“I’d take a bullet for Donald Trump.”—Michael Cohen
Anti-Trump Lit is all the rage at the moment. James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership (2018), a strange cross between exposé, self-help book, and inspirational management manifesto, is the latest addition to this rapidly expanding genre. In it, Comey comes off as a goody two-shoes, a boy scout, a meddling dogooder who breaks things almost as often as he fixes them.
Comey reminds me of America’s second president, John Adams, who was so obsessed with being and seeming fair, that he often refrained from helping his friends and went out of his way to help his enemies. Going public with the whole Clinton email investigation is a case in point. Comey wanted us to see how unbelievably fair he could be, but he succeeded only in showing us how unbelievably stupid he could be.
As Aristotle rightly observed long ago, virtue taken too far becomes vice. And Comey fairly reeks of virtue taken too far, whilst Trump reeks of vice taken too far. It’s easy to see why they were bound to come into conflict. Trump is about as unscrupulous as Comey is sanctimonious.
It really set the tone, didn’t it? Soon after Donald Trump was sworn into office, his press secretary, Sean Spicer, got up in front of the whole world and lied through his teeth, falsely claiming that the Inauguration drew “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration. Period. Both in person and around the globe.” What Spicer said remains demonstrably false. But if you think it was all about fake news, alternative facts, or the post-fact era, you’re missing the point. It was a loyalty test. The Trump administration wasn’t trying to fool you; they were testing you.
Enlightened leaders, who wish to rule by the consent of the governed, use language to clarify and convince. Tyrants, who wish to rule by brute force and blind loyalty, use language to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book: the tyrant says something patently false and waits to see who parrots it. Those who do can be trusted. Those who don’t cannot be trusted. As Tertullian puts it in De Carne Christi: “It is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.”
We went out dancing every weekend when we lived in Baltimore. Our favorite club was this place called “1722” on Charles Street. Everybody’s got a nickname in Charm City, even the house dealer at a nightclub: dude was known as “Cop John”. He sat at the bar and dealt ecstasy and coke openly. We assumed that his nickname was a joke (like calling a big guy “Tiny”) until we saw him in handcuffs on the six-o’clock news. He was actually a cop! And his name was actually John (John Harold Wilson). Officer Wilson had been selling drugs confiscated on the job for years. Had a bunch of his fellow officers in on it too.
I couldn’t help but think of Cop John as I watched The Seven Five (2014) last night, a Netflix documentary about the crazy levels of criminality amongst New York City cops in the 1980s and 1990s. There’s a profound philosophical truth communicated by The Seven Five, and it’s something my Police Tech students don’t hear nearly enough: namely, that loyalty, like any virtue, can become a vice when it’s not balanced by the demands of other virtues, such as justice, integrity, honesty. Most cops aren’t like Cop John. But a single-minded obsession with loyalty is precisely what allows the Cop Johns of this world to flourish and prosper. It’s what allows criminal organizations like the Cosa Nostra to flourish and prosper too.
Last year, on Valentine’s Day, when most married guys were having dinner with their wives, Donald Trump and James Comey were having dinner with each other. It was an intimate affair: just the two of them, tucked away in a quiet, dimly-lit corner of the White House. The shrimp scampi was fabulous, and the calligraphy on the handwritten menus was exquisite, but the date did not go well. In retrospect, it seems obvious that it was a match made in hell.
While Trump was building a successful career in the real estate business, James Comey, recently fired director of the FBI, was building a successful career in law enforcement. While Trump was finding creative ways to survive and thrive in the corrupt world of real estate, Comey was finding creative ways to fight organized crime and police corruption. Personal loyalties are everything in business; but if you’re trying to take down the Cosa Nostra, or The Seven Five, personal loyalties are the problem.
The awkward exchange between Comey and Trump on that unbelievably bad date—described, by Comey, at length, in A Higher Loyalty—must be understood within this context: “with a serious look on his face, he said, ‘I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.’ During the silence that followed, I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way. The president of the United States just demanded the FBI director’s loyalty. This was surreal. . . . This, of course, was not something I could ever conceive of Obama doing, or George W. Bush, for that matter. . . . I had never seen anything like it in the Oval Office. . . . I once again was having flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor against the Mob. The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth.”
David Frum makes a similar observation in his contribution to Anti-Trump Lit: Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic (2018). Like Comey, Frum stresses the importance of Trump’s deeply dysfunctional, one-sided obsession with personal loyalty: “Trump has created a snake pit working environment . . . . He extracts groveling flattery in public and private, but never requites even the most abject loyalty. To work for Donald Trump, you must ready yourself to lie and lie. . . . everyone who entered the Trump administration for nonselfish motives would sooner or later find himself or herself betrayed by a president who demanded loyalty in its most servile form, but who never returned it. . . . ‘We can’t do that, sir, it’s against the rules’ are words Trump never wanted to hear.”
