Machiavelli and Becoming
A week before freshman orientation at Brigham Young University, I attended a small honors seminar. I’d been invited to attend earlier in the summer and given a list of options—a class on different translations of the New Testament, which I deemed boring (it is definitely the one I would choose now), a class about Stephen Sondheim’s musicals, which everyone thought I would pick since I was a pre-piano major. And, a class called “Machiavelli in Hell.”
I no longer remember what in the description drew me to that class. I always declared myself apolitical, stressed out by the conflict and my own limited knowledge of government and policy. I think I wanted to reinvent myself by choosing something unexpected (and I think I liked that the course title had the world “hell” in it, religious university notwithstanding).
My memories of the class are more tied up with the friends I made and my overall aesthetic experience of sitting in an old, columned building listening to a lecture about a Renaissance political mastermind. The concept that stands out in my mind is “the ends justify the means.” It was a joke to me at the age of 18, sitting in a seminar with seven other students and playing Risk to practice our Machiavellian tactics. It seemed obvious to me that the ends did not, in actuality, justify the means—that such actions were immoral and contemptible. Applying Machiavelli’s concepts to my personal life made it seem clear that they were the tools of tyrants, not leaders.
I finished Becoming by Michelle Obama today. When I told my husband what I was reading, he warned me, “Don’t tell your dad!” (Sorry, Dad). I was raised in red Idaho. My little sister had a bumper sticker on the back of the Jeep we used in high school that said “Red Chick, Red State.” My dad is passionate about politics, a fan of Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and the Drudge Report. The only insult in our house worse than “passive aggressive” was “liberal.” (Made more profane if “bleeding heart” was added in front). I didn’t know much about politics as a child and teenager, but I knew Democrats were bad. Bill Clinton was a womanizer, Hillary Clinton was a witch, they all would be the downfall of our country.
Occasionally my dad would say something that I disagreed with, and I’d tell him, but he could talk me right into the ground. He was well-versed on his subjects and I was not. I concluded that I was clueless and juvenile, that my dad knew what was right and that I would figure it out. He would console me, and probably himself, by saying, “They say if you’re not a liberal before the age of 30 you have no heart, but if you’re not a conservative after, you have no brain.”
I started paying attention to politics during the 2016 election. It was impossible to ignore. I found myself emerging from my privileged, insular world and paying attention to the issues for the first time. I’d heard invective about the Clintons for most of my life, but it seemed like a joke that Donald Trump, of “You’re fired!” Apprentice fame, was actually the Republican party’s choice for a candidate. At first, I just thought he was stupid, a joke. “A buffoon,” my dad called him, “but someone who will get the world done.” But as Trump’s racist and misogynist comments multiplied, as the All Access tape surfaced, I found myself disgusted. How could this country support this man?
One of my good friends told me the day of the election, “I know he’s awful, but I voted for him. He’s probably going to be nominating more than one Supreme Court justice.” The ends justified the means.
Throughout his presidency, I’ve heard family members say, “Look at all he’s done for our country, for our economy.” The ends justified the means.
I’ll be honest—I don’t know a lot about policy. I don’t know much about tariffs and trade deals and sanctions. I try to keep up with the news by listening to a couple of daily podcasts, but I’m not a political junkie. I don’t pretend to understand every issue. It may well be that Donald Trump has enacted policies that I would applaud, if I knew enough about taxes and trade to appreciate the change.
But do the means—electing a man who embodies intolerance and privilege—justify the ends?
I didn’t pay a ton of attention to the Obama Administration. I knew that my parents didn’t like the Affordable Care Act, but I appreciated having access to my parent’s insurance until I turned 26 and free birth control (after paying a $500 deductible for an IUD before the laws changed). I wasn’t crazy about the fine I had to pay for my gap in coverage due to an out of state move, but I didn’t understand enough about the ins and outs of it to deem it a terrible or wonderful thing.
I picked up Becoming by Michelle Obama because it is the bestselling memoir of all time, and because I’m a sucker for reading celebrity memoir. I wanted to hear her side of things. I was fairly neutral in my opinions of them, but I was curious.
Overall, reading it was interesting. I loved hearing about Michelle’s education and goals, all the obstacles she overcame to be successful. It was adorable to read about how she met President Obama. I felt solidarity with her when she wrote of protecting her daughters throughout her husband’s presidency. I was fascinated by details of life in the White House and as a First Lady (the President’s entourage always has a unit of his type of blood nearby, for example). I was inspired by her passion for empowering children and young adults to seek health and a good education.
But more than anything, I was struck by how President Barack Obama was a good person. A person who wanted to help people, a person who wanted to better this country. A person passionate about improving the world.
I don’t agree with all of his policies. (I’m shamefully unaware of a large percentage of them). I’m party-less these days, some of my beliefs resting on the conservative side of the spectrum and others veering left. I wish I’d paid better attention, and I’m trying to pay more attention to what’s happening now.
What I do believe is that his motives were pure. Even if the ends he achieved didn’t always align with my own desired outcomes (which, like I said, is mostly hypothetical since I wasn’t paying much attention).
My takeaway from Becoming, the idea that has stayed with me since I read the final words, is a question—do I want someone running my country that does what I want him/her to do, or do I want someone motivated by a love for their country and a desire to help others? Do the ends justify the means?