Opinion | When Loyalty Is Overrated

My wife hates my car, a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. She hates the way it handles, and the noise it makes and how big the tires are. Once, she suggested that she’d be more comfortable if I took her riding in a high-speed steam shovel.

But I love my stupid car. I love taking the roof off in the summer. I love its ridiculous color, a hue the dealer told me is called “hellayella.” Most of all I love the special wave I exchange with other Wrangler drivers on the highway, as if we are all members of a secret cult.

My logic-defying love for the Wrangler is not so different from some of my other questionable devotions: for scrapple, the Grateful Dead and the New England Patriots. When it comes to the things I love, I have, for better or worse, what is known as “brand loyalty.”

The peculiarities of my passions make me wonder whether our greatest loyalties are to our most glaring blind spots — even, sometimes, to our biggest mistakes.

Mike Pence is a man who also has firsthand knowledge about both brand loyalty and mistakes. For four years he demonstrated seemingly boundless fealty to Donald Trump, right up until the day he decided that he couldn’t defy the Constitution just because his boss asked him to. “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution,” Mr. Trump tweeted. The Washington Post spoke to a former senior administration official who said the president spent the day grousing about betrayal. Mr. Pence’s crime? Confirming the (correct) election results.

But whatever wavering to the cause Mr. Pence may have showed on Jan. 6 is gone. Now, as the former vice president begins to re-emerge, cicada-like, his eyes presumably set on 2024, he speaks of Mr. Trump only with reverence.

Which is, uh, interesting, given that his old boss spent part of Jan. 6 firing up a crowd that then went and called for Mr. Pence to be hanged. By any measure, this takes loyalty to a whole new level.

It makes me wonder whether loyalty, in fact, is a virtue. True, it frequently takes the form of courage and steadfastness. But isn’t it also another word for inflexibility, an inability to change one’s opinion in the face of new information?

The early 20th-century American scholar Josiah Royce, whose work examined the philosophy of loyalty, might have suggested that the answer to this question depends on who or what it is that one is loyal to. When people say something like “My country right or wrong,” for instance, it’s clear that what they love is patriotism itself, not the ideal of American justice that ought to make one patriotic in the first place.

Royce once suggested we should focus our loyalty not on individuals or institutions, but on ideas and causes most likely to increase the common good. In this way, Royce argued, we can be loyal to loyalty itself.

But this is harder to do than it sounds.

Many years ago, one of my father’s closest friends from high school divorced his wife (the mother of their four children) and married another woman. My father then dropped him like a hot brick; so far as I know the two never spoke again.

At the time I was appalled that my father wasn’t more loyal to the friend of his youth. But he later explained to me that the thing he was loyal to wasn’t a person, but an idea — in this case, the idea that when you made marriage vows, you kept them.

In some ways, it was a very Roycean choice, although I admit that at the time I thought it was needlessly harsh. But the world is full of people conflicted in just this manner, pinned between their allegiance to flawed individuals and their dedication to higher ideals. Surely it was just this conflict that bedeviled Mr. Pence back in January, when he was torn between two loyalties: one to the president he had promised to serve, and another to the Constitution he had sworn an oath to uphold.

He seems less conflicted now. Last Thursday Mr. Pence gave his first public post-White House appearance in a swing through South Carolina, including a dinner with 400 pastors sponsored by the Palmetto Family Council in Columbia. He did not speak a single word against the former president, and devoted few others to the insurrection at the Capitol, calling it a “tragedy.” The whole question of a mob wanting to hang him never came up.

Briefly, after the insurrection, it appeared as if other Republicans would consider loyalty to the idea of the Constitution — or at the very least, to conservative principle — to be more sacred than their loyalty to Donald Trump. Mitch McConnell delivered a scathing rebuke on the Senate floor. Liz Cheney voted to impeach. Mitt Romney voted to convict.

But that was then. Republicans like the ones in Columbia have now made it clear where their loyalties lie. Ms. Cheney is on the verge of being ousted from the party leadership; Mr. Romney was booed at the Utah Republican convention on Saturday. Republicans had the choice, in the wake of the insurrection, to separate the two brands — conservatism and Trumpism. What’s clear now is that, like Bartleby, they prefer not to.

As for the former president, when asked recently who (besides himself) he thought would be a good candidate in 2024, he mentioned six people, including Senator Josh Hawley and his former press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. His former vice president did not make the list.

Mr. Trump’s loyalty to Mr. Pence may well have limits. But Mr. Pence’s future success may well lie with the degree to which he can show Republicans that he is less loyal to the idea of democracy than he is to the man he once served.

I don’t know. Maybe he can come up with a special wave.

Jennifer Finney Boylan is a contributing Opinion writer and the author of 16 books.

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