Loyalty and Tragedy in Politics

Trump campaign is like Greek tragedy

Fresno Bee, March 19, 2016

  • Loyalty is a virtue that can become a vice
  • Loyalty should not be mechanical, bigoted, or provincial
  • Donald Trump pledged loyalty to the GOP

Rival Republican candidates pledged to support the party’s nominee, even if it was Donald Trump. But some Republicans are thinking of jumping ship.

GOP 2016 TrumpTrump has complained that his loyalty has not been reciprocated. He warned of riots if the party were to deny him the nomination. Will those Republicans who denounced Trump in recent weeks remain loyal?

It seems that we are witnessing a Greek tragedy in which conflicting loyalties generate pathos, pity and fear. The current morality play points to the perennial ethical question of loyalty and its value.

In tragedy, the hero proudly declares her loyalty in opposition to some other person’s cause. Each side becomes recalcitrant. Violence looms. The crisis is resolved with the downfall of the characters, and in some cases the demise of the political establishment itself.

Loyalty is a double-edged sword. Committing to something gives meaning and purpose to existence. Our loyalties shape our lives. But dogmatic loyalty is as dangerous as treachery.

Consider the problem of the loyal gangster. Sincere loyalty is not praiseworthy when the cause is a bad one, even though we understand the power of gangland loyalty.

We also empathize with the faithful wife who stands by her man despite his philandering. We appreciate the love of a devoted father who protects a criminal child. And we recognize a kind of virtue in the steadfast soldier whose loyalty is abused by immoral armies and iniquitous empires.

Loyalty leads to moral disaster when people support causes that they should abandon. Mechanical fidelity is not really loyalty. Loyalty requires intentional commitment and ongoing reflection. It is not praiseworthy to go along with traditional allegiances because of inertia. Habitual loyalty is unworthy of a thinking person.


Unthinking loyalty is a kind of bigotry. Loyalists can be blinded by their allegiance, biased against those who have other loyalties. For that reason, loyalty often seems to be an old-fashioned virtue incompatible with democratic values and the idea of toleration.

Loyalty becomes bigoted when combined with stubborn pride, what the Greeks called hubris. Loyal persons identify with the object of their allegiance. When the team does well, we feel proud. But when our party is attacked, we take it personally. Wounded pride easily becomes indignant and sometimes violent.

About a hundred years ago, the American philosopher Josiah Royce wrote a book extolling loyalty as devotion that gives form to life. In fidelity to a cause, Royce said, life becomes real, solid, and active. An individual without loyalties would be a blank, apathetic shadow.

From this perspective, it is easy to understand why people can be seduced by false or evil causes. We want to belong to something beyond ourselves. In some cases, the content of the cause is less important than the longing for loyalty. Royce suggested that the cure for intolerant loyalty is to respect other people’s loyalties. He celebrated the idea of loyalty to loyalty itself.

One of Royce’s students, Alain Locke, extended this analysis further. Locke is an important African American philosopher, known as the philosophical father of the Harlem Renaissance. It is easy to imagine, with African American history in mind, how loyalty is connected to racism by way of so-called “race loyalty.”

Locke distinguished proper loyalty from unjustifiable prejudice. He wanted “value loyalty” without “value bigotry.” Locke dreamed of a pluralistic commitment to values that was not dogmatic or intolerant. He wanted us to overcome sectarian fanaticism and narrow provincialism by calling for a cosmopolitan sort of loyalty to loyalty.

Nearly a century later, Locke’s pluralistic paradise has yet to be created. Racial division still plagues us. Our loyalties remain provincial. Hubris haunts our politics. And bigotry divides us.

A better understanding of loyalty could help. Human beings need loyalty. But loyalty is not a stand-alone virtue. It is connected to all of the rest of our values. Those values transcend party affiliation and the temporary allegiances of political expedience.

Loyalty must be tempered by justice, moderation, and wisdom. Loyalty provides a rudder through changing seas. But misplaced loyalty can be an anchor that inhibits critical thinking and common sense. And sometimes it is wiser to abandon ship than to remain loyal to a lost cause.

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