Some are furiously galvanized and organizing like mad. Some feel trapped in a surrealist movie, overwhelmed by confusion. Some have subsided into defeat and demoralization. The clash of paradigms is titanic, a tidal wave of protest crashing against the colossal ego of a uniquely unhinged and malevolent executive.
We have not been here before.
Tons of insightful analysis and practical advice are issuing from progressive groups. Every hour brings new petitions, talking points, and strategic propositions to counter the noxious river of cruelty, self-regard, and cynical bloviation gushing out of the White House. I have no doubt that people will be more active and better-organized this year than ever before: desperate to stanch the flow, they are pouring heart, soul, and muscle into the work of defending democracy. No one can know the outcome, but scenarios are flying, from early impeachment to a trumped-up coup d’etat to a terrorist attack from within (or as someone put it, a Reichstag moment).
We have been in some very tough places, but we have not been precisely here before.
Throughout the week since the inauguration, the ideas of Niccolo Machiavelli, an Italian Renaissance politician and writer, have been streaming through my mind. Machiavelli, who lived from 1469 to 1527, is most famous for his 1513 volume of practical advice for rulers, The Prince. His own political and diplomatic career ended in 1512, when the Medici defeated the Florentines, dissolving their republic. They had Machiavelli imprisoned and tortured, but he survived and retired to his estate to write. My quotations here are from the online Gutenberg edition of The Prince.
The Madman of Pennsylvania Avenue must surely be familiar with one of Machiavelli’s best-known propositions, put forward in Chapter 17: “[W]hether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.” Why? Because love may be withdrawn with little risk: “[M]en have less scruple,” Machiavelli wrote, “in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”
This week, quite a few people have posted on social media an unattributed text, a litany of the terrible things the evil White House occupant has done in his first days in office, starting here:
Those who study authoritarian regimes suggest keeping a list of abnormal events after a demagogue is elected, as a way to remind yourself that this isn’t normal and to keep from being overwhelmed into acceptance by the onslaught of attacks on our rights.
Here is a list below. We are 4 days in.
As the author says, “when you see all of this in one list, it is easy to get overwhelmed, at first– it is also easy to see a pattern and to finally, finally recognize that none of this is normal, nor is it ok.
I read it first on dream hampton’s Facebook page. (If you aren’t on Facebook, you’ll find it by scrolling down a bit here.)
When I consider this litany of crimes against the vulnerable—from cutting funding to the Department of Justice’s Violence Against Women programs and Civil Rights Division to eliminating the Legal Services Corporation; from slashing federal cultural and public-interest communication programs to unleashing the reprehensible bigot Steve Bannon to denounce and threaten press freedom; from cutting half a dozen environmental and energy programs to reinstating the Dakota Access Pipeline, destroying sacred lands so many have stood to protect—I see a Bully-in-Charge, drunk on his own power, dying to be loved, settling for being feared, wallowing in attention, failing to recognize that the more revulsion and loathing he attracts, the sooner he is likely to drown in it. He sees himself as the leading edge of a new world order controlled by the one percent, and that hyperinflated self-understanding will be his downfall.
The Butcher-in-Chief has done so many alarming things so quickly. He is an impatient person, so he could just be releasing the surplus of pent-up venom congesting his system post-inauguration, but I think the most likely meanings are two.
First, that he craves the triumphal thrill of pushing his opponents in postures of extreme defense, where he acts and all they can do is react. And second, that he hopes the chorus of alarm and anger greeting this barrage of crimes against democracy will occupy all the available political space, leaving him relatively free to do worse. As we wrote in a recent blog from the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (where I serve as Chief Policy Wonk), leading with gestures such as threats to eliminate the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, with budgets that amount to a tiny fraction of a single percentage point of federal discretionary spending, is a symbolic gesture intended signal budget-cutting without actually saving money. It spreads fear and occupies those who are terrorized with defensive action that diverts their attention from the much larger despicable actions he will take.
But maybe he’s just following solid 16th-century advice. In Chapter 8, Machiavelli says that “[I]n seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily; and thus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself by benefits. He who does otherwise, either from timidity or evil advice, is always compelled to keep the knife in his hand; neither can he rely on his subjects, nor can they attach themselves to him, owing to their continued and repeated wrongs. For injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less; benefits ought to be given little by little, so that the flavour of them may last longer.”
