Machiavelli: Netanyahu and Trump

pBibi Netanyahu won the 2019 Israeli general election. He has, in my mind, correctly been hailed as a brilliant Machiavellian politician, even by those strongly opposed to his policies and performance. As Gal Beckerman wrote in The New York Times, “no one can dispute his genius at political survival.” And survival in power is at the core of Machiavellianism. Neill Lochery, in his 2016 biography of Bibi, The Resistible Rise of Benjamin Netanyahu, painted a portrait of a politician fixated on survival, on persistence, on endurance. It is the essence of Netanyahu’s modus operandi. As Lochery wrote, Netanyahu’s career “has been all about survival.” Not quite!

Some, or even most, commentators believe that this focus on retaining power and developing the resilience to do so is incompatible with having goals and an agenda. But that would be incorrect. The goal of Bibi has always been to secure the geographical boundaries of an expanded Israeli state even as Lochery portrayed the details of Bibi’s Machiavellian domestic and foreign moves. Contrary to popular opinion, Bibi is not a radical right ideologue cut from the same cloth as his father, Benzion Netanyahu. A two-state solution, yes, but not necessarily a two-state solution. Benzion would never have made such a concession.

On the other hand, Netanyahu junior did not simply bow to the left and then to the right just to keep power. Keeping power was a requisite to achieving his long-term goal. That is why he is a Machiavellian and not an ideologue like his father. And that is why he is neither a pragmatist nor a practitioner of realpolitik. That is why he is also not an immoral fantasist like Trump. He has been and remains flexible as required by the historical moment, but to retain power, and to retain power to achieve a specific goal.

Lochery incorrectly dubs this “pragmatism.” There are two meanings to pragmatic, in ordinary parlance suggesting practicality or common sense in contrast to conceptual or aesthetic ideals, and, in a second meaning, a derivative adjective of the philosophy of pragmatism. But Lochery errs in branding Bibi a pragmatist in either sense. He is definitely NOT wedded to common sense, but displays an uncommon sense of what it takes to stay in power while refusing to adjust to what others consider common sense in dealing with the security and survival of the State of Israel. One may disagree with his vision of how to achieve it or whether that should be the goal, but that is his vision. He has one, but Machiavellian means offer the instruments to achieve such a goal.

Nor is Bibi a philosophical pragmatist who insists that an idea is valid if it is doable, if it works, if it leads to success. Bibi is committed to the idea of a stronger, expanded Israeli state even if a majority of Israelis, and certainly the rest of the world, are committed to reifying some version of the Israeli 1967 state. An idea is not simply valid because it can be successful. In Netanyahu’s definition, the job of a politician is to use the means necessary to make his vision of the future succeed.

A Machiavellian politician has a huge political toolkit to pursue success rather than be committed to others’ views of success. Pragmatists don’t simply twist and turn to adapt to the flavour of the day. They are instrumentalists of a very high order, but a very different instrumentalism than Machiavellianism. And that Machiavellianism does not convert Netanyahu to the practice of realpolitik either. Bibi held onto Israel’s ties to a bipartisan American vision of Israel, but, at the first opportunity to make a move when an opening occurred to advance his goal, he sacrificed that fundamentalist conviction of fostering American bipartisan support for Israel that previously defined the character of Israeli political success. In the process, he will soon supersede Ben Gurion and become the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history.

I propose to tackle Netanyahu’s Machiavellianism by considering his political practices, both under the popular view of Machiavelli and the scholarly view of Machiavellianism. In the next blog, I will then see how Moses as well, who Machiavelli admired enormously, can be seen as a Machiavellian in the scholarly interpretation I put forth.

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, an Italian diplomat and politician, historian and philosopher of the Renaissance, has deeded to modernity an idea of politicians as simply scheming unprincipled opportunists who will use any means available to retain power. A politician to succeed must be cunning, constantly scheming and inherently unscrupulous. Politics is then viewed as a high-level confidence game based on deception and manipulation. On the personal level, politics may even be neurotic and narcissistic, pessimistic and paranoid, self-serving and stealthy. Both the principle of “the end justifies the means” and the strategies embraced by realpolitik have been credited to Machiavelli. This is Machiavelli’s legacy in the popular imagination, but is this what he thought?

Though Donald Trump shares a few of the above characteristics, he is too impulsive and so lacking in self-control and discipline that he would be considered an insult even to the popular view of Machiavellianism. More importantly, Trump is a liar on a gargantuan level and he tells lies that are easily exposed. “Wikileaks is a marvellous godsend.” “I know nothing about Wikileaks and have nothing to do with it.” Trump repeatedly utters the most contradictory of assertions. Most importantly, Trump’s narcissistic psychopathy is self-destructive, while Machiavellianism, even in the popular imagination, is identified with a determination to succeed. What Netanyahu’s Machiavellianism and Donald Trump’s psychopathy have in common is an indifference to public moral standards and a willingness to push forward with little if any regard for the effects on others.

However, does this popular view of Machiavelli have anything to do with the views Machiavelli espoused. His most famous book is Il Principe (The Prince) or The Ruler. In Chapter 6 entitled, “Of New Dominions Which Have Been Acquired by One’s Own Arms and Ability,” he depicts Moses as a ruler who rose to power through his ability, even though he is often depicted as a man who simply carries out the will of God. Like other great leaders, Moses was an opportunist, not in the sense of taking advantage of others, but in turning situations he faced into opportunities to advance an agenda.

