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A Princely Ransom

By: Michael M. Rosen
April 8, 2019

“A man who is used to acting in one way never changes,” Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince nearly 500 years ago. “[H]e must come to ruin when the times, in changing, no longer are in harmony with his ways.” 

Neither Machiavelli nor Carnes Lord, who recently published a second edition of his insightful 2003 book The Modern Prince, had President Trump in mind. But they might as well have been thinking of a similar leader—one of unchanging character, whose political success has hinged on whether that character has been in harmony with the times.

Indeed, Lord writes in his preface to the new edition, which reconsiders his now 15-year-old application of The Prince to global politics and leadership, “if this book can be said to belong to the literary genre of ‘mirror of princes,’ no one today better resembles the face in that mirror than the forty-fifth president of the United States,” whom even (and perhaps especially) Trump’s supporters would characterize as Machiavellian.

A professor of strategic leadership at the U.S. Naval War College and an alumnus of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, Lord limns Trump as “an outsider determined to shake the pillars of the temple while offering a quasi-messianic vision of an America made ‘great’ again”—precisely the type of “new order” initiator that the Florentine philosopher himself depicted as fraught with equal parts promise and peril.

He describes his book, “like The Prince itself,” as “a critical assessment of contemporary leadership, not a celebration of it.” Indeed, it is:

[D]eeply concerned with the growth of executive power and the trend toward plebiscitary leadership in the advanced democracies, and related phenomena such as the weakening of parties and the erosion of constitutional forms and the rule of law. At the same time, it indicts contemporary leaders for their failure to provide essential checks on powerful and democratically unaccountable institutions such as the judiciary, the bureaucracy, and the media, as well as the elites that dominate them. Contemporary leadership, I shall argue, combines strength and weakness in a peculiar and unsatisfactory way, one that ill serves the cause of constitutional democracy and should make us fear for its future.

Lord traverses the fields of law, administration, economics, education, and culture in search of lessons in successful leadership. But his analysis of statecraft, the “grammar of leadership,” is truly where the rubber meets the road.

Of the many virtues Aristotle propounds as necessary for effective leadership, none is more important than prudence—“a kind of intellectual discernment or cognition that is specially suited to political decision making,” a form of wisdom that enables leaders to render sound political judgment.

Machiavelli, too, elevated prudence among successful rulers’ virtues, and Lord adeptly explores how different regimes over time and around the globe have balanced legislative and executive power to optimize both stability and freedom. Ultimately, Lord reveals a clear preference for great (i.e. strong, shrewd, thoughtful, and wise) leaders capable of bridging such gaps.

Interestingly, many of the early-2000’s democratic leaders Lord mentions, such as Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, remain highly relevant in this decade as well. But his discussions of other national figures and their leadership styles, like Japan’s Yasuhiro Nakasone and France’s Francois Mitterand, feel dated. They also necessarily omit the role of contemporary populist movements on the Right and Left, like Japan’s Nippon Kaigi and France’s gilets jaunes.

But more importantly, Lord struggles to provide a satisfying answer to the question of how to empower the executive, in the U.S. and elsewhere, while channeling or reining in its powerful and potentially destructive impulses—an admittedly difficult balancing act.

“Humane and admirable men … are greatly to be desired as statesmen in most countries at most times,” Lord posits, but “[i]n extraordinary times, as Machiavelli plausibly teaches, they can become a liability.” At such moments, the reluctance to use force “needs to be consciously resisted if vital national purposes are to be served and power is not to be forfeited to unscrupulous thugs.”

Here, Lord provides license for the licentious, essentially authorizing exceptions to standard leadership’s rules and norms in times of emergency. But how and when, exactly, are such occasional usurpations of ordinary authority appropriate? After all, if every political campaign is a Flight 93 election, and every controversy over border security spending a national emergency, the exception would swallow the rule.

But perhaps most telling of all, Trump has violated two of Machiavelli’s cardinal rules of leadership: be feared rather than loved, and avoid surrounding oneself with flatterers. The 45th president is notorious for craving adulation and provoking sycophancy, nearly always to his and the nation’s detriment.

In the end, Lord is surely right to exhort Western governments to employ Machiavellian means to “preserve democracy from the barbarians.” But whether Trump proves himself up to the princely task of doing so, let alone justifies Lord’s bold placement of the 45th president in the “select company” of the first and 16th, will have to await publication of a third edition of Lord’s imperfect but ever-relevant analysis.