by exhibiting outwardly those qualities they require of a leader—as indeed he must, lest they replace him with another who does. Such a President might even inspire the electorate with his heart, his spirit, and his orders and so overcome “that trite proverb, that whoever founds on the people founds on mud.”
President Trump would have done well to have heeded Machiavelli’s advice. His brash up-ending of norms was an effective tactic in exposing the excessive caution—even cowardice—of his Republican opponents, as evidenced by their eventual imitation of him in both policy and style; likewise, his general anti-establishment posture carried him through the primaries and the general election into the White House, not impeded but instead aided by the disdain his establishment opponent had for him and his supporters. But Trump’s tendency to stick to this mode, after the election and while in office, ended up being a hindrance. There, he tended to emphasize the failings of his political opponents, even his own party, instead of touting what he and those aligned with him had accomplished. This hindrance would eventually prove catastrophic, after the coronavirus pandemic set in. Unexpectedly laden with economic worries and afraid for their health, the American people could little endure constant controversy but rather wanted calm assurance that their government was doing all that could be done. It would be unfair to Trump to say that he did not attempt to adjust his mode. He certainly did. But he inevitably folded before his two enemies: the lingering resentment of his political opponents, who now smelled blood in the water, and his own inveterate habits.
It is a credit to then-candidate Joe Biden, or to his handlers, that they recognized Trump would implode, if left to his own devices. The first Presidential debate, in particular, seems to me to have been emblematic of this inevitability; it was emblematic, too, of the tacit promise Biden had made with the American people, that he was the safest candidate to ensure Trump would be a one-term President; and that, if elected, we would hear nary a peep from him. Trump’s failed attempt to dub Joe Biden “Sleepy,” in imitation of his successful branding of Jeb Bush as “Low Energy,” suffices to show how vastly different the conditions were in 2020 from four years prior. Just enough voters were willing to trade policy for tranquility. Fortune had changed, but Trump’s mode had not. And so he was inevitably swept downstream, at least for now.
As with so many of his predecessors, however, President Biden’s honeymoon with the American people has been short-lived—unprecedentedly short, in fact. The implosion of Afghanistan, as great an unforced error in politics as I’ve ever seen, and the persistence of the pandemic, with its alphabet soup of variants, has given Americans the impression that their placid President has left the ship of state unhelmed. All of this has led to a legitimacy problem for Biden. Properly understood, this crisis has loomed over him since the day he took office. If the primary reason the people have elected you is that you are not the current President, then the source of your legitimacy disappears once you’ve sworn the oath of office. Eventually, the American people will observe that you’ve served your purpose and that you’re bad at your job, and so will ask themselves, “What’s he still doing here?” A pawn should be proud, if he takes out a king; but in the next match he should recall his expendability.
This crisis has extended beyond President Biden to encompass his party. The failure in Virginia to malign the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Glenn Youngkin, as a Trump surrogate has shown that the former President’s behavior is not as much of a living concern for average Americans now as it was just a year ago. (Ironically, but not unexpectedly, Twitter’s banning of Trump, much desired by the left, seems to have aided rather in the collapse of the current President. Persistent tweeting from Trump might have served as a daily reminder of the relief Biden had brought them.) Much more alive are problems like crime and inflation, issues the administration has done little to address and much to exacerbate. Such issues, in addition to the aforementioned policy failures, have threatened the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency and thus served as catalysts for the Democrats’ collapse in popularity.
It is not much of a surprise that Biden did not notice this looming crisis. It is more of a surprise that his advisors and party didn’t. Most surprising, however, is the ambitious legislative proposals that he and the Democrats have advanced, despite barely eking out a victory in the executive branch and a majority in the legislature, a victory especially modest in light of their deeply controversial opponent. It is a rare combination of folly and ambition to pursue a transformative agenda when so little is wanted of you—nothing, really. Placid when he should be active, and active when he should be placid, President Biden appears to follow Machiavelli’s advice, to change modes with the times, but in exactly the opposite manner than he should. So far from the Machiavellian ideal is Biden that he seems to be rather the Machiavellian nadir. It is an execrable distinction, no doubt, but one justly earned.
Another of Machiavelli’s statements helps account for Biden’s collapse, that fortune favors the young and impetuous. Adaptability, too, is a young man’s game. It is clear that, should present circumstances persist, whoever replaces him will capitalize on his manifest weaknesses: unimpeded crime, inflation, and immigration, along with a general docility and infirmity that increasingly verges on dereliction of duty. Perhaps also education. It would be too easy, then, for Biden’s replacement to mistake the impressive range of his predecessor’s failures for an all-encompassing mandate from the American people. But this would be to ignore another of Biden’s mistakes, his massive overreach with the multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure and Build Back Better bills. A prince who does not see that he rides the tide risks being swept up in it, especially if his vanity inclines him to mistake the forces of necessity and circumstance for popular approval of his abilities.
A more modest and sober assessment would lead to a restricted focus on inflation and crime, addressing those most popular concerns of physical security and material comfort—concerns that constitute the psychological backbone of modern economics and politics. Education reform might also receive popular support. To pursue more than this would risk demanding greater glory than is available even to the best. Machiavelli speaks of the generosity of princes who spend little, and for that reason tax little, and of the mercy of princes who are cruel only to criminals, and so bring relief to the general populace. Such policies might never provide sufficient evidence of the greatness political leaders hope to win for themselves. They are evidence, at best, only of limited virtue, for which the people will give you only so much love and thus offer you only so much glory. But a wise President pursues only the greatness that fortune promises him.