“And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”
The Prince (1517)
Niccolo Machiavelli, an Italian courtier and diplomat renowned for his devotion to absolute practicality in affairs of state, wrote his masterwork, The Prince, 500 years ago, yet his words still carry weight—and impart wisdom. His insight into the perils inherent in forcing changes upon governmental systems that are inclined by their very nature to worship the status quo has long served as a warning to those who try to move too far and too fast.
Our most recent Presidential election seems to me to have been one that Machiavelli would have easily recognized. On the one side we had a candidate who was a product of the system and whose entire campaign was built around her repeated pledges to change as little as possible—promises that it was hoped would propel her to the Oval Office by reassuring those in power. On the other side we had a brash outsider who respected no precedent, position, or prerogative—and who delighted in openly attacking the presumptions of the presumptuous.
In an outcome that flabbergasted and appalled those who thought they had a firm grip on the election, the outsider triumphed in a manner that both angered and humiliated those who thought their continued control was assured. Were Machiavelli alive today, he probably would not be surprised by the feverish fury of our nation’s elites. Rarely in recent American political discourse have we heard condemnations more vitriolic hurled at a President after only just over a month in office.
However, given the startling changes President Trump is attempting to impose upon a national political establishment long contented with protracted and circular discourse followed by incremental tweaks to the comfortable status quo, the day after the election must have felt like waking up in the hospital after being run over by a truck. The hushed deference to which they had been long accustomed was suddenly gone—and will probably never return.
If one is to judge from the daily dose of invective hurled at President Trump and his administration, the shock is still too much to bear for the many who fully expected a Democratic landslide. Whether one is talking about foreign policy, financial regulation, international trade, healthcare, taxes, freedom of expression, immigration, natural resource management, the powers of the courts and Congress, job creation, national defense strategies, housing, the balance between federal and state authority, terrorism, transportation policy, property rights, or a host of other issues, it is now abundantly clear that nothing—absolutely nothing—is safe from the attentions of this mouthy upstart who seems determined to gore every sacred cow in a cozy company town in order to fulfill his campaign promises. Those who have grown comfortable with their unassailable sinecures are reeling from a bracing dose of rude reality delivered by someone whom they had long ago dismissed as a harmless populist buffoon.
Not surprisingly, the long knives of the political establishment are out for all to see, and the mainstream media is, sad to say, often acting as the house organ for those who don’t want too many hard questions being asked. Speaking as someone who has spent much of my life speaking in support of the critical role that the free press plays in a democracy, the thoroughgoing intellectual dishonesty of so many of the major news outlets—pretending to be mere reporters while acting as vociferous political advocates—has been a bit hard to stomach. However, it is probably not a problem that journalistic biases are now so obviously displayed because it has compelled Americans to openly question what is being reported, which is plainly scaring the bejeezus out of editors and news directors in media centers such as New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. who have historically enjoyed more credulous and compliant audiences.
The upside to all of this political upheaval is that there seems a real possibility that sweeping and fundamental changes—whatever form they might ultimately take—can now be expected. Those who are frantically trying to cram the genie of voter anger back into the bottle and carry on as we have for decades—more public debt, more inequality, more government regulation, and more jobs being shipped abroad—are certainly doomed to fail.
Although some might desperately wish it were otherwise, we are clearly going to have a national debate about the scope and cost of government, the balance between individual freedoms and collective obligations, and the pressing need for more individual initiative and personal responsibility in virtually every facet of our daily lives. These will be a difficult and confusing conversations for many who have grown oddly comfortable with being coddled and herded, but the outsized role of government in our lives will certainly shrivel in the years immediately ahead due to crushing budget problems and voter demands.
Whether one loves Trump or hates him, we are already experiencing fundamental changes in our nation—at a pace that has clearly set many heads to spinning. Depending upon your point of view, these new directions will either renew or destroy our country—there seem to be few middle-of-the-road opinions out there these days. Perhaps Machiavelli’s wisdom can explain at least some portion of this phenomenon: Change, as he observed, produces many enemies and few friends. This plain fact certainly is responsible for some portion of the extraordinary and destructive divisions afflicting our nation today.
However, given that democracy is a process that requires at least as much listening as speaking, I hope we can cease our shouting and begin a thoughtful dialogue resulting in policies that respect our many differences. Whatever the path we ultimately pursue might be, I can guarantee that not everyone will agree with it, but hopefully our fierce American individualism will allow enough space for the reasonable cooperation necessary to maintain national unity. Our only other option is unthinkable, and I am certain that I am not the only one who worries that rage and frustration are taking many down a road we must not travel.