Loyalty versus Obsequiousness Through the Lens of Donald Trump
Donald Trump demands loyalty from those around him. It’s why he fired James Comey, why he’s mad at Jeff Sessions, and why he pulled John Brennan’s security clearance. He makes everyone passing through his orbit sign non-disclosure agreements, a kind of explicit loyalty oath by way of legal documents.
Yet, for someone so concerned with loyalty, Donald Trump doesn’t know quite what loyalty is. I don’t just mean in the sense that he believes loyalty to be unilateral. For Trump, you are loyal to him. But he is never loyal to you. It’s not clear he even understands what bilateral loyalty would entail.
No, the real problem with Trump’s notion of loyalty is that he’s confused the term with obsequiousness. The former is a virtue, the latter a vice. Loyalty is earned, and continues through a relationship of respect. I am loyal to you because you deserve my loyalty through your continuing demonstration of the characteristics that earned it in the first place.
Obsequiousness, on the other hand, is evidence of a failure of character on the part of the obsequious. Where loyalty comes from a recognition of the worthy traits of another, obsequiousness comes from an internalized sense of servility. Loyalty is about me recognizing your lofty traits. Obsequiousness is instead about me not having strong and worthy traits of my own.
That Trump in fact demands the latter is a telling condemnation of both his personal character and his abilities as a leader. It is a sign of the deep insecurity that is perhaps the president’s single most defining trait. A loyal friend remains loyal in part by holding you to the standards that earned you his loyalty in the first place. Loyalty elevates both sides in the relationship. But Trump sees no need to be elevated, because he desperately wants to see himself as the best there’s ever been, while at the same time harboring constant and crippling doubts about the truth of that belief.
That’s why he instead demands obsequiousness. He needs his underlings to praise him, to always remain supine. Deviation must be punished, harshly and thoroughly and without remission until the offender resumes his groveling posture and empty flattery. To allow anything else would be to admit that loyalty is contingent on quality, and that Trump is maybe not as quality as his fragile ego has convinced himself he is.
Donald Trump is a failure of a man. He has worldly success, yes, but as a person, as a moral being, as a figure to be admired, he falls breathtakingly short. His confusion of loyalty for obsequiousness is but one piece of evidence that deep down, wherever a tiny remnant of his humanity might be found, he recognizes that truth.