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  • Loyalty Betrayed
  • John Kleinig (bio)

I don't care a damn for your loyalty when you think I'm right. The time I want it is when you think I'm wrong.

—Sir John Monash (1934, epigraph pt. 1)

sir john monash, australia's greatest military commander, offers an interestingly nuanced take on what is usually expressed more crudely. He sees loyalty as a matter of costly relational trust—trust in the judgment of another to whom one is attached; trust in situations in which the object of trust, in this case a person in authority, is believed to be mistaken.

In maintaining loyalty one takes a risk. Whether or not one should commend Monash's sentiment, his way of putting it at least adverts to what ought to be critical to such loyalty—a belief in the trustworthiness of its object. This stands in marked contrast to the facially similar remark: "I don't need your loyalty when I'm right; I need it when I'm wrong."1 The latter version captures in a nutshell (albeit too succinctly) what I intend to convey by my title. Loyalty has a powerful following, particularly at this juncture of American history, and it is important to distinguish the real virtue of loyalty from its betrayal by well- or ill-meaning advocates.

Two instances of the latter are addressed here: Trumpian Loyalty, which captures and then distorts a central feature of loyalty; and Comeyan Loyalty, which mislocates loyalty while recognizing the legitimate constraints to which it may be subject. Examination of these two is followed by a more persuasive account of loyalty's virtue and limits. [End Page 633]


Ever since he interviewed for his book, The Art of the Deal, Donald J. Trump has touted loyalty as an important—if not the most important—virtue that he requires of those who work for him (Trump with Schwartz 1987, 20, 100, 126). This is how he expressed it in 2007: "I value loyalty above everything else—more than brains, more than drive, and more than energy" (Trump and Zanker 2007, 158). Since becoming president, he has made loyalty a centerpiece of his expectations of those he has called into service in the executive branch and those who serve in the legislative or judicial branches of government. Obviously, loyalty can hardly be demanded of those over whose appointments one does not (or does not any longer) have direct control. However, it was made clear to Republicans who sought re-election during the midterms that distancing themselves from Trump would be to their disadvantage, and Democrats—who might in other circumstances be referred to as the "loyal opposition"—have regularly had their patriotism (loyalty to country) called into question when they disagreed with the president (Pramuk 2018).

As far as Trump's recent invocations of loyalty are concerned, I think he understands two things about loyalty to the president.2 One is that a president actually needs—whether or not he thinks he needs—to have people who are loyal to him. Even the most brilliant and hands-on president cannot do all that is required of him (or her, as we hope will one day be the case), or all that he has promised as part of his agenda, without relying on the judgment and efforts of others. Loyalty in such circumstances requires that those (especially those) who are appointed to the executive branch will publicly reflect the president's agenda.3 In Trump's case, this appears to have required something close to a sacrifice of the appointee's moral autonomy. The constant pillorying of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions after he recused himself from the inquiry into Russian meddling in the US elections is perhaps the most conspicuous case of this expectation. Trump felt betrayed by Sessions's recusal, even though it was, in the circumstances, entirely appropriate.4 That Sessions's tenure lasted so [End Page 634] long is partly due to the fact that, on almost every other substantive matter, he was in lockstep with the president's agenda.5

Loyalty's constraints on moral autonomy need not be so tight. Charles Fried, who was Ronald Reagan...


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pp. 633-649
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