True Machiavellians are men of courage and ability. Donald Trump is a coward and offers little evidence of any analytic skills, though he certainly has an instinctive grasp of populism. Further, Machiavellians are reformers rather than restorationists of nostalgic agendas. Disagreements with the direction of those reforms should not blind an observer to respecting an agenda as infused with advancing the ruler’s vision of the well-being of the polis. Trump, unlike Bibi, has absolutely no vision of the well-being of the American polis. And, Bibi, contrary to much of his portrayal, is not a mini-Trump, even though he faces indictments and Trump may do the same, even though both denounce fake news, even thought Bibi advertises his partnership with The Donald and even though they both seem to enjoy a strong personal rapport. The reality is that Bibi is a nationalist of a very different order than Donald Trump, a visionary rather than nostalgic nationalist.

Unlike Trump, true Machiavellians, in advancing their agendas, recognize the fickleness of the public, note that enthusiasms wane and fade. The true Machiavellian is able to sustain a long-term agenda and, in some way, use penalties to enforce discipline and accept sacrifices for the sake of a long-term goal. Their tenacity is not to be confused with blind dogmatism indifferent to realities on the ground. Rather, a Machiavellian in the scholarly rather than popular sense has to deal with the resentments and resistances within the body politic and recognize that, however despised or resented for the tactics used, eventually he will be lauded and honoured and accorded affection and respect. The men close to the real Machiavellian are loyal and devoted; a great Machiavellian is able to expand and grow that core rather than treating others as disposable instruments à la Trump.  

Bibi Netanyahu aspires to be an authentic Machiavellian even if he does not quite succeed. Donald Trump does not even qualify as a player. Bibi Netanyahu demonstrates superior skills in manipulating others, whether Donald Trump himself or Vladimir Putin, while Donald Trump goes through acolytes as if they were candy lifesavers. But there is another even more profound difference between an authentic Machiavellian and a Donald Trump. Machiavellians and Trumpists both despise those saintly and noble figures who make a profession of goodness. They regard such a person as fated to come to grief since politics is considered, by authentic Machiavellians, as the art of the possible rather than the delusion of the impossible, whether bad or good. Trumpists are simply bad. Machiavellians make discerning judgements about when it is best to be good and, at the same time, recognize whom one must ignore and what good can be discarded in favour of longer-term goals and aspirations.

Where Netanyahu fails as an authentic Machiavellian compared to Moses is in his lack of prudence in charting a course that avoids scandal and indulgence in vices that undermine his hold on power. That does not mean that an authentic Machiavellian will not use vices and bad means if viewed as necessary to maintaining his rule. The measure is not whether an action is characterized as virtuous or a vice, but whether the action contributes to one’s success or undermines it. Thus, a true Machiavellian ruler is not ostentatious, but a miser. At the same time, he is willing to set aside parsimony when incoming revenue is sufficient and enterprises can be initiated which benefit the people, or, at the very least, do not impose additional burdens. However, more generally, an authentic Machiavellian adopts a practice of niggardliness, even though it is a vice, but does so only when it reinforces his reign and hold on power.

That principle applies to virtues as well as vices. Mercy is a virtue. An authentic Machiavellian must both display and be considered merciful. But not weak. He should not appear to be a wimp or a bleeding heart. More importantly, the high value placed on mercy should not detract from a willingness to be cruel when considered necessary to secure the well-being and stability of the realm and when critical to ensuring citizens remain united and faithful. The latter is critical. For in all situations, an authentic Machiavellian fosters unity even as he suffers and even destroys forces directed at disunity. An authentic Machiavellian may be a dissembler, but his goal is never to fracture the body politic, but to strengthen and reinforce it. Sacrifice others when absolutely necessary. But never sacrifice simply because of personal inconvenience or distaste.

Loyalty must be developed, not presumed. Individuals must not be discarded whenever they fail to meet the whims and standards of the moment. Though a true Machiavellian is not driven by a desire to earn the love of the people, he certainly wants to avoid inflaming their hatred. A pathological psychopath as a leader will wallow in public demonstrations of affection to soothe his insecurities. An authentic Machiavellian will not kowtow to win affection, but will scrupulously seek endurance and prevent hatred driving the emotions of the populace. A true Machiavellian practices a politics of hope rather than fear, but hope founded on prudence rather than wishes and dreams or fantasies and delusions.

Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the psychopathic narcissistic ruler in contrast to an authentic Machiavellian one is the disrespect the former holds with respect to the rule of law while the latter holds law in the highest esteem. However, a Machiavellian is not an idealist. He must be willing to employ force whenever necessary. A true and great ruler will know when law must be bracketed and force employed. As Machiavelli wrote, “One must be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.” Always a fox but, if necessary, a lion. But one always able to disguise and hide one’s foxiness, to disguise this character and feign another. A true fox dissembles so that he is not recognized as a fox. Abraham Lincoln offers and excellent example. What is most important is that the fox succeed in his deceptions.

Abraham Lincoln projected mercy, was seen to have a reservoir of deep faith, humanity and religion topped off by integrity. He was to all public purposes “Honest Abe.” Netanyahu rarely if ever lives up to such a standard as much as he tries and aspires to be an authentic Machiavellian. In the end, he lacks what it takes to excel as a Machiavellian. On the other hand, compared to most of his rivals domestically and on the world stage, he is an exemplar of Machiavellianism.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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