Pell Center

The Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina is a multidisciplinary research center focused at the intersection of politics, policies and ideas.

Trump, de Tocqueville, and Loyalty: Picks of the Week

The Emails of Donald Trump, Jr. | New York Times

Conspiracy or Coincidence: A Timeline Open to Interpretation | The New York Times

Trump Revives his Playbook for Fighting Government Probes | Politico

In late January of 2017, just a week after being sworn into office, President Donald Trump invited then-FBI Director James Comey to dinner at the White House.  In private accounts and in public testimony, Comey described his discomfort with a private meal with the president, and the awkward exchange when the president said to Comey, “I need loyalty.  I expect loyalty.”  It’s an exceptionally troubling thing for the President of the United States to ask the FBI director for a personal pledge of loyalty.  The FBI, after all, is supposed to be an independent law enforcement agency whose leaders, rank and file are loyal to the Constitution, not any one person.

Loyalty to individual leaders is the stuff of the ancien regime in Europe—the era of kings and royal families.  Interestingly, Alexis de Tocqueville, the great admirer of American democracy in the 19th century, reflected on the meaning of loyalty.  As an apprentice magistrate, he had taken a loyalty oath to the French king, but he recognized the contrast between that pledge of loyalty and the patriotism of a free-born person whose connections to the place of his or her birth provided an almost mystical sense of loyalty, passion, and even love to the point of self-sacrifice—laying down one’s life for one’s country.  In contrast, royal subjects might take some comfort in being ruled by an effective monarch and pride in the conquests of the king, as the king was the personification of the nation.

In a modern democracy, such as we see now in America and France, the chief executive is not the personification of the nation.  He or she is a public servant.  He is not the embodiment of the state: he serves it.  We do not pledge loyalty to any individual, but to the founding ideals enshrined in our founding documents.  In the case of the United States, those ideals and rights are enshrined in our Constitution.

Set against this backdrop, the revelation that Donald Trump, Jr., met with a Russian attorney to receive information he was told was “part of the Russian government’s effort to help” his father’s campaign is abhorrent.  The emails reveal a commitment to his father, Donald Trump, to his father’s campaign, to beating his father’s opponent, and to winning at all cost—no matter who was behind offers of assistance.  But there is nothing in the emails that reveals any obligation or loyalty to something greater than the king, there is no sentiment that approaches what de Tocqueville called the “instinctive, disinterested, and undefinable feeling which connects the affections of man with his birthplace.”

If nothing else, the emails of Donald Trump, Jr. reveal that he was more loyal to his father’s campaign than to the land of his birth.

Setting side issues of legality for the moment, this is perhaps the most upsetting aspect of the affair.  Public service is not about winning; it’s about serving something bigger than yourself.  Admittedly, both Democrats and Republicans have long been locked in a race to the bottom on this issue.  But in the revelations of this past week, we see, at best, a win-at-all-costs mind-set that is a profound threat to American democracy. – Executive Director Jim Ludes

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