The Naïveté of Donald Trump: James Comey’s Firing in Niebuhrian Perspective
Religion Department, Kalamazoo College
17 May 2017
The Trump administration has conditioned us to expect the unexpected. Yet last week’s firing of FBI director James Comey still came as a shock. The source of the shock wasn’t the fact that Comey was fired: Trump has dismissed perceived political opponents before. Nor was it the unceremonious abruptness with which the firing was handled (Comey reportedly found out via a news broadcast while attending an FBI recruiting event in Hollywood). It was the apparent naïveté underlying both the decision and its execution.
During his campaign, Trump built an unlikely coalition. Blue-collar workers chose a tax-evading billionaire as their champion. Conservatives who preach family values and respect for the uniform backed a thrice-married, Playboy cover-gracing misogynist who openly mocked P.O.W.’s and gold star families. Evangelical Christians who prize religious freedom and whose scriptures insist on caring for the poor, the widow, and the orphan voted overwhelmingly for a man who proposed a Muslim ban and pledged to keep out war refugees.
So how did Trump garner support from people who disagree with him on such basic matters of principle?
Because he recognized an unsettling aspect of human nature:
that when group identities are threatened, people will choose their interests over their values. And will they tolerate an extraordinary amount of cognitive dissonance to defend these interests.
Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic work, Moral Man and Immoral Society, analyzes how egoism shapes group behavior. Niebuhr observed how upstanding people that were altruistic in their personal interactions became self-interested when advocating for their group. Captains of industry that spoke kindly to their workers as they walked the factory floor backed exploitative labor practices that maximized profits for them and their shareholders. Elected officials who expressed empathy in conversations with their constituents ultimately cut whatever backroom deals necessary to ensure that they and their party remained in power. Expecting people to make principled choices when their group interests were at stake, Niebuhr reasoned, was naïve. If we are serious about building a more just society, we must presume the self-interested behavior of groups and try to play the interests of groups against one another in a way that leads toward better policies. If industrialists exploit their workers, labor must organize; if elected officials cut backroom deals, constituents must mobilize to vote them out; and so on. Niebuhr concluded somberly, “Politics will, to the end of history, be an area where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and coercive factors of human life interpenetrate and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises.”
Since entering the political fray, Trump has demonstrated a remarkable ability to identify concrete issues that aligned with the interests of a particular group. To rust belt workers, he promised to repeal TPP and revive the coal industry. To conservatives, he promised to nominate a pro-life Supreme Court justice. To evangelical Christians, he pledged to roll back restrictions on endorsing political candidates from church pulpits. Additionally, he was unafraid to tap directly in to the fear and loathing that certain sectors of the electorate felt toward other groups: undocumented immigrants, Muslims, know-it-all liberal elites—the list goes on. And he positioned himself as the only candidate with the backbone to stand up to the threats these groups represented. In short, he understood that in politics, people’s interests take precedent over their values. And he parlayed these insights into a winning coalition.
Which makes the Comey situation all the more bizarre. Trump’s stated reason for firing Comey was how he (mis)handled Hillary’s emails—even though Comey’s actions may have helped Trump in the campaign’s final weeks. Trump, in other words, claimed to fire Comey on principle. Such attentiveness to fair play is not Trump’s style.
Furthermore, the Trump team seems to have presupposed two things: that sacking Comey would appease Democrats still smarting from the email fiasco, and that members of the FBI dissatisfied with Comey would support the firing. Both were stunning misreads of how group dynamics work. Democrats immediately tied Comey’s firing to the FBI’s ongoing investigation into potential connections between the Trump campaign and Russian leaders.
As much as they dislike Comey, they despise Trump even more. And they saw an opportunity to put the spotlight on the most politically toxic issue confronting Trump’s administration. As far as the FBI is concerned, Trump—the man who once boasted that his followers were so loyal that he could stand on 5th Avenue, shoot someone, and not lose them—seems to have forgotten how deep group loyalties run. Yes, there was dissatisfaction with Comey in the FBI. But the FBI is a proud and powerful organization. And when the leader of a group is attacked in such a publicly humiliating way, the impulse of the group is to galvanize and strike back. Trump rode this very impulse all the way to White House. And now, he has triggered it in the organization tasked with investigating his administration.
By handling Comey’s dismissal as he did, the man with a keen sense of how to harness group egoism has unleashed these very forces in opposition to him. From a Niebuhrian standpoint, this puts Trump on tenuous ground. On this issue at least, the shrewd calculator of group interest has proven a foolish child of light.
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