During a tension-filled dinner at the White House in January, after meeting the FBI director he would eventually oust for only the second time, President Donald Trump repeatedly pleaded for Jim Comey’s loyalty, as if gaining loyalty was like borrowing a pencil, something you could simply ask for.
“The President said, ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,’” according to Comey’s prepared testimony, released ahead of his Thursday Senate hearing on his role in the Russia investigation. “I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed,” Comey added. “We simply looked at each other in silence.”
In some circumstances, asking outright for someone’s loyalty is a tactic that can work. Psychologists know people can have a really hard time saying no when something’s directly asked of them, particularly when the person doing the asking is in a position of power. Requesting loyalty can also be a useful sorting mechanism: Trump’s outrageous asks can help him anticipate who may actually be willing to be loyal to him. (Comey was fired a few months after that dinner, in May.)
Humans have a basic tendency of sorting people into groups: us and them. Team thinking powerfully changes our perception of the world. When we perceive another as being in our “in-group,” we tend to like them more, we’re more likely to give them money, we’re less likely to empathize with their feelings. These are key components of loyalty.
And this psychological concept may explain Trump’s downfall.
Simply put: Trump misjudged which team Comey was on. Comey’s conception of loyalty is probably to the nation, the law, the constitution he swore an oath to, said Lehigh University psychologist Dominic Packer.