The Limits of Loyalty

Is loyalty a virtue or a sin?  Does the world need more of it, or less?

Donald Trump, in a controversial speech to the Boy Scouts of America on Monday, endorsed the former in no uncertain terms, rambling to the gathering of thousands of teenage boys, “As the Scout Law says, ‘A scout is trustworthy, loyal’—we could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that.”

The subtext of this remark was clear enough to anyone paying attention to current events.  Throughout the past week, the president has been very publicly steaming about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump feels betrayed him by recusing himself from the administration’s Russia imbroglio—and also, apparently, by not investigating Hillary Clinton for God knows what.  In an ongoing series of tweets, Trump has tarred Sessions as “beleaguered” and “VERY weak,” effectively goading him into resigning, lest the abuse continue indefinitely.

The implication—or explication, as the case may be—is that Sessions’s duty as America’s chief law enforcement officer is to protect Donald Trump from the law, not to defend the law against those who violate it, up to and including the commander-in-chief himself.  As Trump made plain in an interview with the New York Times, his hiring of Sessions was predicated on the AG serving the president—not the Constitution.

But then it’s not only Sessions who has found himself the object of Trump’s wrath on the question of absolute allegiance.  Let’s not forget James Comey, the former director of the FBI, who famously met with the president in January, when the latter said, point-blank, “I need loyalty; I expect loyalty.”  Comey’s eventual sacking—like Sessions’s, should it occur—was the result of being insufficiently faithful to the man in the Oval Office.  Of daring to think, and act, for himself.

As someone who has never been leader of the free world—nor, for that matter, held any position of real responsibility—I must confess that I remain skeptical about the value of unconditional submission in one’s day-to-day life and generally regard free agency as the far superior of the two virtues.  Indeed, I would argue (to answer my own question) that “virtue” might be altogether the wrong word to use in this context.

When thinking about loyalty, the question you must ask yourself is:  What, exactly, am I being loyal to?  Is it to a set of principles, or to another human being?  And if you are merely dedicating yourself to a person, what has he or she done to deserve it, and what, if anything, will you be getting in return?

Certainly, the spectacle of Trump demanding total fealty to Trump is the most extreme—and most cartoonish—manifestation of this latter category, since the president has shown minimal interest in reciprocating whatever devotion happens to come his way.  Except with members of his immediate family (so far, anyway), Trump’s modus operandi is to ask for everything and give nothing back.  Part and parcel of being a textbook sociopath, Trump views his fellow humans purely as a means to an end and rarely, if ever, stops to think how he might make their lives easier in the process.  It does not occur to him to treat people with respect for its own sake.  If anything, he views empathy as a sign of weakness.

This behavior may well represent an abuse and perversion of an otherwise useful human trait, but that hardly makes a difference when considering the enormous political power of the man doing the perverting.

Which brings us—by way of analogy—to Adolf Hitler.

In Germany, beginning in 1934, all members of the armed forces were required to swear a solemn oath—not to Germany, mind you, but to the man at the top.  This vow, or Reichswehreid, read, in part, “To the Leader of the German Empire and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and […] at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath.”  As you might’ve guessed, soldiers who refused to comply tended not to live very long.

If that seems like an extreme and sui generis example of a personality cult run amok, let me remind you of the moment in March 2016 when, at a campaign rally in Florida, Donald Trump implored his adoring crowd to raise their right hands and pledge, “I do solemnly swear that I—no matter how I feel, no matter what the conditions, if there’s hurricanes or whatever—will vote […] for Donald J. Trump for president.”

While a stunt like that doesn’t exactly sink to the depths of the Hitler oath—Trump wasn’t about to jail or murder anyone who opted out—it is nonetheless a profoundly creepy thing for a presidential candidate in a democratic republic to say—particularly when you recall that Trump once reportedly kept an anthology of Hitler’s speeches at his bedside table.  This for a man who can otherwise go years without reading a single book.

That Trump evidently views Hitler as some sort of role model—and is haphazardly aping the Führer’s stylistic flourishes on the campaign trail—ought to give us serious pause about where his own fidelity lies—is it to the nation or himself?—and about whether his pronouncement at the Republican National Convention that he—and he alone—is capable of steering America forward was less an expression of supreme confidence than a barely-veiled threat against those who doubt that a serially-bankrupt con artist is the best man to preside over the largest economy in the world.

The problem, you see, is not that Trump is Hitler.  (He’s not.)  The problem is that he wants to be Hitler—and Mussolini and Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin and every other national figurehead who has managed to wield near-absolute authority over his citizenry—often with sarcastically high approval ratings and totally unburdened by the institutional checks and balances that America’s founders so brilliantly installed in 1787.

