There’s a famous line in President Donald Trump’s real estate manifesto, The Art of the Deal, where he posits an incompatibility between public ethics and the kind of personal loyalty his McCarthyite mentor Roy Cohn supposedly exhibited. Cohn, Trump wrote, would “go to bat for you, even if he privately disagreed with your view, and even if defending you wasn’t necessarily the best thing for him.... 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 think only about what’s best for them and don’t think twice about stabbing a friend in the back if the friend becomes a problem.”
In the real world, the tension Trump hints at between playing by the rules and playing for a team aren’t nearly as severe as he implies. But the idea that integrity and tribalism are mutually exclusive moral codes is an enormously powerful one. I believe it is the source of Trump’s greatest strength and weakness in his unexpected stint at the highest level of public service. It speaks to one of the questions bedeviling American politics as the Trump-Russia collusion scandal boils over: Why do his core supporters not seem to care about conduct that is so obviously beneath the standards we have set, through law and custom, for the presidency?
The key to piercing the filter through which Trump loyalists view the Russia scandal isn’t to stress the importance of the standards, but to show how the scandal itself reveals that Trump doesn’t live by his own code.
There is no shortage of reasons people should care about the Trump-Russia story. In an exhaustive Vox article Monday, Matthew Yglesias placed the collusion scandal in the larger frame of Trump’s penchant for self-dealing. Trump promised on the campaign trail to redirect his personal greed into the service of the American people, but in truth, “Trump is still just plain old-fashioned greedy.” As a result, he’s abandoned nearly all of his populist policy positions, merged the presidency with his business to line his pockets at the public’s expense, and fired the FBI director for investigating crimes that had real victims.
This is a fully persuasive argument if you already place a high premium on integrity, but it doesn’t adequately flatter the biases of those who don’t already know why they should care about the Russia scandal.
Trump’s support among Republicans has held fairly steady through seemingly bottomless and endlessly troubling revelations. It is difficult to persuade the 36-40 percent of Americans who support Trump that they should care about this story by asking them to prioritize a particular conception of ethics over their central values.
In the minds of many Americans, Trump plays something like the Cohn character Trump lionizes in The Art of the Deal. The stubborn approval numbers among Trump’s base reflect the strength of the bond Trump forged with a certain kind of white voter through a year of relentlessly campaigning on a platform of white chauvinism. Trump conveyed a sense that he was loyal to that tribe, and would punish rival tribes if elected to the presidency. If it’s important to you that America’s political leaders scapegoat immigrants and Muslims, or valorize coal and manufacturing jobs, then you’ll blind yourself to a tremendous amount of wrongdoing to keep Trump empowered. Why would they be alarmed by Russian interference in the election when it got them what they wanted? Trump may be an asshole, but they think he’s their asshole, just as Cohn was Trump’s asshole. And there’s greater value in having loyal allies than in abstractions like conducting oneself with integrity.
Those who embrace the Trumpian false choice between loyalty and integrity will thus be less interested in the ways Trump may have broken the rules, or in the ways he remains personally greedy, than in the ways he revealed himself to be disloyal to his own tribe.
For instance, in one of his many conversations with James Comey, Trump beseeched the FBI director to let the public know he, personally, wasn’t under investigation, even if “some ‘satellite’ associates of his … did something wrong.” Imagine Comey had played ball with Trump: exonerated the president, his family, and perhaps his closest advisers, like disgraced national security adviser Michael Flynn, but let these “satellite” associates (like, say, Roger Stone or Carter Page) take the fall for conspiring with Russian intelligence to subvert the election. Comey would have prioritized loyalty to Trump over commitment to the rule of law, and Trump would have allowed him to keep his job. But along the way Trump would have betrayed many of the people who helped him get elected.
Trump claims to view loyalty as a cardinal virtue, but in truth he only cares that it runs one way. Consider how he barely went to bat for “high quality” Donald Jr. after his first son incriminated himself in the Russian meddling conspiracy. Or how his low-character attorney, Jay Sekulow, tried to lay the scandal at the feet of the Secret Service, whose agents are sworn to protect the Trump family’s lives with their own. Or that Trump has taken no interest in securing voter data—the privacy and security of Trump and non-Trump voters alike—from Russian election saboteurs, because their efforts helped him win.
Last week, the new watchdog group Protect Democracy filed a lawsuit against the Trump campaign and key “satellite” associate Stone on behalf of people who were materially harmed by the theft and leaking of DNC emails by Russian hackers working to help elect Trump. Setting aside the question of whether Trump colluded with Russia, or whether collusion is illegal, the subtext of Trump’s position on the election interference—that we should all forget about the crimes the hackers committed and move forward—is that he views anyone harmed by the dirty tricks that got him elected as collateral damage.
We’re not talking about John Podesta or Hillary Clinton here. As Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick explained, “The three named plaintiffs in the suit had their Social Security numbers, home addresses, banking information, and other personal data made public by way of the WikiLeaks hack. None of them were public figures, and their private information is of no public concern. The first two plaintiffs are a pair of DNC donors, Roy Cockrum and Eric Schoenberg, who claim they’ve suffered harassment and credit card fraud attacks as a result of the hack. The third is Scott Comer, a midlevel staffer who worked in the DNC finance department. When his personal correspondence was leaked, Comer was outed as gay to his grandparents, who disapprove of homosexuality, and to the rest of the world. He was later subjected to threats and harassment, including a barrage of calls from anonymous callers threatening violence, calling him ‘a faggot’ and wishing he would ‘fucking die.’”
Trump loyalists aren’t the most empathetic bunch, but they should know he will always sacrifice their interests if it improves his bottom line. As a campaigner, and now as president, he applies the ethic of eminent domain to the end of winning himself more wealth and power. As the Russia investigation proceeds, Trump will likely have many opportunities to let underlings take falls, and undermine “satellites” who become political liabilities. The fact that he will take these opportunities every time should create cognitive dissonance among Trump’s supporters in a way the other moral dimensions of the collusion scandal do not.