Last night, President Donald J. Trump fired the acting Attorney General, Susan Q. Yates, because she refused to implement his Executive Order on immigration.
His reason: Ms. Yates “betrayed the Justice Department.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines betrayal in two ways. One is to “treacherously give information” to a nation’s enemy. The other is to be “gravely disloyal.”
Perhaps the president genuinely feels that Ms. Yates has committed a treasonous act. But it’s doubtful.
No, when the Administration uses the word “betray,” it connotes the latter: Ms. Yates was disloyal to the president.
Loyalty is far more central to Donald Trump’s transactional brand of politics than we appreciate. And it is far more ominous.
1. Donald Trump Sees Himself as Loyal
Hard as it may be to remember, the first “scandal” of the GOP primary campaign concerned Donald Trump and a “loyalty pledge.”
Until September 2015, Mr. Trump had refused to promise that he would not seek the presidency as an independent, should he lose the Republican primary. When he finally did agree, Trump staged a public signing ceremony.
Throughout the campaign, Trump’s team experienced numerous setbacks. Campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was accused of assaulting a reporter. Lewandowski’s replacement, Paul Manafort, later came under fire for receiving $12.7 million in clandestine payments from a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.
In each case, Donald Trump stood by his employees (as long as he thought he could), and made a show of doing so. He cast aspersions on Lewandowski’s assault victim; and, as Politico put it, “circled the wagons” around Manafort.
While both men ultimately left the campaign (Lewandowski was fired, Manafort resigned), Trump’s public show of loyalty demonstrates the premium The Donald puts on it.
2. Donald Trump Values (and Rewards) Loyalty in Others
Better-known is Donald Trump’s fixation upon loyalty in others.
During the campaign, he famously asked supporters to “solemnly swear” to vote for him. He kicked people out of a Vermont rally for not “pledging” to support him.
After winning the presidential election in November, Trump rewarded those who were loyal with key appointments:
Sean Spicer famously defended Melania Trump against allegations of plagiarizing Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC speech. He was appointed Press Secretary.
Early-supporter Jeff Sessions has been nominated as the next Attorney General.
Retired Marine Corps. General Michael Flynn, a top advisor during the campaign, has been appointed National Security Advisor.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s primary campaign strategist, is now senior advisor to the president—he even enjoys more permanent status on the National Security Council than the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence.
Even Omarosa Manigault, whom Trump lauded as a “loyal friend” for defending a poor debate performance of his, joined the Trump Administration to focus on “public engagement” in January.
.@OMAROSA You were fantastic on television this weekend. Thank you so much – you are a loyal friend! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 10, 2015
Then of course there is the litany of family members whom Trump relies upon for advice: from his daughter Ivanka, to his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and his sons Eric and Donald Jr.
For Donald Trump, loyalty is the basis of politics.
If this point was lost on anyone over the course of the campaign, it was underscored during the president’s inaugural address.
“The oath I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans,” he proclaimed.
Yet as Walter Olson at CATO points out, this is inherently problematic:
The words of the actual oath require the President first to uphold legality, even above his vision of what might be good for the people. This element of legal constraint is lost if a President sees his allegiance as being to someone rather than something.
Simply put, Trump views his loyalty as being to the American people (however construed), not to the Constitution or major institutions.
In a country that defines itself as a “nation of laws, not men,” this spells disaster.
3. The Un-American Prospect of Loyalty Replacing Law
And now we return to last night.
Donald Trump fired the acting Attorney General because she disagreed with him. Sadly, this is only the most recent—neither first nor last—in a string of what can only be called purges.
Over the course of Trump’s short presidency:
He has dismissed top State Department officials, including Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy and Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Thomas Countryman.
In response to the chaos of his recent executive order, Trump has fired the acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Recently, dissenting officials in the U.S. Department of State have been told to “get with the program or go.”
This is not normal. It is un-American.
Critics voiced fears about Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies during the campaign. Some tried to reassure Trump critics by asserting that “institutions will protect us.”
We are now seeing that they will not. Not when dissenters are forced out. Not when the Administration defies court orders. Not when officials are fired for refusing to implement patently unconstitutional laws.
Institutions are staffed by people. They are only as resilient as those within them. But who is willing to staff Trump’s institutions? Elite Republicans spurned Trump and policy wonks criticized him.
This president cannot abide disloyalty: his pool of loyal advisors is astoundingly small, limited to sycophants and family.
This is terrifying. Two political scientists, Jeff Colgan and Jessica Weeks, call such leaders “personalistic dictators.” These individuals undercut institutions to facilitate coordination. As they write:
This lack of coordinating institutions, in turn, means that personalist leaders typically have free rein to appoint friends, relatives, and other cronies to important offices in both the government and military, and can then closely the monitor their activities, ensuring that key regime insiders remain loyal.
Donald Trump is dismantling vital institutions. What’s worse, we saw this coming. Throughout the campaign, Trump proclaimed himself to be the law and order candidate.
His law. His order.
Not America’s. Not ours.