Fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her, you should beat and ill-use her.
— Niccolo Machiavelli (The Prince, Chap. 25)
In one of the forms of feminism that emerged in the 1970s during its Second Wave was the idea that the “personal is the political.” That is, that the personal things that women had to deal with every day could inform our political views and our political actions. Any man who was not aware of the interplay between a woman’s private life and her public life has been getting himself schooled these past several days. Women who watched Sunday’s debate in light of Donald Trump and Billy Bush’s “grab ’em by the pussy” bus tape reported across Facebook and Twitter their memories of sexual assault triggered by watching Donald Trump’s behavior on stage. The New York Times had previously published articles that had detailed Trump’s history of sleaziness in his dealings with women, and, as the week continued, women began to step forward to attest to Trump’s unwanted groping of them.
What many women had carried around with them in private has erupted in political rage. 2016 has been a challenging year for any woman who has been carrying around secrets regarding her sexual assault. Whether it has been a reaction to a steady stream of rapists such as Brock Turner, who have received slaps on the wrist for rape, or horror at the revelation that Donald Trump has delusions of being a cocksman but, it turns out, grabs women’s genitals without their consent, many women have been made conscious that their private pain can be the impetus for political action.
But those who feign surprise that Donald Trump would speak of women as if they were six-packs of beer he could grab from the fridge have not been paying attention to Trump’s other rhetoric. A man who regards the territory of other nations as the legitimate spoils of war already has an attitude toward the world that would suggest the mentality of a rapist. And the mentality of a rapist writ large is one who believes in violently seizing land that doesn’t belong to him. The man who thinks that the “missed” solution in Iraq was to “grab the oil” is the same man who talks about grabbing women’s pussies. It’s not a rhetorical coincidence — it’s rape culture.
Trump continues to demonstrate that the immature boy who thought that woman was put on earth to satisfy his sexual urges is also the type of man who also believes that other countries are like women. Other countries, and their resources, are there for the taking. There is little doubt that just as Trump believes himself entitled to women’s bodies, he would believe himself entitled to other countries’ resources.
Machiavelli understood this, and he understood that this energy could be channeled to maintain peace at home.
Machiavelli gets a bad rap: while the term “Machiavellian” has come down in history to mean someone who is essentially willing to do anything to advance his career and hold onto power, that view of Machiavelli is based on a reading of his most famous work, The Prince, which he wrote shortly after being released from prison. In prison, he had been horribly tortured. His crime? He had been a government official during the brief years when Florence was free of Medici rule (1509-1512); when the Medici took back the city, Machiavelli was accused of plotting against the family, jailed, and tortured.
The Prince was the book he wrote in an effort to get back on the Medici’s “good side;” when it failed, Machiavelli wrote books on the subjects that was closer to his heart: how republics should function, and how men within those republics should be men. Machiavelli left prison with a wounded sense of self that never recovered. For him, the manly man was full of “virtu,” the Latin word from which we get “virtue,” but which is also the source of the word “virility.” Virtu was manliness, and the manly man’s greatest threat was the power of “fortuna.” Fortune — Lady Luck — happenstance. Machiavelli saw this abstract concept as a woman, and his advice was that she needed to be beaten to be brought under control. (Those looking for further reading on this should read FORTUNE IS A WOMAN by Hanna Fenichel Pitkin.) Machiavelli’s language was highly gendered, and he constantly stressed the idea that masculinity, and the rational control of it, was the key to peace. In his works, I would argue that he also gives us insight about Donald Trump.
The Discourses on Livy is a lesser-known work, but its understanding of republics is fascinating. Machiavelli loved the idea of a republic, and he examined how best to maintain it. But Machiavelli was also a damaged man, one whose sense of masculinity had been challenged upon the strappado.
Machiavelli (and earlier in the fifteenth century in the writings of Leon Battista Alberti, in his work Della Famigilia) was aware that the threats to republicanism came from out-of-control men. They were thinking specifically of young, unmarried men, who had yet to be domesticated by marriage and the raising of families. The danger to the republic was that these young men, full of sexual energy, would disrupt the running of a civil society. Furthermore, Machiavelli argued, life in a well-run republic was not exciting. His suggestion was to take that energy and direct it outward: what better way to use young men’s uncontrolled energy than to send them out to seize new lands? Better that they rampage in other lands than take that energy and use it against their fellow citizens.
If you think that Machiavelli was speaking in defense of women, however, he claims in the second book of the Discourses that women are responsible for the fall of many states. Why? Because of their accusations of rape. Machiavelli cites the case of Lucretia, who was raped in ancient Rome. The outrage over Lucretia’s rape led to the fall of government. Machiavelli cites other stories. Machiavelli is not sympathetic to the women who suffered; rather, he cautions that women’s stories of rape will bring down a government. Therefore, one can infer from his argument that women are to be kept out of public life, and young men are to be kept out of the community while they work out their aggressions.
Where does Donald Trump fit into all of this? It would be nice to think that the sexual assault allegations against Trump will signal the end of his candidacy. That the millions of women who have come together to raise their voices against him will keep him from being elected into office. That history will repeat itself, and Trump will fall. Machiavelli warned those who would lead a republic that immature, undomesticated men who wanted to take what is not theirs should be sent out of the community while they mature. Alberti wanted them domesticated into marriage and family, where those impulses would be sublimated into the raising of families.
But for both Alberti and Machiavelli, the “woman problem” remained. For both of them, men couldn’t control themselves, and while men were at that stage of their lives, women were to be hidden away lest they awake men’s “lusts.” (Of course, we know now that what they called “lust” is really a desire to assert power over women.) The Trump supporters who have suggested that the 19th amendment should be repealed to keep women for voting for Hillary Clinton remind me of the Alberti solution of keeping women out of sight.
Men like Trump believe that they were put on earth to take whatever they want. While the reasons for Machiavelli’s injured views of masculinity seem clear, it’s not clear what led Trump to this vision of himself. Was it being raised by his father? Was it that no one has really said “no” to him? Is it that he has some kind of pathology? Perhaps it’s not crucial that we understand. What is important is that come November 9, Trump’s vision of himself as commander-in-chief must remain a delusion and not a reality.
Follow Lorraine Berry on Twitter @BerryFLW