"I've never done this before," the future president told supporters at an Orlando, Florida, rally last March. "Can I have a pledge, a swearing — raise your right hand." Those gathered obediently proceeded to "solemnly swear" that they would vote for Donald Trump in that month's Republican primary. At the time, that impromptu vow was less newsworthy than the haunting history the image of it evoked: hundreds of white hands held aloft in fidelity to a leader who traffics in bigotry and cultural ignorance. But what remains utterly strange is the fact that a presidential candidate concocted a pledge of allegiance to himself.
Loyalty is king in Trump's world. He has a reputation for prizing it above all other qualities. He hews closely to those who demonstrate it, men like current White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, one of the few members of his administration with any government experience. Despite once urging Trump to drop out after the Access Hollywood tape dropped, Trump still keeps the former Republican National Committee chairman close. But Trump's obsession with loyalty is also what keeps him attached to people he should've disassociated from long ago. There's his former campaign chairman and current chief strategist Steve Bannon, an accused domestic abuser and demonstrated crusader for white nationalism. Press Secretary Sean Spicer and advisers Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway — known primarily for lying on television — would've been dropped long ago by an administration that had its priorities straight. Trump has ensured that his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, have advisory roles in his White House, official or unofficial. Even Felix Sater, the Trump business associate with suspected ties to organized crime, was still close enough to the president within the last month to help get a proposal to lift sanctions against Russia in front of the national security adviser.
Which brings us to former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Trump defended Flynn during a bizarre news conference on February 16, alleging that the man who had been forced out of his administration was the real victim. Flynn, who had resigned three days prior, had "done nothing wrong," according to the president — save one thing. "I fired him because of what he said to Mike Pence," Trump said (even though Spicer claimed the president had known for weeks that Flynn had been dishonest with Pence regarding his contact with the Russian ambassador to the United States). Politico reported that Trump had agonized over the decision to ax Flynn, an intelligence veteran who had been fired during the Obama administration for insubordination, because he doesn't "like to fire people who are loyal." But early in his presidency, Trump seems less interested in rooting out unfaithfulness to American institutions or ideals than in determining whether people are loyal to him personally.
Look, for instance, at what happened to Shermichael Singleton. The 26-year-old had been one of the few black people working in the administration, serving as a top aide to Ben Carson as he awaited confirmation for his Cabinet post. But Singleton was told recently that he was being fired for writing a column last October in The Hill that criticized Trump. The president-to-be, he wrote, "portrays our inner cities ... as if they are the ailments of American society and should be exterminated and swiftly removed," and that his election in November would represent a "hostile takeover" of the GOP. This wasn't Singleton's first shot at his party's nominee. In another Hill column from last June, he wrote that "Trump’s antics make it impossible for any Republican — particularly a minority — to defend him." That criticism was sufficient grounds in the Trump era for security to quite literally show Singleton the door.
Carson was reportedly "baffled" and "speechless" over his aide's firing. A source close to the soon-to-be Housing and Urban Development secretary told BuzzFeed, "Shermichael is someone he can trust, so it’s difficult for him." But in Trump's administration, since he "alone can fix" the nation's problems, it only matters whom he can trust. This goes well beyond HUD: In late January, after a purge of top officials at the State Department, Spicer insisted that any "career bureaucrats" there who disagreed with Trump's travel ban "should either get with the program or they can go." Perhaps he doesn't realize that isn't how civil service works. Just within Trump's own party, it's worth remembering that there were 16 other candidates for president at one time, most of whom had some constituency. But Trump and his administration have made it clear that they serve only a certain America — the kind of folks who would've raised their right hands at a rally, for instance.
Worse yet, Trump doesn't even understand what loyalty is. He thinks it is obedience. But as anyone who has taken the keys from a belligerent, intoxicated friend knows, genuine support can often take the form of disagreement. Staffing his administration with sycophants may soothe him in the short term, but he has nearly 2,000 empty positions to fill, more than 500 of which still await nomination. He is already turning inward to an increasingly smaller circle of advisers who will tell him precisely what he wants to hear. The question is, what happens when what those advisers say crashes up against the questions of governance? Building a government of one, free from critical thinking or dissent, is not only against the traditions of American leadership. It's physically impossible.
It’s an issue outside of the White House as well. While Trump’s most fervent supporters haven't yet swayed, it’s early days. His overall approval hovers around 40 percent, more than 20 percent below a typical American president at this time. To inspire the kind of loyalty Trump desires, he has to be able to intimidate. A president with those kinds of ratings won't scare anyone.
That's clear from the town halls where, even in reliably red country, Republican members of Congress have faced angry locals upset with Trump’s failure to protect their Obamacare. Some, like Florida senator Marco Rubio, opted not to face the crowds at all; others dismissed their own voters as "paid protesters." And when they did show up, they looked poleaxed. Arkansas senator Tom Cotton stood silently on a stage at his town hall, where one woman asked fellow attendees to stand if they'd been affected by the Affordable Care Act. Nearly all of them did. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell may now say that the GOP agenda "is exactly the same as the Trump agenda," but we'll see. Politicians of every stripe are known for their instincts for self-preservation.
That's why what Darrell Issa said last Friday matters. During an interview with HBO's Bill Maher that night, the Republican congressman argued that Americans need an independent investigation into the Trump campaign's dealings with Russian officials — specifically, he said we ought to be using “the special prosecutor’s statute and office,” rather than Jeff Sessions. Issa, who endorsed Trump last May, is facing one of the toughest 2018 races in California's 49th District — one of 23 Republican-held districts nationwide that voted for Hillary Clinton in November. While these districts won’t be quite enough to swing the House to the Democrats — they need at least 24 — they still represent a significant number of Republican representatives who will be sweating as Trump continues to stumble about.
More Republicans, loyal more to themselves than to Trump, will turn on him, and in increasingly significant ways. Budget hawks like House Speaker Paul Ryan, thus far a dutiful soldier, won't like the president's proposal to boost military spending by $54 billion without cutting entitlements like Social Security or Medicaid. They may listen to his address to a joint session of Congress tonight and, if they're not in a gerrymandered district, hear their electoral prospects dwindling with every bombastic word Trump speaks. Perhaps if Obamacare is repealed without a suitable replacement — and the current GOP outline doesn't even come close to qualifying as such — elected officials who have enabled Trumpism will turn sharply against it. The president's use of loyalty as his central governing tactic won't just hurt those of us who don't kiss his ring. It will fail Trump himself, since the folks that he thinks love him — including those voters raising their right hands — actually love what they think he can do for them. Real loyalty, after all, can't be faked.