The White House has finally announced that Chief of Staff John Kelly will be stepping down by the end of the year. Kelly has arguably been fairly feckless in his discharge of his White House duties. But he has nonetheless often been regarded by pundits as “an adult in the room.” Compared to the President, who continues to behave like a boorish and angry teenage boy, Kelly might well be an “adult.” But adults can do much political harm. Indeed, most of the harm done in the world is done by “adults” like Kelly, reactionaries with access to power and guns.
I made this case in October 2017, and I stand by it still: John Kelly is no friend of liberal democracy. Good riddance to him.
On Thursday of this week General John Kelly, the Chief of Staff for President Trump, took to the microphone for the second time in two weeks to defend the malfeasance and malevolence of his boss.
Kelly spoke at length about the sacrifices of fallen soldiers, the duties of their military superiors, his own experiences as a commander and also as the father of a fallen soldier, and the advice he supposedly gave to Trump about how best to convey condolences to the families of fallen soldiers. He presented Trump as a “brave” and compassionate man who spoke exactly as he had been instructed to speak by his handler — Kelly himself.
Kelly has long been treated with adulation by the media — especially the mainstream media that his boss consistently derides as “fake” — because of his combat and military leadership experience, his personal sacrifices, and his “probity.” We are consistently invited to think of him — along with Generals “Mad Dog” Mattis and H. R. McMaster and corporate titan Rex Tillerson, but mainly him — as “the adult” in the room. Serious men and women have been known to “praise God” that Kelly remains in the White House, to tutor his adolescent ward, the President.
Many critics of Trump, including retired military critics such as Barry McCaffrey and Jack Jacobs, who have questioned Trump’s politicization of the “fallen soldier” question, praised Kelly’s Thursday speech, especially the way it centered on honoring fallen soldiers. Kelly surely spoke with a clarity, confidence, and gravitas that reflects his real-world experience, and that is far beyond the capacities of his erstwhile Commander in Chief. And he proved, yet again, how valuable he is to Trump, through his professional discipline, his willingness to offer public defenses, and his very presence, which confers an aura of competence on this most incompetent of Presidents. Kelly’s speech may have been heartfelt. It may have been delivered by a man of substance rather than by an idiot. And it may even have contained a few subtleties worth praising (for example, he seemed to go out of his way to underscore that he was not criticizing Obama). But it was a deeply disturbing speech nonetheless, and it does not deserve the adulation that it has received even from some well-meaning liberals.
Its most disturbing feature was precisely what so many have praised — its military sensibility and decorum, i.e., its authoritarianism. Kelly exulted in his authority as a military man who knows better than the civilians and whose experiences of combat — and of death and loss — confer a distinctive wisdom and patriotic glory. He expressed contempt for civilians who interfere with military ceremonies, and he maintained that soldiers are the most virtuous and good Americans by virtue of their willingness to shed their blood — which is usefully contrasted with John McCain’s recent repudiation of the rhetoric of “blood and soil.” As Masha Gessen has just written, Kelly spoke, sanctimoniously and from on high, “in the language of a military coup.” Both his words and their tone confirmed concerns, long-expressed by many, that the power behind Trump’s throne is the generals.
Many commentators have been wondering just how long Kelly could possibly remain in the White House, subject to Trump’s unprofessionalism and his whims. Many imagined that Trump’s recent public exploitation of the death of Kelly’s son (“ask General Kelly if Obama phoned him”) would be the straw that broke the camel’s book. But Kelly stands by his commitments, however despicable, and if many serious military commentators have been deeply troubled by the callousness and unpredictability of the President, Kelly has made clear that he is in it for the long haul. And while he might remain out of a sense of duty, the reason why he is there in the first place is pretty simple: he is Trump’s man, and shares Trump’s ethno-nationalist worldview.
Kelly’s ideological attachment to Trumpism is something that has received too little attention. He might be an adult. But he is reactionary adult in league with his reactionary boss.
Indeed, in emphasizing proper respect for and even “sanctification” of military discipline and protocol, Kelly was reiterating themes that Trump has been exploiting for months, by his constant invocation of “his generals”; his angry speeches before police and military crowds, where he regularly denounces “enemies of the people” and calls for “law and order”; and especially his obsessive attacks on Colin Kaepernick and other mostly African-American athletes for their “kneeling,” a deliberate sign of democratic protest that Trump has chosen to turn into a question of “respect for our flag and for our men in uniform.” It is true that in his speech, Kelly articulated a military gravity that Trump could never match. But it is also true that in making that speech in that way, Kelly was doing more than defending his boss or asserting his military authority behind the scenes; he was playing Trump’s game of whipping up hysteria against the supposed “disrespect” of our military and our power.
America First . Kelly is unequivocal about this. And so he also expressed an astonishing nostalgia for a culturally reactionary vision America: “You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life — the dignity of life — is sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well.” And now, it would seem, we have feminism, and reproductive freedom, and secularism. It is an obvious irony, lost on Kelly, that the man he serves is the most nihilistic, self-serving, female-harassing and dishonorable President in U.S. history. But regardless, Kelly told us, in no uncertain terms that, like his boss, and like his Republican Party, he believes that liberalism, “political correctness,” and indeed almost everything associated with the cultural radicalism of the 1960’s is the source of our nation’s decline.
