Ambition and the Ends of Government

One of my favorite journals, The New Criterion, recently posted an article by one of my favorite commentators, James Piereson (disclosure: I’ve know Jim for 30 years, since I worked for him at the John M. Olin Foundation), which pours some some clear water of Machiavellian realism into the muddy debate over Trump’s character.  

Jim is a fine example of the patriot-scholar, and I never fail to learn from his writing. But I would offer a friendly demur, or perhaps clarification, to his article. While he is certainly right that Machiavelli provides edifying lessons about our current politics (I made this very argument myself, here at American Greatness, last year) Jim overemphasizes and thus distorts the role of unprincipled realpolitik in the Founding.

According to Piereson, “Modern politics, following Machiavelli, rests upon a foundation of competing interests in recognition of the fact that, when push comes to shove, interests will trump morals.”  Quoting Federalist Papers 10 and 51, Piereson argues that James Madison and the other framers followed Machiavelli in believing that, “a modern state must be constructed on a foundation of interest, not of morality and virtue. Interest in the end is a more reliable foundation than virtue.”

There is much truth here. But not the whole truth.

Another old friend and teacher (I’ve been very blessed!), professor Charles Kesler, is not only the editor of the Claremont Review of Books, but also, like Piereson, a scholar of the Federalist Papers. Kesler argues that what Federalist 10 and 51 say about the “rejection of ideological politics is sound as far as it goes, but it does not properly distinguish between political ideology and political philosophy.”  Ambition and interest are the beginning, but not the end, of Publius’s wise teaching about American constitutionalism. “Interest group politics,” Kesler explains, “cannot be defended apart from the ends that it is intended to serve and that therefore legitimize it, which ends must exist in public opinion.” The legitimate ends—as opposed to the means or mechanisms—of our government are the safety and happiness of the citizens. Interest may be channeled to serve these ends, but it cannot be an end in itself.

Indeed, one may reasonably ask what self-interest Donald J. Trump thought he would serve by running for President of the United States. As many commentators have noted, he was in 2016 a famous, wealthy, 70 year-old man, who enjoys golf and had not previously served in any elected office. What self-serving advantage did he—does he—hope to satisfy with the long hours, intense public scrutiny, and the incessant, vituperative attacks on himself as well as on his family (attacks which even Jimmy Carter considers unprecedented)?

Piereson himself suggests an answer. “Is Trump perhaps, then, the ultimate Machiavellian, pretending to be a demagogue, a crude and tasteless public figure like many of our Hollywood celebrities, all for the purpose of achieving some large service on behalf of his country? That is also a possibility worth considering, in which case he would deserve to go down in history as one of the great actors of all time.”

This hints at an interpretation of Machiavelli rather different from the traditional “teacher of evil” that Piereson describes. If Trump’s self-interest is that of a patriotic citizen devoted to “some large service on behalf of his country,” then surely this enlarged and enlightened sense of interest is not opposed to, but rather in the service of, “morality and virtue.” It would be a kind of Machiavellianism that, in the words of Federalist 1, subdues “accident and force” in order to perpetuate a political regimes of “reflection and choice.”

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