When Trump Demands Loyalty – Arc Digital

Donald Trump, James Comey, and the problem with loyalty

The relationship between former FBI Director James Comey and President Trump, which was never close, turned permanently sour one evening during what Comey calls “the loyalty dinner.”

As Comey tells it, he was surprised one day at work by a phone call from Trump inviting him to dinner at the White House that very night. Ill at ease about the propriety of a dinner between a president and an FBI director who was investigating his associates, Comey nonetheless canceled a dinner date with his wife to attend.

When he arrived, and realized they would not be part of a group of dinner companions, Comey felt all the more uncertain. What he found, instead, was a table set for two - a scene pre-arranged for a Trump-Comey tête-à-tête, with each of their names beautifully calligraphed on place cards.

Before the shrimp scampi, Trump got to the point of the dinner.

I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.

Comey froze in shock, unable to reply. Yet the dinner continued, awkwardly.

A bit later, not quite sensing the reassurance he originally sought, Trump brought up the topic again. Once more, he asked for Comey’s loyalty. Comey, now more mentally prepared, replied that he would always provide Trump with honesty.

Trump was not distracted from what he wanted.

“Honest loyalty,” Trump countered, as if negotiating a deal. This was the loyalty dinner, after all, and Trump would accept no substitute value-certainly not “honesty” as a standalone pledge. What good is honesty anyway? Trump’s non-negotiable was loyalty.

Comey elaborates in his new book A Higher Loyaltya contrast between Trump’s brand of glib, dangerous loyalty and the higher loyalty of an ethical leader.

By “higher loyalty,” Comey means fidelity to the law or being a good person. “Loyalty,” though, even with the appended adjective, is not the right word. A good person is not “loyal to morality.” Better terms for higher loyalty would be “probity” and “integrity.”

Terminology aside, Comey’s central criticism of Trump is that he is too preoccupied with loyalty. Trump, he writes, reminds him of when he prosecuted the Mafia.

The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth.

Comey’s analogy here is surely apt: Trump is all about loyalty. And no one better exemplifies than Trump exactly how excessive attention to loyalty can be so disastrous.

Normally, “loyal” is a compliment. A loyal dog, a loyal spouse, a loyal employee - that’s a good dog, spouse, employee. Trump, however, exemplifies the way loyalty is different from so many other positive character traits. Unlike, say, compassion or honesty, an excess of loyalty is positively corrosive to someone’s character.

This is crucial to understanding loyalty. A person who is loyal to another person - or to a nation or organization - places a special value on that relationship and will, if circumstances demand it, go above and beyond the call of duty to benefit that person. In organized crime, mafia members (typically) value their relationship to the organization. They are prepared to sacrifice other moral considerations they might have - as well as their own interests - to benefit the organization as a whole.

Loyalty, by definition, is not felt toward everyone equally. It would not make sense for someone to say she is equally loyal to everyone on earth. When she is loyal to someone, she is treating that person differently from - and better than - others. (A more thorough discussion of loyalty and its philosophical implications can be found here.)

If it is indeed a self-evident truth that all men are created equal, then there is a sense in which loyalty violates this truth. If you are doing loyalty right, you are not giving equal moral consideration to all people.

Further, loyalty demands sacrifice, or at least the willingness to sacrifice. A loyal spouse sacrifices the opportunity to have sex with others. A loyal sports fan sticks with her team through the worst losing streak (sorry Berny Belvedere and Derek Thompson!)

Sometimes, loyalty demands a specifically moral sacrifice. Loyalty can be shown not in spite of, but in virtue of disregarding other moral considerations. A truly loyal friend will help you hide the body. A loyal co-conspirator never spills the beans.

It is hard, though, to imagine a life well-lived with no loyalty whatsoever. So much of what makes a life meaningful - friendship, family, community - is cemented by loyalty.

In the dialogue Euthyphro by Plato, Socrates happens to run across a man named Euthyphro in front of a courthouse. When Socrates asks what he is doing there, Euthyphro replies he is there to prosecute his father for murder. While he and his father have a familial bond, Euthyphro explains that he must do the right thing.

Socrates is taken aback by Euthyphro’s choice of duty over familal loyalty. Socrates assumes family should be treated differently. He asks Euthyphro incredulously,

Do you think you yourself know so accurately how matters stand respecting divine law, and things holy and unholy, that with the facts as you declare you can prosecute your own father without fear that it is you, on the contrary, who are doing an unholy thing?

In our culture, such a lack of familial loyalty may not be as shocking as it was to Socrates - indeed, we might admire someone who remained faithful to the law over family - but most of us would see familial loyalty as at the very least understandable.