If Frum’s Trumpocracy is the most thoughtful, beautifully written contribution to Anti-Trump Lit, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (2018) is surely the most lucrative. Like Comey and Frum, Wolff maintains that Trump’s strange obsession with a personal loyalty (which he never reciprocates) makes working for him thoroughly miserable: “Men who demand the most loyalty tend to be the least loyal pricks.”
Comey spends a great deal of time talking about ethical leadership in A Higher Loyalty, but precious little about ethical followership. This is one of the book’s fatal flaws. A well-functioning society cannot consist merely of leaders. We can’t all be leaders at the same time. Most of us have to be followers most of the time. Yet you won’t see any wealthy suburban kids going to Followership Camp this summer.
Nope, they’ll be going to Leadership Camp. Nor will you see any of the same kids enrolling in Followership Programs next semester. Nope, they’ll be enrolling in Leadership Programs. It’s laughable, when you think about, and dangerous: because the biggest ethical challenges these young people are likely to face in their lives will be about ethical followership, not ethical leadership.
As sophisticated moral dramas like NCIS make clear, ethical followership is all about balancing the competing claims of equally noble virtues. It’s about knowing when to acknowledge the claims of loyalty and when to listen to the cries of justice; when to follow orders and when to disobey them; when to trust your boss’s judgement and when to question it; when to play by the rules and when to break them; when to cover for your colleagues and when to blow the whistle on them.
Moral dilemmas such as these are resolved easily by none but the single-minded. After all, die-hard supporters and die-hard detractors have at least one thing in common: they’re never forced to make difficult choices. Because it’s easy to say yes all the time or no all the time. What’s hard is to know when it’s time to say yes and when it’s time to say no.
It takes all sorts to make a world. The constellation of virtues we look for in potential kindergarten teachers differs markedly from the constellation of virtues we look for in potential trial lawyers. Warts and all, Comey is precisely the kind of uptight boy scout you want to have running the FBI. As he has demonstrated on numerous occasions, he is the kind of guy who is willing to stand up for the weak and stand up to the strong, a conservative who is willing to call out conservative hypocrisy:
“The hypocrisy is evident if you simply switch the names and imagine that a President Hillary Clinton had conducted herself in a similar fashion in office. I’ve said this earlier but it’s worth repeating: close your eyes and imagine these same voices if President Hillary Clinton had told the FBI director, ‘I hope you will let it go,’ about the investigation of a senior aide, or told casual, easily disprovable lies nearly every day and then demanded we believe them. The hypocrisy is so thick as to almost be darkly funny. I say this as someone who has worked in law enforcement for most of my life, and served presidents of both parties. What is happening now is not normal. It is not fake news. It is not okay. Whatever your politics, it is wrong to dismiss the damage to the norms and traditions that have guided the presidency and our public life for decades or, in many cases, since the republic was founded.”
“I was just following orders,” the notorious Nuremberg defense, has become an essential part of our culture’s moral vocabulary; it’s a phrase that’s tied up with so much of the evils of the modern world. When we hear the bad guy in a Hollywood movie say “I was just following orders,” an abyss opens up before us and we feel something strangely akin to vertigo. But there’s another phrase, also a central part of our culture’s moral vocabulary, which has precisely the opposite effect: “I didn’t sign up for this.”
Think about that moment in X-Men Origins (2009) when Wolverine refuses to participate in the massacre of innocent civilians in Nigeria. What does he say? “I didn’t sign up for this.” Think about that moment in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) when CIA Deputy Director Pamela Landy decides to leak all of the Blackbriar files to the media. What does she say? “I didn’t sign up for this.” Think about that moment in Clear and Present Danger (1994) when Jack Ryan (played by Harrison Ford) decides to blow the whistle on the President’s covert war in Latin America. What does he say? “I didn’t sign up for this.” Think about that moment in Avatar (2009) when Trudy Chacon refuses to open fire on the native people of Pandora. What does she say? “I didn’t sign up for this shit!”
When Trump demanded a declaration of loyalty from Comey, when he asked him to make the Russia Investigation go away, Comey said, in essence, I didn’t sign up for this shit, Mr. President! Wouldn’t it be nice if congressional Republicans had that kind of moral clarity?
A professor of mine once quipped: “If The History Channel does another fucking show about the Second World War, they’re gonna have to start paying royalties to Hitler.” Should news organizations like CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times start paying royalties to Trump? Should Michael Wolff cut him in? Should the authors of Russian Roulette (2018), last week’s nonfiction bestseller, give the president a piece of the action? In her infamous 2018 address to the White House Correspondents Dinner, comedian Michelle Wolf maintained that the media owed Trump a great debt:
“You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you use to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric. But he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him. And if you’re going to profit off of Trump, you should at least give him some money, because he doesn’t have any.”
Trump may be a disaster for the country, but he’s been a boon to media organizations and the publishing industry. Think of all the nonfiction bestsellers he’s created, all the newspapers and magazines he’s sold, all the advertising revenue he’s generated for the networks. There’s no denying it, the man is a rainmaker, the best thing to happen to NBC since Seinfeld.
—John Faithful Hamer, Welcome to Likeville (2018)