Sound Off! Trump's Misplaced Conception of Loyalty By Luke Perry
The greatest revelation in Donald Trump’s expectation of loyalty of James Comey was not the request, but his understanding of loyalty. Trump’s emphasis on personal loyalty, to political appointees and apolitical civil servants alike, displays a fundamental misunderstanding or deliberate ignorance of how the federal government works. It's no surprise the best political observers in the business describe this presidency as “the most unusual administration in modern times.”
Personal loyalty from the presidency is better suited to the times of Andrew Jackson who Trump likes to compare himself to. There was no democracy or civil service reforms in the early nineteenth century. White men with strong personalities and money dominated government and society even more than they do today.
If a president wanted to betray conventions and his convictions, and make big deals, he could, like Thomas Jefferson did with the Louisiana Purchase. If the Supreme Court halted government efforts to remove "threatening" and "un-American" minorities in the president’s home state, he could rebuke the Court and challenge them to enforce their own decisions, as Andrew Jackson did with Worcester v. Georgia.
There are no quick fixes in a political system that is designed to move very slowly, so as not to endanger individual liberty, as explained in Federalist #51. More simply, things in DC get done through years of steady pursuit, not a “New York Minute.” This norm has persisted even with the increased powers of the modern presidency and rapid speed of the digital age.
“Steady” is not how one describes Donald Trump’s leadership before or after becoming president. There can be no long view when someone begins her/his political career in the last chapter of life. Trump shouldn’t be criticized for being motivated by spite, many are, but wining power was only the start.
Judgements in democracy are based on what you do with that power, not that you were able to obtain it. That is a major difference from business, where people admire you for making millions of dollars and care much less about how the money is spent.
James Comey testified today that the “nature of the person” prompted him to document all of his discussions with Donald Trump out of fear Trump would lie about them. Comey did not feel similarly compelled to do this in previous meetings with Presidents Bush or Obama. This is remarkable coming from the former FBI Director who had led a long investigation of Trump’s campaign and administration and was fired (at least in part) for this work. Comey also testified that the President lied and defamed him and the FBI in publicly discussing the circumstances of his firing.
Donald Trump’s political capital is nearly bankrupt. The final withdrawal can only come from the party that put him in power. Impeachment is rare, but uniformly secured in a highly partisan fashion.
Trump claims to put the American people first and perhaps in his own way he has tried to. Less disputed is his inability or unwillingness to put American democracy first. The question now is if and when the party who reluctantly brought him to power will just as reluctantly seek to remove him.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Professor of Government at Utica College. His column Sound Off! critiques various aspects of presidential politics.