Donald Trump’s presidency might be a catastrophe of epic proportions, but you have to grant him one thing: He’s made Americans pay attention to whatever the commander-in-chief is saying. On April 28, for instance, the White House issued the kind of presidential proclamation that is usually the proverbial tree falling in the forest, unheard and unseen. Like every president since Eisenhower, Trump proclaimed May 1 to be Loyalty Day—the occasion first invented during the Red Scare of the 1920s to counter the traditional pro-worker May Day. JFK had done it, LBJ had done it, Obama had done it. But when Trump did it, half the country—and all the Twittersphere—went into panic mode. What was this new Loyalty Day that Trump had come up with? Another step on the road to fascism?
For once, there was actually nothing to panic about. But the reaction spoke volumes. Loyalty Day seemed to symbolize the defining neurosis of Trump’s presidency: his maniacal need for loyalty above all else. It’s the reason he has failed to nominate anyone to fill hundreds of key federal jobs. It’s the reason he has surrounded himself not with “the best” advisers, as he promised in the campaign, but with a gaggle of ego-stroking family members, hangers-on, profiteers, and rogue ideologues. And it’s why, the week after Loyalty Day, “loyalty” became the pretext for his decision to fire the FBI director who was investigating Trump’s own campaign. James Comey’s dismissal left little doubt that Trump’s preoccupation with personal loyalty—even more than incompetence, stupidity, or corruption—could be the thing that wrecks his presidency.
As Comey told associates at the time, and testified last week in Congress, the trouble began when he refused Trump’s demand that he pledge his personal fealty, as if he were a monarchal subject. Instead, Comey promised to be “honest”—and thus loyal to the duties of his office, rather than the whims of his boss. After the firing, Trump denied that he’d asked Comey for loyalty, but emphasized that it wouldn’t have been wrong if he had. “I don’t think it would be a bad question to ask,” he told his friends over at Fox News. “I think loyalty to the country, loyalty to the United States, is important. You know, I mean, it depends on how you define loyalty.”
We know how Trump defines it—and that’s the problem. This is a man who, at a campaign rally, asked his supporters to pledge allegiance not to the flag, but to him. This is a man who made his bodyguard the head of Oval Office Operations, a key gatekeeper role. Every president needs a few die-hard loyalists around him; Trump needs everyone to be a die-hard loyalist. And since Trump already rivals Richard Nixon as the most dangerously isolated president in American history, it’s essential to understand why.
In some ways, the tunnel-vision insistence on loyalty is the least surprising thing about Trump’s presidency. After all, the man has always been a self-described “loyalty freak.” Asked a couple of years back what he looked for most in an employee, he shot back the “l”-word without pause. Some observers have chalked this up to Trump’s paranoid personality and deep-seated insecurity. More tangibly, it stems from his business past: Navigating the notoriously cutthroat, mob-ridden, and litigious world of New York real estate, he naturally came to value personal allegiance above all else. When your business model orbits entirely around yourself, everyone else must yield to your gravity.
But Trump’s loyalty-mania can’t be chalked up solely to his personal quirks. For all our armchair analysis of the president’s predilections, we’ve been missing a key reason for Trump’s destructive obsession with loyalty: It’s a function of his politics.
Any populist who wins the presidency must face an inherent contradiction. To cast himself as the candidate of the people versus the establishment, Trump made radical promises: overturn trade deals, carry out mass deportations of illegal immigrants, punish runaway American companies, and replace Obamacare with “insurance for everyone.” But such demands are unacceptable to the diverse array of forces required to enact major changes in public policy.
Perhaps in Latin America, or in one of the newly minted Asian democracies, a winning candidate, with the army on his side, could cow the legislature and judiciary into following his lead. But in the United States, the presence of constitutional checks and balances, a military subordinate to civilian authority, semi-independent agencies like the FBI and the Federal Reserve, and a powerful nexus of business and interest groups all combine to undercut any threat to the system posed by populism. Trump isn’t just lonely because he’s Trump; he’s lonely because his politics require him to govern that way.
After his surprise election, Trump could have tried to ingratiate himself with the GOP establishment the way Ronald Reagan did after running as a far-right “maverick” in 1976 and 1980. But Trump bought into the notion, promoted by his chief adviser, Steve Bannon, and his ally Nigel Farage of the nationalist UK Independence Party, that he could transform the Republicans into a “party of the American worker,” as he vowed at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. His inaugural address was a ringing endorsement of populism: “For too long,” he declared, “a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.”
That’s not the kind of talk that wins you friends in Washington and corporate boardrooms. During the early GOP primaries, only a single senator—Jeff Sessions—endorsed Trump, along with fewer than a dozen House members. After the election, others in Congress had little incentive to bow down to the president, since 178 of the 241 winning House Republicans outpolled him in their own districts. Trump also had no traditional network of powerful lobbyists and donors to back his agenda: Influential Republican business interests like the Koch brothers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sat out the election; the Club for Growth denounced Trump. It’s small wonder that, as he suffered one frustration after another in trying to impose his platform, Trump’s impulse was to keep barnstorming the country with campaign-style rallies. He needed to manufacture a popular surge behind his policies.
But Trump has never commanded that level of public support. In November, fewer than 40 percent of his votes came from hard-core supporters who were devoted to Trump. The rest came from life-long Republicans, single-issue conservatives, and independent voters who either backed Trump with reservations or loathed Hillary Clinton more than him.
Trump is boxed in by his lack of support both inside and outside Washington. In staffing his administration, he cannot command loyalty in the various ways most presidents do. He can’t point to party, because he trashed the party to win the White House. He can’t call in the political favors he’s owed, because he hasn’t done any. He can’t draw on his business relationships, because he’s burned almost every business associate he’s ever had. Unable to attract experienced veterans from the political and business establishments, Trump can offer newcomers to his court only one thing to kneel before: himself. Which explains the composition of his inner circle—they’re the only people who will join him.
Under Trump, personal loyalty is the sole qualification that counts. After taking office, Trump installed campaign toadies to monitor at least 16 key departments and report heretics to a White House deputy chief of staff. He rejected Elliott Abrams for a top role in the State Department because he hadn’t sided with Trump during the campaign, and abruptly fired an aide to Housing Secretary Ben Carson in February after it surfaced that he had written an op-ed critical of Trump last fall. But it’s impossible to staff an institution as vast and complex as the federal government if the only people you can count on are those who have never disagreed with you. Trump has yet to nominate anyone for 455 of 557 key posts that require Senate confirmation, effectively crippling his own administration.
In theory, there’s still time for Trump to come to terms with the realities of power in Washington. His tax cuts and deregulatory ambitions appeal to Republican business lobbies, and his get-tough immigration politics enjoy the support of House Republicans. He’s already changed federal abortion rules to please the religious right. By courting key factions of the establishment, he could conceivably govern like a conservative Republican.
But Trump appears too enamored of his own image as a billionaire populist to play by such rules. So he will continue to purge his administration of any one he cannot control, as he did with Comey. He will keep staging misguided shows of strength, as he did by trying to bully House Republicans into rubber-stamping his initial replacement for Obamacare. And as his political isolation deepens, his need for unquestioning allegiance will only grow more desperate. Operating as an outsider, he cannot overcome the structure of checks and balances that is thwarting his radical agenda; that same structure, however, is unlikely to lead to his removal, barring a Watergate-level scandal. But like those of the dictators he’d hoped to emulate, his reign will one day come to an end. And when it does, he will leave office as he entered it—accompanied only by his most loyal henchmen and enforcers, and thus utterly, irredeemably alone.
Originally published in the July 2017 print issue of New Republic, this article has been updated online to reflect recent news events.