I have been musing this week about the deepening legal jeopardy in which Michael Cohen finds himself as President Trump’s “fixer” and how the lawyer has steadfastly continued to express loyalty to the President. Despite growing evidence that such allegiance will cost him dearly, Cohen is quite public about his fealty to Mr. Trump. While we might applaud loyalty as a personality trait as it manifests itself in attributes like patriotism, religious conviction and adherence to codes of conduct, we must ask when such unfathomable devotion shifts from a courageous, positive trait to a negative dynamic rife with destructive potential.
We might be prompted to ask: why? What motivates Cohen in his resolute defense of Donald Trump? The potential sacrifices to his future reputation and business dealings? His avowed willingness to “take a bullet” for the President? There has been much speculation about this in face-to-face discussions I’ve had in recent days and by commentators on the airwaves. While I am not so arrogant as to presume to know Cohen’s heart, one on-air comment struck me as particularly wise: being Trump’s fixer has been Cohen’s primary identity for more than a decade. This is who he believes himself to be. He will go to any length to maintain his identity, even at great cost. After all, without this credit to his name, who is he?
These events bring to mind a conference in Amsterdam I attended a few years ago. Intersections had been commissioned by the OSCE (the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) to produce a curriculum for middle school students on combating anti-Muslim bigotry. We had done significant work on the role of identity in developing self-esteem; the idea of being part of a “tribe”—a religion, a nation, an ethnic group, etc.—was an important part of feeling fully human. We had also argued that when such identity calcified and became the singular defining element in one’s life that this attribute moved from positive to negative. This calcification made it easier to label those outside your tribe as “other,” an important ingredient in feeding Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and other bigotries.
At that conference, I learned how studies showed that the prospect of the death of one’s tribe was an emotionally shattering experience, evoking even a stronger psychological reaction than one’s own death. Cohen’s deeply held identity as part of the (shrinking) circle of President Trump’s confidants may be the motivation behind his unfathomable and unwavering loyalty, even in the midst of growing personal peril for him and his family.
The lesson for the rest of us is to be attentive to those historical, social and psychological factors that prompt our own fealties—patriotism, racial and religious identity, ethnic allegiance, political loyalties—and the need to weigh these motivations against broader ethical principles that supplement or counterbalance these belief systems. We must then undertake actions based on this equation, defining the limits of health and wholeness for ourselves, our families, the communities in which we live and the geopolitical dynamics that have become part of our daily diet and can so easily cloud our vision.
It is clear that Michael Cohen and others caught in the web of loyalty to Donald Trump have not yet reached that point. It will be interesting to see what happens if and when they do, how their actions will be interpreted by pundits and politicians and—as I would ask in my book—how they reconfigure their lives on the day after this realization, when they emerge “beyond the comma.”