Donald Trump never studied political philosophy; and for that those of us who have might say, “Thank God.” For one thing he would have been bored, and for another, if he had picked up any ideas from the effort, they more than likely would have been the wrong ones. More important, he didn’t need to read books by Niccolo Machiavelli and Xenophon, in order to demonstrate the instincts of boldness and cleverness that those authors observed and explained.
Reading the classic texts makes one marvel at how crafty and ambitious men, like the Persian emperor Cyrus the Younger, deployed breathtaking ingenuity to take power; in Cyrus’s case, even altering the political structure of his empire. Today scholars tend to assume that those wild days are long behind us because the American Constitution established a stable, well-regulated, and predictable system—which is almost always what we want. Almost. Sometimes, however, the system gets gummed up and needs someone a bit reckless and a bit crazy to kick things loose. This is where Trump’s natural instincts as a clever political animal have proven to be a kind of divine dispensation.
Historians can debate whether Trump is indeed a genius playing 3D chess, or instead just a very lucky blowhard who lurches from one victory to the next. But it’s hard not be impressed by three really daring strategies that represent what Machiavelli might have called “new modes and orders” in American politics. These original and unorthodox techniques could not have been pulled off—indeed would never have been conceived—by any of the more conventional candidates. In Trump-like fashion we can use three bold, exclamatory phrases to describe these strategies:
Stuff it! Every presidential candidate claims to run against “the Establishment.” So what? Trump ran as the anti-expert. Big difference. Most people aren’t really sure what “the Establishment” is anyway.
But nearly everyone’s life today is infested by arrogant weenies telling them what kind of toilets we can have, what lightbulbs we may buy, and which chicken sandwiches we aren’t supposed to eat. People don’t like this. They may want a certain level of expert knowledge in their doctors and airline pilots, at least in the abstract, but they hate having busybodies get in their faces every day. The collapse of so many conventional liberal institutions (what some have called the Blue Church) has exacerbated this inclination to be annoyed by experts enormously. From the media and pollsters, to Wall Street and the craziness of college campuses, it is increasingly clear that most self-appointed experts are—if you will forgive the technical jargon—full of shit. (This is the theme of Nassim Taleb’s excellent new book, Skin in the Game).
Trump capitalizes on this brilliantly. He fumbles and bumbles and brags and often seems to get mixed up as he talks. But no one cares, because even if his phrasing is sometimes inelegant, he will boldly say things that no one else dares to utter. What he lacks in eloquence, he makes up for in moral clarity. He means what he says. He talks like a bartender not a banker or a lawyer. He may not be right all the time, but he’s honest and blunt and, and thinks for himself. We know where he stands on the issues. Holy cow! Imagine that.
So people take him “seriously but not literally.” (That line was the most incisive thing said about the 2016 presidential campaign.) Importantly, however, he never pretends to be dumb. Just the opposite.
Flaunt it! Trump is not an expert, because experts are stuffy bores who live a disgusting, parasitic existence telling people what to do: consultants, economists, professors, financial advisors, journalists, etc. Trump is an entrepreneur and a tycoon. He doesn’t “consult.” He is successful, and he wants everyone to know it. He made his money building things, not just running his mouth.
This also means he’s smart. After all, he’s very rich, and in America, let’s face it, that matters. Along with the collapse of the liberal oligarchy we are seeing the genteel, understated good taste of the Bushes and the Obamas going down the drain as well. Its part of a vast social change that is under way. Rather than clinging to the remnants of this decrepit gentility, Trump is jamming down on the plunger with his big gold watch and poofy hair. And a lot people love it (some secretly). Again, no one else would have taken this approach. Indeed, any other Republican politician would have been horrified, and many still are. That’s why they aren’t in the White House.
Bring it! This is the biggest stroke of genius of all. In chucking the bullshit respectability of fake expertise and false modesty, Trump is making a brilliant calculation that it is time to sacrifice something real—the dignity of the office of President. This is probably what bothers a lot of people the most. (It’s certainly what the NeverTrumpers claim to be most offended by.)
But Trump needs to do this to finish off the liberal establishment, especially the press. He came to office with a certain outsized, garish, New York persona, which set him up perfectly to send outrageous tweets, be politically incorrect, and drive liberals into a frenzy. He plays them like a fiddle in some respects, but he also has to be willing to get down and dirty.
He stays close to the edge and slips sometimes. This is necessary. His reputation is important, to be sure; but Trump is making a strategic gamble with it. He knows that, unlike him, the media has only its reputation. It has nothing else to fall back on. No one can make people watch a news program or buy a newspaper or read a blog.
When Trump is done, and a plurality of Americans clearly see the conventional media as phony liars, they are dead. He, however, has earned credit with his policies and judicial appointments, and has a dozen other ways to recover and rebuild. So he’s a sacrificing a knight or maybe even a queen to checkmate the liberal media. It’s a mud-wrestling match, and he will look ugly; but he will survive and they will lose. And there will be no coming back for them. It’s brilliant. No one else would even have dreamed of this.
Trump is willing to be unpresidential to win. He is willing to use what Machiavelli called the beastly arts—the virtues of the lion and especially the fox, which is expert in spotting traps. By implication, this includes setting traps—one of Trump’s great gifts. A politician who uses the way of the fox is willing to “stoop to conquer.” Again, this makes him unique among Republicans, who generally care more about themselves—their meretricious dignity and prestige—than they do about their country. But a winning president is better than a presidential president. That’s one lesson his rivals still don’t understand.
And it’s why he will keep winning.
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