In 1513, the former Chancellor and Secretary to the Second Chancery of the Republic of Florence, Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, now disgraced and deposed, published what would become one of the most famous, and most reviled, political texts of the European Renaissance – The Prince. Over the centuries, thanks to this work, the man’s name has become synonymous with the kind of manipulative, underhanded, and utterly ruthless mentality personified by Frank and Claire Underwood in House of Cards; primarily because most people consider The Prince to be encouraging such amoral behaviour in politicians and leaders. Thus the adjective “Machiavellian”.
If I had to put my finger on a specific phrase most at fault for this error, it would be a tie between two lines. The first is the line “it is better to be feared than loved”. The second is the line “the ends justify the means”. Both lines encapsulate “Machiavellian” attitudes, and neither actually appears in the text.
Be warned; this post will quote The Prince at length, because truncating the work is what landed us in this mess in the first place. There are also spoilers for House of Cards.