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.


The Man in the Tinfoil Hat

Correct me if I’m wrong, but is it possible that Donald Trump has been president for a full 61 days and not once claimed that 9/11 was an inside job?

I’ve scoured the internet for possible examples of such a statement from the sitting commander-in-chief, and so far, I’ve come up with nothing.  (For our purposes, we will discount this interview, since it was given on 9/11 itself, before anyone knew anything.)  As it turns out, in the decade-and-a-half since the worst terrorist attack on American soil, Trump has been totally, weirdly consistent in his view that the World Trade Center was brought down by Osama bin Laden and his minions in al Qaeda—and not, say, by a controlled explosion orchestrated by George W. Bush.  As far as our dear leader is concerned, the basic facts of 9/11 are settled science and not worth questioning further.

In light of all the nonsense that this administration has forced us to confront on a daily—if not hourly—basis, let us take a moment to appreciate the grace and maturity exhibited by the 45th president, vis-à-vis September 11, in accepting incontrovertible evidence as objective truth when there are other options open to him.

After all, this is the same guy who glanced at the cover of National Enquirer and proclaimed that Ted Cruz’s father was an accomplice in the Kennedy assassination.  The guy who propagated the theory that millions of non-citizens committed voter fraud because a German golfer told him so.  The guy who pushed hard for birtherism based on sources he never named, and who just recently accused President Obama of illegally wiretapping him based on documentation he has never produced.  And on and on and on.

Given all of this irresponsible rumor-mongering—this obsessive-compulsive embrace of political fairy tales when empirical facts are readily available—we are left to wonder:  Why isn’t Trump a 9/11 truther?  If he can so easily be made to believe that Obama could surreptitiously “tapp” the phones at Trump Tower, what’s stopping him from buying into a Bush administration that could surreptitiously blow up the World Trade Center to justify a war in Iraq?  As the leader of the free world, shouldn’t he be chomping at the bit to expose the would-be greatest crime of his least favorite Republican president once and for all?

You’d think he would be, and if Trump’s rank gullibility and ignorance aren’t sufficient reasons for him to be suspicious, surely his ongoing association with avowed 9/11 truthers would eventually do the job.

That’s right:  At this very moment, there are bona fide 9/11 skeptics within the president’s inner circle.  No, not his chief of staff or secretary of state—I’m talking about people he actually listens to and whose ideas he regularly repeats.  People like Alex Jones—aka the poor man’s Rush Limbaugh—who uses his radio program to scream about how the Sandy Hook massacre was fake and the government is using chemicals to turn frogs gay.  (Google it, kids!)  Or people like Andrew Napolitano, the Fox News contributor who originated this week’s bizarre claim that the (fictional) wiretaps in Trump Tower were the work of British spies.

These men are cooks, yet Trump’s ear seems to hang on their every word.  The president has come to view their hysterical ravings as gospel, thereby nudging paranoid gobbledygook into mainstream political culture.

We already know how pointlessly disruptive the presence of conspiracy theories can be on the daily operations of the U.S. government.  As we speak, actual intelligence officials are being paid actual wages to “investigate” something the president tweeted several weeks back at 3:35 a.m.  Two days ago, the director of the FBI was compelled to discuss those investigations in front of a congressional committee, all of whose members—like every other person in America—already knew those tweets were BS and hardly needed James Comey to confirm it.

The question now isn’t whether anything substantive will be gleaned from these mad accusations.  (It won’t.)  Rather, the question is how Trump will react to being proved a liar in half a dozen different ways.  If his past behavior is any indication—and it always is—he will continue insisting upon the rightness of his wrongness right up until every member of his administration abandons him, at which point he will sheepishly concede that no wiretap took place, quickly adding that he’s proud to have stubbornly suggested otherwise, since the ensuing investigation was the only way for us to know for sure that President Obama isn’t a criminal.  (As you’ll recall, this was roughly how he handled being humiliated about Obama’s birth certificate in 2011.)

However this particular national embarrassment is resolved, we can take it as a moral certainty that life under Trump will only get dumber from here, and you can take it from me that the longer he remains president, the greater the odds are that he will openly question 9/11.

Remember:  Trump’s solution to any big scandal is to create an even bigger scandal, and at the current rate his presidency is unraveling, it won’t be long before he burns through every other shiny object in his playbook and all that’s left is the Hail Mary.  Yes, the pushback will be fierce, and yes, the calls for his resignation will reach a veritable fever pitch.  But what would that matter to a man who believes he can generate his own reality and dismiss all opponents as the instruments of “fake news”?

In other words, the nation is currently engaged in a staring contest with someone who has no eyelids.  For all the unpredictability baked into our 45th president, we can be absolutely sure that a man who has skirted personal responsibility for the first 70 years of his life is not going to change course by the time he turns 71.  As Newton might’ve said, a president under a delusion will remain that way unless acted upon by a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate.

Bottom of the 9th

In retrospect, I guess there was no other way for the 2016 election to end than in a giant, flaming ball of confusion and with a razor-thin final result.