Of all the horrors of this past week, one of the most appalling has been the spectacle of progressive Democrats in Congress voting for Orange Outrage’s Cabinet nominees. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand voted for the egregious Nikki Haley as ambassador to the United Nations. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren voted for the phenomenally unqualified Ben Carson as HUD Secretary. Every Democrat except Gillibrand voted for Marine General James Mattis to run the Department of Defense. Senator Bernie Sanders and dozens of other Democrats voted to confirm General John F. Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security, cementing control by career military officers of both the armed forces and the internal security forces.
The nominations would most likely have won without them since Republicans control the Senate. When I read the Democratic Senators’ defense of these votes, I wonder if they are waking up in the same world that greets me each morning: Warren, for instance, said Carson had made detailed written promises, so he could be held accountable. How, I wonder? By whom?
For me, the explanation for this cowardice lies in Machiavelli’s discussion of the merits of fortresses versus colonies. Colonies are much cheaper, since instead of maintaining rule by force, entailing expensive troops and materiel, you do it by a kind of persuasion, making people believe it is futile to oppose you and that things will be smoother if they go along. “The…better course,” Machiavelli writes in Chapter 3, “is to send colonies to one or two places, which may be as keys to that state, for it is necessary either to do this or else to keep there a great number of cavalry and infantry. A prince does not spend much on colonies, for with little or no expense he can send them out and keep them there….”
#NotMyPresident’s shrewd move has been to colonize the Democrats, persuading them to do his bidding by plying them with heavy doses of normalization: be reasonable, you can’t oppose every move, you’ve got to give us a chance, the system will work, etc.
Sadly, this only demonstrates how little faith it is wise to place in the official party apparatus to counter the onslaught of Loathsomeness emanating from the Oval Office. It is not the strength of the official opposition party but The Occupant’s own weaknesses that are likely to enable We The People to bring him down.
Consider that while in almost every historic poll a new president is given higher marks than his predecessor, a kind of polling grace-period marked by benefit of the doubt, this president’s numbers hit an all-time low. As the Washington Post said of a 45 percent initial disapproval rating, “Remarkably, more people have a negative opinion of him than any other new president in his first job evaluation.”
In Chapter 19, entitled, “That One Should Avoid Being Despised And Hated,” Machiavelli describes “how to avoid those things which will make him hated or contemptible,” and therefore vulnerable. “It makes him hated above all things,” Machiavelli writes, “to be rapacious, and to be a violator of the property and women of his subjects, from both of which he must abstain….” He adds that “[O]ne of the most efficacious remedies that a prince can have against conspiracies is not to be hated and despised by the people.”
We already know that the Lowlife who inspired the knitting of a million pink pussy hats personifies lechery and rapaciousness. We already know that he is uniquely despised. Despite a history that includes far too many villains helming the ship of state, we have not been exactly here before. But we don’t need an exact precedent: some truths pass the test of time, remaining evergreen regardless of conditions:
[A] prince ought to reckon conspiracies of little account when his people hold him in esteem; but when it is hostile to him, and bears hatred towards him, he ought to fear everything and everybody.
It is sometimes hard to remember that every individual, even this Suppurating Wound of Narcissism and Resentment, can step off the chain of causality, repent, and pursue redemption by converting past harm to actions that heal. Despite the weak will of the political establishment, growing legions are out here—everywhere—to remind him of that, exhorting, obstructing, resisting, building, moving forward, their compasses trained on love and justice.
President Small Hands is so so blinded by the fog of self-adoration he exudes with each breath, I doubt he can see the writing on the wall.
But I can: Machiavelli nailed it. The people’s hate will grow each day and as it does the Prince of Parasites will fall.
I can’t find a video of this song to post, but you can listen to it on the John Trudell site: “Heavy Rain,” track 15 on the album Wazi’s Dream.
Making the best of a bad situation
Those days when it’s cry or kill
The verge of tears prays hard
for heavy rain to lay those fires down
He is an unfit Prince and I dread both our patina of enlightened leadership and real political strength is at risk on the world stage. Two FYI: https://aeon.co/essays/how-more-and-malthus-light-the-way-towards-humanitys-future
Resist indeed! Bravo Arlene!
[…] of the White House knows Machiavelli, but they see this question of power in similar ways, as I wrote at length in the scary first week following the January 2017 inauguration, quoting The […]
[…] on Machiavelli’s axiom that for a prince, it is better to be feared than loved (something I’ve written about repeatedly), as love can be withdrawn but fear has staying power. For those who are loyal and obedient, fear […]