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Sincerely, Niccolo Machiavelli: an open letter to Donald Trump

Peter Sahlins, professor of history | February 26, 2017

“I must commend you on your masterful victory over your opponents. But some of my lessons you’ve failed to learn.” So wrote Liam Frölund, a freshman at Berkeley, using Machiavelli’s voice and texts, in a masterly fulfillment of his class assignment, published last week in Salon Magazine.

I’ve been teaching History 5, “Western Civilization Since the Renaissance” at UC Berkeley since 1989 (although I’ve recently had to add the trigger warning of “Civilization and Barbarism,”) as I lead the students from Columbus and Machiavelli to the Reformations, absolutism, industrialization, the French Revolution, and beyond, always ending up far short of the present. This year, having assigned The Prince (1513), I offered the students the option to write a memo in Machiavelli’s voice to Donald Trump, a questionably legitimate president already then a present danger to democracy in America as most of us have known it. I don’t teach my students about Trump, nor tell them what to think. But I teach them to think about Trump in the context of a long history of governance and republicanism. No precursive claims here, about tyranny, absolutism, fascism, or totalitarianism (although along the way we learn of the these historical events and categories), but rather something that the French historian and theorist François Hartog called “regimes of historicity.”  Students, and all of us, can learn from the past by relating the structures and filters of knowledge about the political worlds in the past and in the present.

Liam Frölund, a 19-year old second-semester freshman here at Berkeley to study economics and history, grew up in Turlock, California, of Swedish descent, the son of schoolteachers. How appropriate that this talented young writer, who admires John Steinbeck and Adlai Stevenson II, who writes for the Berkeley Political Review, and who hopes  to pursue a career in the academy or civil service, should have produced this remarkable response to my prompt: “What Would Machiavelli Advise Trump?”

My lectures carefully elided Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy (1517), as I wanted the students to discover the “real” (or at least a different) Machiavelli behind the supposed evil work of genius (“the guy who wrote the book on power moves” is Salon’s headline). Rather, we read The Prince carefully and creatively, and we flipped again the Renaissance “mirror of princes” literature in an effort to see a different Machiavelli, to read The Politics in a way that was critical of tyranny, cruelty and hypocrisy, even if those methods proved expedient, sometimes tragically necessary. For, we concluded, the greater good that Machiavelli was to develop a half millennium  ago (to the year) in the Discourses was a model of good governance, where the Prince assured the well-being and prosperity of his subjects, and honored and respected their institutions of law and authority, and whose subjects in turn offered him obedience, but conditional on their peace and prosperity.

Liam absolutely nailed it, and then some: He went on to read the Discourses to tell the whole story. There are some truly pitch-perfect moments in his piece, and wisdom that is 500 years old, but mostly there is evidence of the greatness of Berkeley students, and proof that as faculty, what we must do in the midst of this deep political crisis, is what we always do as teachers of the liberal arts in a public research university: help our students to use their knowledge of the world to figure things out.

Congratulations, Liam!

Comments to “Sincerely, Niccolo Machiavelli: an open letter to Donald Trump

  1. Congratulations, Liam!

    Studying Machiavelli is very interesting. Because his book is the Prince. In it, there are Machiavelli’s words that seriously consider human nature beyond evil or goodness.

  2. URGENT!



    When approval ratings go this low for an unpopular President, typical-Plan-B recommends to start a war and rally the country ’round the flag. All current attention will shift from Russia-gate, Flynn-gate, emoluments-clause-impeachment-plans, and executive incompetence-to the Asian theater of operations. 

    Trump made the threat that he just might use NUKES AGAINST NORTH KOREA. 

    DR. John D. Gartner, psychological expert diagnosed Trump with classic signs of “malignant narcissism.” 

    “Narcissism impairs his ability to see reality,” 

    The time has come to say it: there is something psychologically wrong with the President. 

    Top psychotherapist affiliated with the esteemed Johns Hopkins University Medical School said Trump “is dangerously mentally ill and temperamentally incapable of being president.” 



    China is warning Trump not to provoke North Korea into war.


  3. Many stupid Americans voted for Trump.
    Machiavellian analysis works well in non democratic societies, but its inherent weakness is that its model (The Prince) doesn’t confront the election madness of crowds because crowds are not important in Machiavellian authoritarian societies. Yes, in post-election periods, democracies do take on the character of semi-authoritarian states and this essay cleverly details much of the current nightmare.
    But keep in mind that unlike in The Prince, the Republicans and indirectly Trump will have another scheduled encounter with the madness of crowds (voters) in 18 months.

    • dave, the fact is, we may not have 18 months of American Democracy left, and Washington politicians are proving daily that we may have lost Democracy for We The People already.

      Blog posts keep warning us daily on Berkeley Blog, Legal Planet, Robert Reich, CALIFORNIA Magazine, etc. so don’t say we haven’t been warned about Democracy destroying corruption by our Congress, POTUS, and SCOTUS that threatens us more than ever before since WWII.

      In fact, former WWII General of the Army and President Dwight Eisenhower warned us in his 1961 Farewell Address that: “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.”

      So our current Decline and Fall of American Democracy and our civilization is being accelerated, at least since 1961, by intellectuals as well as politicians.

  4. Very interesting historical perspective Prof. Sahlins.

    It is also most interesting that Robert Reich’s website post “Trump’s 10 Steps for Turning Lies into Half-Truths” on Tuesday also reminds us of a”Big Lie” quote from Adolph Hitler:

    “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”

    Why do we continue to fail to learn from and act upon the lessons of history before it is too late to prevent the repeat of the same kind of tragedy?

  5. Dear Professor, how can your students feel comfortable having any discussion of politics with you giving your blatant, liberal views? Aren’t we supposed to encourage diverse diverse views on our college campuses?
    I wonder how you would have reacted to a student who praised Trump – an F?

    • Sorry, Erica, but my own political views are immaterial. If a student had written in Machiavelli’s voice and text about how the triumph of Trump was a masterly work of politics, I would have respected and assessed the reading of Machiavelli (as opposed to my own opinions) in fulfillment of the assignment. My job really is getting students to think, not to think like me, not even to think like Machiavelli, but to ponder the world of knowledge and experience that they inherit, as students of a liberal arts education, and to come up with their own understandings. Whatever their political opinions, students need to learn the history of republicanism and tyranny, and the recurring questions of legitimate rulership, and to make their own judgments.

      • And you people are calling Trump a liar. And your “college” will not even let Ann Coulter speak. Whatever helps you sleep at night, Peter.

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