Loyalty is an important concept to Donald Trump. But it’s not something he values in the normal human sense of reciprocal obligation. Instead, to Trump, the value that matters is loyalty to Donald Trump. That kind of loyalty matters a lot.
But Trump himself doesn’t believe in displaying loyalty to others.
That’s why even though Jeff Sessions was the only United States senator willing to stick his neck out and back Trump in the 2016 primary, Trump himself is now champing at the bit to throw him overboard. In a new interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump tries to talk around that by convincing himself that Sessions was never really a Trump loyalist.
The truth, however, is simpler. In The Art of the Deal, Trump goes to great lengths to lift up Roy Cohn as an avatar of loyalty. But when Cohn was dying of AIDS — at the time a deeply stigmatized illness at a more homophobic period in American life — Trump abandoned him. As president, Trump has already abandoned his promises on Medicaid and health coverage, begun to violate his promises on Social Security, and entirely ditched his promise to govern as an anti-finance populist. He’s remained loyal to the big issues associated with Sessions — a hardline approach to immigration and criminal justice — but he’s happy to abandon Sessions to shield himself from personal legal scrutiny, and he’ll be happy to abandon Sessions’s issues too if for some reason that becomes expedient.
That’s the moral of the Sessions spat, and it’s the larger moral of the Trump/Russia scandal. To Donald Trump, the only thing that matters is Donald Trump — and he’ll step on anyone else in pursuit of self-interest.
Trump rejects the idea that he owes Sessions anything
Jeff Sessions was, more than anyone, a bridge between Trump’s presidential campaign and the world of mainstream Republican Party politics.
When George W. Bush wanted to do a deal with Democrats on immigration, Sessions led the rebellion against him that scuttled the deal. When many Republican Party senators decided they wanted to do a deal with Barack Obama on immigration, Sessions fought tooth and nail against it.
While many Republican Party politicians have blown with the wind on immigration in search of political advantage, Sessions has been a focused, disciplined ideological warrior for immigration restriction in essentially all of its forms. He’s also carried the torch for old-school “tough on crime” politics at a moment when the Koch brothers and some other conservative donors have been interested in pursuing reform.
Sessions himself was never really presidential material, but when Trump emerged as a politically effective spokesperson for Sessions’s causes, he became the only senator to hop on the Trump train, and key staffers such as Stephen Miller moved from Sessions’s team to Trump’s. To the extent that Trump owes anything to anyone in GOP politics, he owes Sessions. But Trump doesn’t see it that way.
“He was a senator,” Trump says. “He looks at 40,000 people and he probably says, ‘What do I have to lose?’ And he endorsed me. So it’s not like a great loyal thing about the endorsement.”
This is, of course, ridiculous. Trump drew big crowds in lots of states, and their senators didn’t enthusiastically back Trump. Alabama’s other Republican senator didn’t enthusiastically back Trump. Sessions backed Trump because he was a true believer in the causes Trump had adopted. But from Trump’s point of view, that’s just as bad — he wants sycophants, not loyalists.
Trump believes integrity is bad
In his first and best-known book, The Art of the Deal, Trump writes a passage that is one of the most remarkable ever set to paper by a future American president. It’s deeply telling about his views on the distinction between integrity and loyalty. Trump sings the praises of Cohn — Joe McCarthy’s infamous legal attack dog later turned Trump mentor:
Just compare that with all the hundreds of “respectable” guys who make careers out of boasting about their uncompromising integrity but have absolutely no loyalty. They only care about what’s best for them and don’t think twice about stabbing a friend in the back if the friend becomes a problem. What I liked most about Roy Cohn was that he would do just the opposite. Roy was the kind of guy who’d be there at your hospital bed long after everyone else had bailed out, literally standing by you to the death.
Trump, ironically, would not stand by Cohn’s deathbed as he perished of AIDS; instead, he disavowed his friend. For Trump, loyalty is a way to size up those around him, suss out friend from foe. It is not a quality he cares to embrace in his personal life. Now that he’s president, it’s the same in his political life.
Sean Spicer humiliated himself for Trump by stepping out in front of the White House press corps to tell obvious, easily debunked lies. That’s the kind of demonstration of loyalty that Trump expects. But performing the ritual self-abasement doesn’t earn a person any loyalty from Trump, who was happy to sideline Spicer in the briefing room in favor of Sarah Huckabee Sanders and ultimately accept his resignation in order to shuffle Anthony Scaramucci into a new job as the head of White House communications.
Trumpism means doing what’s good for Trump
When he won the election, there was some thought that President Trump might attempt to forge a distinctive ideological posture of “Trumpism” based on the positions he’d taken during the campaign.
Instead, he swiftly jettisoned most of his heterodox positions in order to line up with the Republican Party establishment and its donor class. To the extent that he differed from other GOP figures, it was merely in sticking to hardline conservative positions on immigration and crime. In Ezra Klein’s telling, this goes to show that “Trumpism’s biggest problem, by far, is that its namesake doesn’t believe in it.”
Another way to think about it is that Trump very profoundly believes in Trumpism, but Trumpism just means doing what’s good for Donald Trump. That means deferring to Republican congressional leaders on policy while, in exchange, they defer to him on matters related to corruption, self-dealing, and his general program of enriching the Trump family. Sessions has violated the basic terms of that deal, pursuing an ideological agenda that’s closely associated with Trump’s campaign while trying to distance himself personally from sordid Russia-related matters.
If you believed in Trump’s ideas, as Sessions does, that seems like a reasonable bargain.
But if you believe most of all in the self-interest of Donald Trump, as Donald Trump does, it’s a total disaster. That’s why he’s so disappointed in Sessions.