Last year, Christian conservatives had serious reservations about Donald Trump. I was among them. But many of us voted for him anyway. For most, the calculation was straightforward. The end—protecting ourselves, our children, and our country from an increasingly hostile progressivism—justified the means, the Trump presidency. This raises a crucial question: May Christians make such a calculation? Or did those of us who voted for Trump on those terms forfeit our Christian principles?
St. Paul warns us that we are not to do evil that good might come, which means we should not endorse a wicked political leader, even if he holds out the promise of forestalling greater evils. This focuses the question about voting for Trump: Is he an evil politician? Some think it is obvious that Trump is a man without principle. This, many assume, is the very definition of a wicked political leader. Machiavelli, however, famously argued that no leader in the real world of politics can let principle get in the way of the exercise of power. So we return to Trump: Assuming he is a Machiavellian in his approach to power, may Christians support him?
In truth, Machiavelli’s teaching on power and principle is complicated. On the one hand, there is a benign Machiavelli, the advocate of a tough-minded but humane power politics. On the other hand, there is the dark Machiavelli, who claimed that political leaders cannot be bound by any moral standards. This is the Machiavelli who, in the words of Leo Strauss, might be seen as a “teacher of evil.”
It’s reasonable to see Trump as a benign Machiavellian. Machiavelli revolutionized political philosophy—and laid the groundwork for modern politics—by emphasizing self-interest as the dominant passion in human nature and the fundamental principle of political life. “It is,” he famously observed, “a thing truly very natural and ordinary to desire to acquire.”
As a candidate for the presidency, Trump appealed more directly to naked self-interest than any national politician in recent memory. According to him, free trade has offshored the jobs Americans depend upon to support themselves, while unrestrained immigration has driven down the wages for the jobs that remain. Meanwhile, our foreign policy adventurism has cost trillions of dollars, money with which, Trump has noted, “we could have rebuilt the country three times.” His rhetoric was that of an astute Machiavellian. He grounded his candidacy on the most reliable force in human nature, giving voters a solid, down-to-earth, easily grasped reason to vote for him: their own self-interest.
There’s a further Machiavellian dimension to Trump’s campaign strategy. Machiavelli taught that human nature is not entirely uniform. Every city has “two humors”: “the people and the great.” As we say, our society is divided between ordinary people and the elites. According to Machiavelli, a wise prince should ally himself with the people. They are both more numerous and far safer as a power base. That’s because ordinary people are more moderate than elites, and are more easily satisfied. Both the people and the great are self-interested. But the people are less ambitious and less aggressive. The great mass of people want only not to be oppressed; they do not seek to rule. By contrast, the great always seek supereminence, which makes them rivals of the prince. They wish to rule.
Trump’s populism reflects this Machiavellian insight. His stump speeches made a point of setting the people against the great. The country’s elites, he contended, have failed ordinary people. Their policies have benefited the wealthy at the expense of the middle and working classes. Machiavelli suggested that, distressed by exploitation, the people will naturally yearn for a leader who will defend their interests. Trump presented himself as that leader, and his conduct and rhetoric since the election suggest that he intends to remain in that role.
Machiavelli also understood the importance of spirited self-respect, something that grows in the souls of people accustomed to self-government. In a republic, a conqueror faces “greater life and greater hate” than he finds when assuming power over other regimes. Citizens of a republic will not cease to resent the loss of their liberty.
Here again, Trump understood his populist constituency, appealing not only to self-interest but also to their wounded pride. He sometimes claims that American elites don’t actually believe in government by the people. He has also played to popular pride by contending that the American people have been betrayed by elites. He says we are disrespected and exploited by foreign nations because our elites no longer defend our national interest. Indeed, Trump made the restoration of national respectability central to his campaign: Make America Great Again.
In my view, this benign Machiavellianism, which amounts to a realistic and nuanced view of human nature, helped Trump succeed where traditional Republican candidates failed. In recent years, Republicans have not appealed directly to the people’s economic interests. Instead, they have promised managerial competence or offered abstract slogans—“limited government,” “free markets,” and so forth. Appeals to self-interest have been indirect. Most Republicans pledge that the economic growth will come from deregulation that unfetters “job creators.” This overlooks the fact that most voters are employees, not employers.
Republican appeals to national pride have taken the form of appeals to “American exceptionalism.” But this ends up being a bear-any-burden approach that requires the country to assume costly foreign responsibilities. Promoting democracy and freedom can seem uplifting, but after trillions of dollars and thousands of lives, the populace came to see it as a raw deal. Thus, Trump’s Machiavellian genius. He appealed to national pride in ways that openly advocated for the people’s material interests.
Christianity does not bar one from supporting a Trumpian politics of Machiavellian populism. Machiavelli said that the great seek to oppress the people. The Bible regularly worries about the strong oppressing the weak. Given our fallen human nature, it is only realistic to suspect that the powerful will push their advantages as far as they can. For this reason, populism resonates with aspects of Christianity.