While Trump’s ultimate ambitions might not be as violent or imperial as those of the men I just listed—in the end, he seems to care about little beyond self-enrichment—the central lesson of the first six months of his administration—plus the first 71 years of his life—is that there is nothing he will not try to get away with at least once.  No sacred cow he will not trample.  No rule he will not bend.  No sin he will not commit.  He is a man of bottomless appetites and zero restraint.  Left to his own devices, he would spend his entire presidency arranging meetings—like the one with his cabinet last month—whose participants did nothing but praise him for being the greatest man in the history of the world.  A Kim Jong-un of the West.

Remember:  The sole reason Trump hasn’t already turned the United States into a full-blown banana republic is that he can’t.  Constitutionally-speaking, the only things stopping him from indulging his basest instincts are Congress, the courts and the American public, and we’ve seen how tenuous all three of those institutions can be.  Should the remaining branches of government fulfill their obligations as a check on executive overreach and malfeasance, we’ll be fine.  Should they falter—thereby providing Trump the untrammeled loyalty he demands—we’ll be in for the longest eight years of our lives.


Scouting Report

I have never engaged in a formal one-on-one debate with anyone on the subject of same-sex marriage, but were such an event to occur, I am fairly certain my line of inquiry would begin with the following challenge:  “Please explain why marriage between a black person and a white person should be legal.”

You see, my thinking is (and long has been) that in making the case for interracial marriage, one makes the case for gay marriage as well.  I understand there are many folks, black and white, who get annoyed when bits of the gay rights movement are likened to bits of the black civil rights movement—they insist any similarities between the two are superficial—but I find the parallels a trifle too linear to ignore.

The most salient point of all—the bottom-est of the bottom lines—is that once one establishes that civil marriage in the United States is and ought to be a union of two consenting adults pledging themselves to each other in good faith forever and ever—nothing more, nothing less—all arguments for limiting the institution to only certain types of people evaporate on contact.

The legalization and subsequent propagation of interracial marriage in America demonstrated the validity of this point, both for itself and for all forms of so-called “non-traditional” marriage thereafter.  We didn’t need to worry about any horrid unintended consequences of marriage between gays—miscegenation had already proved such fears utterly and blessedly unfounded.

I offer this throat clearing because I have just read the survey the Boy Scouts of America is distributing to its scouts and their parents, and in mulling its contents, I have been struck with the most acute sense of déjà vu.

As you must surely have heard, America’s revered coming-of-age organization has faced such concentrated criticism in recent years over its longstanding prohibition on openly gay scouts and scoutmasters, that it is very seriously considering dropping the policy outright in the near future.

To prepare itself for such an eventuality, the Boy Scouts commissioned this new questionnaire to take the temperature of its present membership regarding its views on homosexuality.  While the queries cover a range of hypothetical scenarios, they are essentially different ways of asking the same basic question:  What would actually happen, on a troop-by-troop basis, were the Scouts to welcome open homosexuals into its ranks?

If this all sounds terribly familiar, it might be because it is precisely the same process undertaken by the U.S. Armed Forces in 2010 to ascertain the effects of repealing its own anti-gay policy, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Like the Boy Scouts today, military leaders wondered how inclusion of gays would affect “unit cohesion.”  They fretted about recruitment and funding.  They broached questions of morality and ethics.  And they were skeptical about upending years and decades of tradition to embark upon a journey with an uncertain destination.

Gay soldiers have now served openly for a year and a half.  While this is far too short of a time span from which to draw definitive conclusions, a think tank called the Palm Center produced an “assessment” one year into DADT’s repeal, which it gleaned “had no negative impact on overall military readiness or its component parts.”

“While repeal produced a few downsides for some military members—mostly those who personally opposed the policy change,” the report expounded, “we identified important upsides as well, and in no case did negative consequences outweigh advantages.  On balance, DADT repeal appears to have slightly enhanced the military’s ability to do its job by clearing away unnecessary obstacles to the development of trust and bonding.”

From this (admittedly tentative) account, the Boy Scouts can perhaps derive some clues as to how its own adventures in gayification might play out.

While the Boy Scouts of America is no more equivalent to the U.S. military than is same-sex marriage to miscegenation, one is nonetheless compelled to ask:  If the Armed Forces are capable of operating with homosexuals in their midst, why not the Scouts?

Of course, a possible reason the repeal of DADT turned into something of a “non-event”—and a cause to think the prospective inclusion of gays in the Scouts would as well—is the rather inconvenient (and obvious) fact that gay people had served in the military all along, albeit silently.  Perhaps some soldiers and higher-ups convinced themselves to the contrary, certain that any and all traces of gayness had been thoroughly cleansed from their platoons, but they were only fooling themselves and fooling others.

In truth, we already know the Boy Scouts can handle the presence of gays, for it always has.  The choice it faces, then, is whether to continue to engage in an elaborate self-deception, or whether instead to face the world as it really is.  Would the latter not be the more honorable—dare I say, the more meritorious—thing to do?