A week ago—hell, less than 72 hours ago—this race was over by every conceivable metric:  Hillary Clinton led in one national poll after another—sometimes by double digits—as well as in enough state polls to clear 270 electoral votes and keep right on chugging.  What’s more, Donald Trump appeared to have abandoned any residual interest in taking this election seriously, spending most of his days plugging his tacky products and incoherently whining about how the entire democratic process is fixed.

Hence every sensible political pundit predicting that, unless something very weird happens between now and November 8, Hillary Clinton will easily be elected the 45th president of the United States, and we will all be able to return to our regularly scheduled lives.

And then on Friday afternoon, something very weird happened:  The director of the FBI, James Comey, publicly revealed the existence of a mysterious set of emails found on former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s computer—emails that may or may not involve Hillary Clinton and may or may not contain classified information.

In other words, the entire 2016 election was brought to a screeching halt by the sudden appearance of a shiny object.

Will the nature of this object—whatever it is—prove decisive next Tuesday?  Everyone has a theory, but the truth is that we have no effing idea.  Maybe the electorate has already decided how it feels about the damn emails and this won’t change a thing.  On the other hand, maybe there are just enough undecided voters for this new “scandal” to tip the election in Trump’s favor.

The only thing we know for sure—other than that we don’t know anything for sure—is that James Comey’s disclosure is precisely the deus ex machina that Trump needed to remain even slightly competitive in this bizarre race, and now that it’s happened, Hillary Clinton’s presumed victory is no longer a foregone conclusion.

To which I humbly ask:  Isn’t this what we secretly wanted all along?  Namely, a wild finish to an equally wild campaign?  A Super Bowl decided in the final moments of regulation?  A World Series that goes to seven games?  The nail-biter to end all nail-biters?

Perhaps your first instinct to that question is to spit your coffee onto your computer screen and then slam the computer against the wall.  Believe me, I know how you feel:  The morning after Comey’s announcement, I found myself in such an existential panic that I wandered into a screening of Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden—two-and-a-half hours of psychological torture and hardcore lesbian sex—just to calm myself down.

But let’s not dance around the fact that we Americans have spent generations treating elections like sporting events, and that the worst thing a sporting event can possibly be is boring—particularly at the bitter end.

Ask any sports fan on Earth what he or she wants from a high-stakes competition and—to a person—they will all say the exact same thing:  “I just want the game to be close.”  Indeed, even if the contest involves the person’s home team and everything is on the line—cash, pride, emotional stability—raw excitement is on an equal plane with victory.  Winning may be the primary objective in the short run, but the thrill of losing in a memorable way is the stuff that dreams (albeit bad ones) are made of.  And while having your team win in a blowout is undeniably satisfying, it’s nothing—nothing!—compared to the satisfaction of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.  (Here in Boston, for instance, 100 out of 100 Red Sox fans will affirm that beating the Yankees 4-3 in the 2004 ALCS was more gratifying than winning the World Series a week later in a clean, dull sweep.)

Does this same, slightly masochistic attitude apply to electoral politics?  Well, the media sure seem to think so, continually chasing whatever shocking plot twist comes down the pike in order to maximize ratings and keep anxious American hearts pounding.  Individual news networks may have a bias toward one political philosophy or the other, but when it comes to the news media writ large, the only bias that matters is the pursuit of sensationalism at all costs, and this requires that the race remain tight.

And yes:  Whether through the click of a remote or the click of a mouse, we, their dumb audience, eat up every last drop of it, breathlessly keeping up with every new “bombshell” development and working ourselves into a tizzy that—as Trump claimed on Friday—“This.  Changes.  Everything.”

In short:  Of course we are complicit in following politics the way we follow sports:  If we didn’t buy it, the media wouldn’t sell it.

The truth—the one we always know but rarely speak aloud—is that we will use almost any excuse not to talk about “the issues.”  For us, elections are primarily—if not entirely—about character, and in a race like this one—with two of the most distinctive characters we’ve ever had the misfortune to know—nothing is more compelling than the clash itself, and the thousand and one dynamics that are playing out at the exact same time on the largest stage in the history of the world.

Let’s face it:  The 2016 election has to go down to the wire, because otherwise it wouldn’t have been worth it.  It would’ve felt wrong—or at least anti-climactic—for this contest to have given us such a massive, continuous stream of material from the very beginning, only to end with a predictable and embarrassingly one-sided result.

Don’t get me wrong:  In a rational, moral universe, any presidential campaign that involved Donald Trump would’ve ceased being suspenseful the moment Trump became the Republican nominee.  Ideally, this race had no business being this interesting; by now, even a challenger as flawed as Clinton should’ve been ahead by at least 20 or 30 points.

Unfortunately, we live instead in the Land of Deplorables, where nearly half the country is prepared to vote for a confessed sexual predator just to avoid voting for a woman.  Until we grow up as a nation—and cease being so inherently polarized—we are fated to never have a lopsided presidential election ever again.  And if that’s the case, we might as well savor the intense, if nauseating, excitement of a contest that may not be decided until very, very late into the night of November 8, hoping—as we’ve never hoped before—that it will come out right in the end.