But Machiavelli’s populism—and Trump’s—emphasizes material self-interest and spirited self-respect. This presents greater difficulties. The Christian call to love asks us to transcend material self-interest, and the call to humility requires us to bridle our pride. Nevertheless, it is possible to reconcile Christian politics with Machiavellian populism. The American founders recognized that self-interest is a powerful force in politics. And the founders taught that the citizens of a republic require a manly self-assertiveness in order to defend their rights. In a democratic society, we are to be prideful in the sense of refusing to kowtow to the powerful, insisting on the importance of our own views and interests.
The founders were not apostles, and Christianity’s public witness should never be reduced to a politics guided only by self-regarding considerations such as these. Nevertheless, one is not selling out to a narrow Americanism when one recognizes that a realistic Christian approach to politics must accommodate self-interest and political pride to a considerable extent—as American politics has always done. These passions are part of the ordinary course of human nature. It is utopian and therefore foolish to conduct politics without giving them their due.
None of this suggests that Christians are required to support Trump’s benign Machiavellianism (assuming that’s the best way to understand his approach). But it does show that such support is compatible with a Christian political realism. But what if Trump is a dark Machiavellian? In chapter 15 of The Prince, Machiavelli famously (or infamously) taught that political survival and success demand that the prince remain unconstrained by moral principles. A prince who aims to preserve his power must learn to “be not good.” He must be able to “enter into evil” as necessity requires. May a Christian support such a leader?
In one way, the answer to this question is quite easy. Christians are obligated to reject immoral actions and immoral policies, even if they serve to promote good ends. In another way, however, this question is rather difficult. A great deal depends on what we mean by “supporting” a political leader. Christians certainly may not vote for a dark Machiavellian prince because of his lack of principle. Whether Christians can support his continuance in office is a different matter.
We need to be clear from the outset that a great deal of evidence suggests that Donald Trump is not a dark Machiavellian. In light of the outpouring of criticism from elites, it’s more than a little ironic that Trump appears to have more integrity than many politicians. This stems, in part, from his forthright approach. He makes few appeals to noble principles, and thus there’s little for him to betray. Moreover, he seems to remain true to his Machiavellian populism. This has made him some very powerful enemies, yet he shows no serious signs of breaking faith with his followers. Since his election he has sought to restrict immigration, renegotiate trade deals, and transgress our current foreign policy consensus—all things he promised to do on the campaign trail.
This consistency is not just a consequence of the fact that populism serves his self-interest. Trump’s preoccupation with manliness and strength is legendary. It’s likely he thinks it would be weak and dishonorable for him to abandon positions he vigorously affirmed during his campaign, something a dark Machiavellian would not hesitate to do. It would be absurd to suggest that Trump’s statesmanship is guided by well-formed Christian conscience. Yet it would be an injustice to Trump to suggest that he has no moral standards.
But let us set that aside and entertain the possibility that Trump really is a man with no principles whatsoever. The problem here is that a dark Machiavellian leader is very elusive. Such a prince must be willing to dispense with the rules of morality when necessary. But Machiavelli also insisted that the prince must always appear to be moral. Even when he is doing something profoundly wrong, a competent Machiavellian will put forward a more or less plausible moral justification. As a consequence, we will rarely be able to know if we are dealing with a truly amoral Machiavellian or a leader who is making a moral error, which is very common. In a spirit of charity, Christians should assume the latter rather than the former. Our job is to oppose bad policies and wrongful actions without leaping to the conclusion that they demonstrate the nihilistic amorality of our leaders.
There is a final complication. Let us say we know we are dealing with a truly dark Machiavellian prince bereft of moral principles. Even so, we must consider the alternatives when deciding whether to support him. Truly principled statesmen are the most desirable leaders. They are rarely available, however. As a consequence, the alternative to a populist Machiavellian sympathetic to Christianity might well be a progressive Machiavellian who is ill-disposed to Christianity. Or it might be a morally upright person who is politically incompetent and therefore unfit for public office. Or it might be a progressive extremist utterly devoted to wrong-headed principles. Such a person can be more dangerous than any Machiavellian, benign or dark. In these cases, morally serious Christians may support a Machiavellian leader, even one they suspect is without principles. In doing so, they are not doing evil that good may come. Instead, they are undertaking one of the most important tasks of responsible civic engagement, which is to manage, to the limited extent possible, the various evils that always beset us in public life.
There were certainly reasons to vote against Trump. There are also reasons to oppose some of the initiatives of his administration, now that he is in power. But there were also reasons to vote for him, and there continue to be reasons to think his administration the best option, given present circumstances. In supporting Trump, Christians may be doing something unwise—there are no guarantees in public life. But they are doing nothing un-Christian. Jesus knew the world, and knew that the affairs of Caesar are not characterized by easy choices between pure righteousness and simple wickedness. Thus he admonished us to be as wise as serpents but as innocent as doves. This is the challenge for Christians in the age of Trump—and in every age.
Carson Holloway is professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.