At first glance, Niccolò Machiavelli’s books The Prince and Discourses on Livy seem at odds. The former is chiefly a revolutionary guide to power, reveling in a ferocious spectacle of violence. The latter is a kind of manuscript on good governance that takes ancient Rome as its subject and model.
Machiavelli’s aims in The Prince are at once revolutionary and conservative. For Italy to be united and thus conserved as an independent political unit, a “prince” must arise to overthrow the existing order. Machiavelli aims to return Italians to the “golden times” retold in the Discourses, back to a world of law, order, and virtuous freedom. In this sense, “revolution” signifies eliminating an illegitimate order and reestablishing a state of normalcy. While the system Machiavelli sought to overthrow may have been legally legitimate, he saw it as an aberration in Italy’s history, something to be deconstructed, penetrated, and discarded.
Hence, Machiavelli discredits the ideas that underpinned Italy’s existing order by making distinctions between the formal and the real; between what is said to be true, and what is true in fact. In effect, he exposes the slogans that mask the structures of power and control.
Were Machiavelli alive today, he might have juxtaposed The Washington Post’s slogan, “Democracy dies in darkness,” with the unsettling truth that democracy was throttled long ago in the dark corridors of Washington.
Americans may yet glean valuable lessons from Machiavelli’s revolutionary conservatism. He may even sound familiar to paleoconservatives, who were accused of being unpatriotic for their opposition to the United States’ entry into the Middle East and their general denunciation of America’s bureaucratic managerial regime. In this respect, the paleos were ahead of the curve. They realized early that to be a conventional “conservative” today—to be a defender of the existing political order and the ideology that legitimates its existence—is like being a member of the oppressed proletariat defending the oligarchy and its bread and circuses.
President Donald Trump can be understood as an evolutionary step toward a “prince” capable of disemboweling the establishment. However, Trump has the same flaw that Samuel T. Francis wrote of Pat Buchanan’s 1996 presidential candidacy in these pages: “Yet, if Buchanan has one major flaw as a spokesman for and an architect of the new Middle American political identity that transcends and synthesizes both left and right, it is that he exhibits a proclivity to draw back from the implications of his own radicalism.”
As a transitional figure, Trump has not managed and perhaps could not be expected to completely shed the skin of the harmless conservative persuasion, which seeks coalitions rather than conflict with the existing regime, along with its defenders and beneficiaries. Trump has been successful in some regards, and yet in others, he has been more or less assimilated into the order which he railed against on his road to the White House.
The Trump administration’s embrace of criminal justice reform, its emphasis on tax-cut conservatism over social conservatism, and its signaling in favor of the LGBTQ ideology indicate that Trump has been unable to deviate too far from establishment orthodoxy. Not to mention, the creation of the Office of American Innovation, which, along with the Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups, brought to bear a constellation of big business donors like the Kochs and private-sector pressure groups to lobby for beneficial policies from within the White House.
Trump’s victory in 2016 didn’t just show the need for a new breed of leaders, but for new modes of thinking. It is not enough to discredit the ideological basis of the existing order; we must forge a revolutionary conservative movement indigestible to the current establishment.
Writing from his Italian prison, 20th century Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci reimagined Machiavelli’s prince not as a man, but as “a political ideology expressed neither in the form of a cold utopia nor as learned theorising, but rather by creation of concrete phantasy which acts on a dispersed and shattered people to arouse and organise its collective will.”
In other words, the prince is a coherent political formula capable of mobilizing a disorganized and demoralized people to action. Trump’s presidency scratched the surface of this idea by blending elements of traditional social conservatism with economic populism, while tapping into the legitimate anxieties and hopes of white, middle-class Americans.
However, neither Trump nor the people around him have been willing or able to acknowledge and faithfully prosecute the formula. Personnel is policy, and Trump is surrounded by people who would feel more at home in a George W. Bush or Barack Obama administration.
A serious Middle American political consciousness would recognize its base as closer to a proletariat in its material conditions and sentiments than to the bourgeois that predominated from 1895 to 1955. Middle America today is mostly a dependent and dispossessed class of people.
In 1965, a corporate chief executive on average made 20 times as much as their company’s typical worker, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Today, these CEOs make on average 320 times as much as their typical worker. Homeownership, a prominent marker of the bourgeoisie, is at a half-century low. Freddie Mac’s 2019 housing survey found nearly 40 percent of renters expect to never own a home—this up from 23 percent just two years earlier.
This is not the independent American bourgeoisie of yesteryear. Members of this dispossessed class are not opposed to using the state to secure their material security through “middle-class welfare” programs like health insurance, unemployment benefits, pensions, and labor regulations, along with economic policies intended to ensure the stability of their jobs, farms, and businesses. “Middle Americans don’t object to the megastate in principle,” as Francis wrote in 1991, “but they do object to it in practice.” Therefore, Middle Americans would support dismantling some aspects of the “megastate” while retaining others and making it work, above all, for them.
