When Loyalty Is Overrated

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.