It is incredibly difficult to deny the importance of loyalty entirely. Peter Singer, a well-known moral philosopher, is one of the most forceful advocates for the view that, morally speaking, we should give all others exactly the same moral consideration.

To Singer, since all are moral equals, it is morally wrong to offer greater care to your own family if instead you could help more people. It would be wrong to spend $10,000 to save your mother’s life if that same money donated to a charity could save five lives.

Yet many years ago when Singer found himself confronted with his mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, he (arguably) wavered from his unyielding principles. He hired a nursing team to care for her. Obviously he was not going to be able to offer every other Alzheimer’s patient in the world the same. Singer admitted that it was

probably not the best use you could make of my money. That is true. But it does provide employment for a number of people who find something worthwhile in what they’re doing.

For most of us, being loyal involves a balance between sacrificing too much or too little of ourselves. We are loyal sometimes; sometimes we resist loyalty when it asks too much. An ethical boss will reward a promotion to the best candidate and not her closest friend. In that case, honoring her loyalty to her friend requires too much of a moral sacrifice. It would be too unfair.

There are also different kinds and levels of loyalty. Partisan loyalty is not always bad, but a political party is a more inappropriate object of loyalty than, say, a country. We say “country over party” - yet the person who forthrightly admits “party over country” would be, in our eyes, offering an admission of having his or her priorities out of whack.

It is our job in our moral maturity to have learned the practical wisdom to determine what is too much loyalty and what is too little.

Trump is different. He is different in exactly the way that exemplifies the problem with too much loyalty.

The beginning and end of Trump’s ethical inner life is focused solely on loyalty. Most of us weave our loyalty in with other ethical values, such as prudence - sometimes putting loyalty over prudence and sometimes prudence over loyalty. But for Trump, loyalty is the only value that matters - and it is typically expected to flow unidirectionally, that is, from someone to Trump rather than from Trump to someone else.

When Trump says a person is “good,” he is not referring to their kind-heartedness or their integrity. Since ascending to the presidency, some of the people he has publicly deemed good (usually in so many words) include Michael Flynn, Scott Pruitt, Tom Price, Rob Porter, Steve Bannon, and Joe Arpaio. Most notoriously, he said it of some of the neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville.

He did not call these men good - it is quite rare that he calls anyone “a good woman - because he was mistaken about what they are truly like. He was aware of their respective dishonesty, corruption, racism, cruelty, and/or propensity for violence. None of that mattered. In fact, in all of these cases, he proclaimed they were good after they received serious public opprobrium. What do these men seem to have in common, what makes them good to Trump? They are in his camp; they are loyal to him. That is what makes a man a good man.

Trump is of course aware other people embrace moral values other than loyalty. He has feigned being charitable to reap the reputational benefits because he knows other people value charity. He has played up the importance of faith to secure a constituency that is electorally powerful.

But there is a sense in which he fundamentally does not seem really to get moral values other than loyalty. He does not, apparently, understand why Attorney General Jeff Sessions might feel a duty to recuse himself rather than assist Trump in avoiding investigation. He does not quite get why anyone is upset that he called some countries “shithole countries.” Indeed, it is possible he assumes they are not genuinely upset and that their ire is mere theatrics.

Relatedly, he tends to interpret actions that hurt him incidentally as a demonstration of a damnable lack of loyalty. Judge Gonzalo Curiel and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, then, are not motivated by respect for the law, but by disloyalty.

Likening Trump to a mob boss is apt. If you are running a halfway decent crime syndicate, your survival relies on the group’s loyalty superseding all other moral values. The mafia whose members respect the rule of law or have compassion for strangers will not be on top for very long; the mafia whose members are always loyal will thrive.

So many of the deep failures of the Trump presidency spring from the fact that to him, loyalty outweighs all other considerations. He gives government positions to his relatives rather than the most competent. He defames those who criticize him. He stokes racism to keep the far right at his side. The rallies. The military parade. His overindulgence in Fox News.

If you are also inclined to think of his tariffs and immigration policy as misguided, you could make a case that these spring from misplaced loyalty, from too strong a preference for one’s own country compared to others.

Trump’s focus on loyalty and loyalty alone as the measure of a person shows just how corrosive pure loyalty can be. In the end, he is a perfect example of the problem with loyalty.

Over the weekend, Trump blocked Mike Pence from hiring Jon Lerner as his national security adviser. Trump had no objection to Lerner’s abilities. Rather, he could not be hired because he had made ads criticizing Trump during the Republican primaries. He was insufficiently loyal. Trump was enraged, but also puzzled. He did not get it. He asked, “Why would Mike do that?”


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