This Middle American movement would distinguish between deracinated mega-corporations, which benefit from corrupt ties with the Washington establishment, and endangered small family businesses. The former is actually hostile to the latter, and to what Middle Americans still call their way of life.
The “dirty secret of affirmative action politics,” Richard Kahlenberg noted in 1996, “is that corporate America actually supports affirmative action.” That secret has long since leaped out from the bag and started looting and rioting across the country. It should be evident by now that corporate America walks hand-in-hand with the people pulling down statues. Each uses the other for its own ends, to the detriment of the rest of us.
The most prominent advocates of “Marxism,” cultural or otherwise, appear to be Fortune 500 companies and their executives. While Democrats may call for defunding the police and emptying prisons, the Republican Party offers tax cuts and benefits to corporations that bankroll violent left-wing activists, through donations to Democrats and progressive organizations like Black Lives Matter.
A Middle American movement must support the true middle while taking on the corporate entities financing our national demise. It must tackle the issue of global labor and tax arbitrage. As policy analyst Michael Lind has cited from Congressional Research Service data, in 2015, U.S.-based multinationals reported 43 percent of their foreign earnings through five tax havens—Bermuda, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland—countries which accounted for only 4 percent of U.S. multinationals’ work forces. Many of these multinationals spend the fortune in savings they receive to influence the U.S. government through lobbying—not only to ensure they can continue to abuse international tax havens, but also to shift the country’s policies on free trade, immigration, and foreign policy. These multinationals now rival nation-states in power and act like foreign entities despite their American origins. They can no longer be regarded as mere businesses.
American conservatism historically is a movement that resents and seeks to limit power, and that is one reason why it’s been so utterly ineffective in the face of the left. When one side is playing for keeps, and the other side is playing “for the love of the game,” it looks a lot like what we see now. The right gets completely steamrolled by the left, as the latter continues to spread its illness throughout the whole of society. The federal government in general, and the executive branch outside the White House in particular, have become vehicles of the anti-white, anti-Western poison that is Critical Race Theory, one of the many malignancies originating in the halls of academia.
Thus, a fundamental problem with conservatism is that it reflexively seeks to conserve institutions that either don’t exist anymore, or which have been perverted to become hostile to the right. The only answer that avoids being crushed by ideologues is not to shrink from power, but to pursue, seize, and use it to demolish the overgrown political and cultural organs of the left. Abolishing tax exemptions, subsidies, and federal contracts for universities and subversive foundations is an imperative first step. But eliminating much of the entrenched bureaucracy and its various agencies, along with uprooting an army of managers, can only be achieved by embracing a mode of governance akin to that used by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Finally, for a real Middle American revolution to take root and create lasting, meaningful change, it would need to first disabuse itself of the myths that support the existing order. It would specifically have to separate itself from the doctrine of egalitarian universalism embraced by contemporary conservatism, encapsulated in slogans that claim America is, as Tiffany Trump recently said at the Republican National Convention, “a country founded on ideas not identity.”
If America is merely an “idea,” why do people need to come here to learn it? Why do we struggle to export this idea to places like Iraq, Somalia, China, or sub-Saharan Africa? American idea-ism is, in reality, a cynical part of the dominant ideology that justifies the profitable business of invading the world and then inviting the world.
By haplessly embracing the establishment regime’s language, symbols, and myths, as conservatism has done naturally, the ideological framework of the established elites is not challenged but only strengthened. This happens every time conservatives concede to the removal of yet another historical monument. It happens when they commit themselves to the cause of “anti-racism”—an entirely subjective term whose definition is wholly owned and defined by the enemies of civilization. It happens when they affirm their fealty to the cult of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who in reality was about as “colorblind” as Louis Farrakhan.
Rather than responding to being smeared as bigots by cravenly affirming the doctrines of the left, we must be willing to reject those slurs outright and show what monstrosities lurk beneath the veil of egalitarianism. Rather than falling into the trap of debating the merits of social justice, Middle American radicals must know how to show its hypocritical realities and logical consequences.
“Thus, one should not let this opportunity pass, for Italy, after so much time, to see her redeemer,” Machiavelli wrote in the conclusion of The Prince. “I cannot express with what love he would be received in all those provinces that have suffered from these floods from outside; with what thirst for revenge, with what obstinate faith, with what piety, with what tears.” Whatever hope there is for something like a return to the “golden times,” for the emergence of a new and lasting civil order, begins with breaking the ideological chains of left and right, conservative and liberal, and embracing Machiavelli’s “prince” as a vehicle for national restoration.
above: Trump supporters walk along Pennsylvania Avenue as they participate in the Million MAGA March in Washington on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020 (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)