I felt a great sense of loss after separating from Sutherland Institute just over two years ago. A lot of work had been put into building its conservative brand and reputation. Furthermore, an impetuous and unceremonious firing only heightened my feelings of loss. It was stunning and it hurt. But, as with most of life’s trials, there was a silver lining, a liberation of sorts that perhaps many conservatives and Republicans should experience.
Shortly after separating I received a call from the Governor’s office inviting me to stand with Governor Herbert at his press conference introducing the Healthy Utah plan. Sutherland was opposing the governor’s plan. I accepted the personal invitation nonetheless. In fact, I went on to defend the plan rather aggressively. It was the right thing for Utah – and, as it turned out, it was the conservative thing. Opponents of extending eligibility for Medicaid ended up supporting “expanding” it anyway covering fewer people for more money.
As it turned out, several political friends were upset by my defense of Healthy Utah. It’s been two years and, to this day, I still feel some repercussions professionally. It’s like I betrayed the freedom code or something. Loyalty to principle, dear colleagues and cause are important but loyalty without reason and prudence is a fault. Loyalty also is a two-way street – true loyalty begets understanding and doesn’t throw truth and honesty under the bus. Good ideas should not be shackled by partisanship, whether political or philosophical.
Though never a “company man,” throughout my career I always was the good soldier. I unapologetically defended every congressional boss, every employer and every associated cause whether or not I agreed. We handled disagreements behind closed doors. I was loyal to the hands that fed me even when it felt unbearably difficult. I finally left Capitol Hill for precisely that reason. And only a few people over the years know how many times I was this close to walking away from Sutherland of my own volition.
When I arrived at Sutherland I felt free and empowered to create an organization that transcended politics-as-usual – to do the right thing for the right reason in the right way. It wasn’t easy and sometimes I missed the mark and, honestly, sometimes I didn’t want to hit the mark. Shortly after taking the helm, Sutherland’s founder, Gaylord Swim, handed me a box of wing nuts he picked up from the hardware store to symbolize the political nonsense I would surely face. By the time I separated from Sutherland, 14 years later, I fully appreciated his gift.
Poor judgment, extremism, and misplaced loyalties grow out of insular and doctrinaire cultures. You begin to argue about who is more “principled” and the rightness of right. Worse still, in such insular settings, you begin to eat your own – and very often do so in the name of imagined and self-serving loyalties. Self-righteousness is at a premium inside these cultures, right or left, be it an organization, a tight-knit community or a political movement.
Two big problems afflict the Republican Party today. One problem is misplaced loyalty. The other problem is feigned loyalty. The former manifests as card-carrying Republicans support a presidential nominee regardless of fitness for office. The latter manifests as extremists in Republican clothing support a presidential nominee out of spite and anger. These extremists are as much Republican-in-name-only as the moderate RINOs they regularly chastise.
Too many card-carrying Republicans today mistake pride for loyalty and too many extremist RINOs substitute irrational worry and fear for dedicated citizenship. And, in the case of supporting Donald Trump, too many Republicans generally are trading imagined “greatness” for a very uncertain future. If people would set aside their extreme political loyalties and, frankly, their fear and hatred of Hillary Clinton, they would see that Trump is an authoritarian and narcissist – dysfunctions in a leader vastly more harmful than being habitually corrupt, if those are our only choices.
Most Utah Republicans want none of this bad behavior. Indeed, many Utah politicians and community leaders have denounced Trump from the beginning. Nevertheless, our better selves have given way to a perverted and distorted form of political loyalty. I have yet to meet anyone supporting Trump who also does not have deep reservations, does so only because of the alternative or has to preface a defense of Trump with umpteen concessions about his character, policies, intellect or whatever.
This “hyper-party loyalty” is part and parcel of lost virtue, lost identity and newfound angst. I saw it in the state immigration debate. I saw it at the recent state GOP convention. I saw it against our very popular governor during the recent primary. And I see it when the state GOP chairman doubles down on his unequivocal endorsement of Trump.
To effectively defend freedom, conservatives must liberate themselves from misplaced loyalties, purity tests, and obligatory optimism. Why in the hell are we, as conservatives (Republican or not), filled with worry, fear, and angst – to the degree we would even consider voting for Donald Trump – when our worldview of the human condition and understanding of free societies is spot on?
For many reasons, Utah needs to continue to be the “Mormon problem” for Trump and all who support him. There is no virtue in misplaced loyalties. And, while there is no need for us to check our sincere loyalties at the door, loyalty alone is meaningless.