Dogs, The Mooch, and a Reluctant Mr. Kelly: Loyalty in the Trump era
There has been a lot of talk lately of loyalty. This virtue-turned-vice has been greatly elevated in the public’s view with every Twitter blast from our president bemoaning how little loyalty he receives from his advisers, his party, his … well, the list grows daily. But, what exactly is loyalty? And more importantly: What is it not?
Loyalty is, or should be, an easily understood virtue. It contains elements of faithfulness, devotion, duty – all admirable traits. And, in common usage there’s little cause for misunderstanding when we say someone is or is not loyal. If you say a spouse has been disloyal, there’s little question what has occurred. Loyalty, in general society, is an innocuous and positive enough concept.
But, when misused or misunderstood, blind loyalty, and an unquestioning sense of obligation to offer it, can be even more a vice than true loyalty can be a virtue. This becomes more true the greater the influence and power of those demanding said “virtue” – more on that shortly. But, unfortunately, little attention is given to clearing up the difference between true loyalty and its dark, deceptive cousin – subservience.
Discuss loyalty long enough and a comparison inevitably will be made to our lovable four-legged friend, the dog. We love dogs for their loyalty. If you haven’t watched the movie Hachi, or read the story of the real-life dog Hachikō, I’d recommend it. In either case, it’s the story of a very loyal dog who continues to return to a train station – for nine years! – to await the return of an owner who’s long-since died. It’s heart-warming, touching, and it’s generally what we expect when we think of loyalty. You want a human to be really loyal – you want them to be like a dog. You want a humanized Hachi.
The problem with this bit of reverse anthropomorphism is that precisely what makes dogs’ loyalty lovable, is what makes its translation to human loyalty so damning. A dog, as long as its basic needs are met, will love and be loyal to an owner, regardless of whether that owner is good or evil, virtuous or vicious. This is fine, because a dog is a dog. And a dog bears no moral responsibility for its owner’s character and actions. The dog’s loyalty is admirable, regardless of to whom it is paid.
If you’re reading this, you’re not a dog
The problem with our Hachi-esque expectations of human loyalty is, of course, we are not dogs. There’s certainly a lot we could learn from our canine companions, and in general matters of trust, if I’m equally unacquainted with the two, I’d choose a dog over a human every time. But, the fact remains, unlike dogs, we do bear a moral – and in many cases, legal – responsibility for the outcome when we give someone our loyalty.
In order for loyalty to be a virtue, then, it must be based on integrity, both on the part of the one pledging and the one receiving loyalty. The one giving loyalty has a responsibility to ensure their sense of duty doesn’t bear the rotten fruit of dishonesty, immorality, or the breach of law or approved conduct. Unlike the dog, we are not absolved from responsibility in those outcomes. And, the one receiving loyalty bears a responsibility to ensure no demand is made that would constitute an ethical, legal, or moral violation.
Loyalty, in short, must stop at the point it demands that which is wrong, illegal or unethical. Anyone who demands that line be crossed in the name of “loyalty” is not seeking true loyalty. They are seeking subservience. That is point at which the proper loyalty of a subordinate becomes the culpability of an accomplice.
Donnie and the search for a good dog
The line between loyalty and subservience, between one who is loyal and one who is an accomplice, becomes murkier the more power and influence is wielded by the one demanding loyalty. And nowhere is that line more muddled these days than in the White House.
In the brief, and yet somehow interminable, six months since Donald Trump became our president he has embarked on an eerie quest for “loyalty.” If we believe the statements made by former FBI Director James Comey, Trump demanded loyalty from Comey shortly before firing him. That “loyalty” was inextricably linked to dropping the Russia probe – again, if we believe Comey.
The president also has railed against the attorney general for recusing himself in the Russia probe – a case in which virtually every competent authority agrees Sessions had the right, if not the outright obligation, to recuse himself based on conflicts of interest. Yet, Trump remains inconsolably indignant, firing off Twitter barrages at his (apparently disloyal) attorney general for following his conscience.
The hunt for anyone not “loyal” enough to the president to violate their own conscience took on a bizarre “Jersey Shore” air 10 days ago with the arrival of Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci. The Mooch had barely settled into his new position before he launched into an expletive-laced rant to a national publication promising, among other virtuous gems, to kill or fire anyone who leaked information about the president’s alarmingly dysfunctional leadership team.
I’m not sure if The Mooch was going to kill them first, then fire them, or vice versa. But the bottom line is “they” were seemingly disloyal in some fashion, and The Mooch was here to “clean things up.” The Mooch succeeded in getting rid of his chief rival for top dog in the loyalty farm, with the humiliating Twitter-dismissal of Reince Priebus.
Enter John Kelly, the former Marine Corps general and Secretary of Homeland Security. Reports indicate Kelly was hesitant to accept the post as the new chief of staff, and as a condition of taking the helm aboard Trump’s foundering ship The Mooch was cast adrift.
There were many good reasons for Trump to get rid of Scaramucci. And there certainly are a great many reasons to choose someone with the leadership caliber of John Kelly. But, sources close to Trump’s decision to choose Kelly indicate the president was looking for something more than solid leadership. In an Associated Press story Friday, unnamed sources indicate Trump “loved the general’s star power and that he believed military discipline was what his administration needed.”
Military Discipline: a misunderstood beast
I’m all for military discipline, especially in high-stress, high-stakes environments. My concern with the president’s reported desire for military discipline in his inner circle isn’t with military discipline in and of itself. My concern is there’s no indication whatsoever the president has the first clue what military discipline means.
Powermongers who have never worn a uniform – like the president – often admire the armed forces based on a false perception that the military inculcates blind, unquestioning “loyalty.” If you demand subservience (under the false pretense of loyalty), it makes sense you would turn to an organization you believe breeds amoral automatons. If you want a dog, you go to a dog breeder.
The problem with what I believe is Trump’s likely motivation – and it’s truly a problem for both Trump and Kelly – is the military doesn’t breed dogs. Kelly cut his teeth in and rose to the highest levels of a military in which members at all levels are trained, ad nauseam, that loyalty does not obviate our responsibility to ethics, integrity, and the rule of law. To be sure, there are outliers and some who fall short of the standard. But the standard in the military is not subservience – it is true loyalty, bound unwaveringly to the code of conduct, integrity, and law.
I can’t presume to know what’s going on in the president’s mind. But, it is very evident through his actions and words that what he seeks is not loyalty, and loyal subordinates. Trump wants subservience, and willing accomplices. And if that is what he’s shopping for in appointing John Kelly, I think the president will very soon find himself disappointed, yet again, by someone being “disloyal.”
If Kelly is a man of any integrity, as everyone I know who’s served under him believes him to be, then it will not take long for the president’s misunderstanding of loyalty and discipline to unravel their relationship. Kelly, I believe, is loyal – in the finest, and truest sense of the word. But he is no dog. And that just won’t do in the house of Trump.