Lawrence O’Donnell, on MSNBC, has made a powerful case that there was latent racism behind Kelly’s extended and slanderous denunciation of Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, an honorable African-American woman who Kelly completely misrepresented and defamed. O’Donnell focused on Kelly’s derogatory reference to Wilson as “an empty barrel.” The text is worth quoting at length: “And a congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there and all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money — the $20 million — to build the building. And she sat down, and we were stunned. Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.” Kelly is being really nasty. More important, he is misleadingly treating a public dedication of a public facility like it is a memorial service for fallen heroes, which it is not — even though Representative Wilson’s speech offered sustained encomiums to fallen heroes, to the FBI, and to then-FBI Director Comey. But what is most important is the utter disdain Kelly displays towards parliamentary politics and representative government. He is denouncing an elected representative for referencing constituent service, and for thanking the public officials whose support made the public facility possible. And he is implying that elected representatives are “empty barrels” — windbags who are all talk, in contrast to the real citizens — Kelly and his military peers and their subordinates — who place their bodies on the line and are willing to shed their blood. In speaking in this way, Kelly articulates a hostility to democratic debate and deliberation that has long been a staple of totalitarian rhetoric. Here is a classic statement:
“All the parties that profess so-called bourgeois principles look upon political life as in reality a struggle for seats in Parliament. The moment their principles and convictions are of no further use in that struggle they are thrown overboard, as if they were sand ballast . . . They lack the great magnetic force which alone attracts the broad masses; for these masses always respond to the compelling force which emanates from absolute faith in the ideas put forward, combined with an indomitable zest to fight for and defend them.”
The words were Hitler’s. But they could just as well have been from Mussolini, or Lenin, or Stalin. Or Bannon, or Trump, or Trump’s Four-Star General handler.
Much has been made of the neo-fascist resonances of Trump’s inauguration speech (“this American carnage stops here”) and of the many xenophobic speeches crafted for him by the fanatical Stephen Miller. And so it is worth underscoring Kelly’s clear affinity for these sentiments. It is also worth emphasizing that the words that follow belong not to Trump or to Miller but to Kelly, and they were uttered while he served as Trump’s loyal Secretary of Homeland Security, long before he chose to become Trump’s maître de:
“ . . . make no mistake — we are a nation under attack. We are under attack from criminals who think their greed justifies raping young girls at knifepoint, dealing poison to our youth, or killing just for fun. We are under attack from people who hate us, hate our freedoms, hate our laws, hate our values, hate the way we simply live our lives. We are under attack from failed states, cyber-terrorists, vicious smugglers, and sadistic radicals. And we are under attack every single day. The threats are relentless . . . [We] face very real threats from so-called Special Interest Aliens . . . the damage [they] do is not only violence and potential terror. It is also vast tonnages of marijuana and hard drugs — cocaine, heroin, counterfeit opiates, fentanyl, and meth amphetamines — they smuggle across our borders to feed both the recreational and addictive U.S. drug demand.… The threat to our nation and our American way of life has not diminished. In fact, the threat has metastasized and decentralized, and the risk is as threatening today as it was that September morning almost 16 years ago. We are under attack from terrorists both within and outside of our borders. They are without conscience, and they operate without rules. They despise the United States, because we are a nation of rights, laws, and freedoms. They have a single mission, and that is our destruction. . . And since the first week of President Trump’s administration, we have been actively securing our borders and enforcing our immigration laws. Not only is this our right as a sovereign nation — it is our responsibility to ensure the safety of the American public. People who illegally cross our borders do not respect the laws of our nation. We want to get the law breakers off our streets, and out of the country, for the good of our communities.… But for too long, the men and women of my Department have been political pawns. They have been asked to do more with less, and less, and less. In many ways similar to the treatment suffered by law enforcement over the last few years, they are often ridiculed and insulted by public officials, and frequently convicted in the court of public opinion on unfounded allegations testified to by street lawyers and spokespersons. If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce — then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws. Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines. My people have been discouraged from doing their jobs for nearly a decade, disabled by pointless bureaucracy and political meddling, and suffered disrespect and contempt by public officials who have no idea what it means to serve… We will never apologize for enforcing and upholding the law. We will never apologize for carrying out our mission. We will never apologize for making our country more secure. We ask for nothing more than respect and your support. We don’t do this for the thank you — we do this keep America strong, secure, and free.”
Those are the words of the adult in the Oval Office.
The nasty, mendacious, militaristic adult. The guy who earlier this year set up Homeland Security’s new Office of Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, and described it thus: “Our mission is clear and that is to acknowledge the exceptional damage caused by criminal illegal aliens and to support the victims of these preventable crimes.” The same family-loving guy who proposed this March that Homeland Security would separate all undocumented children from their parents at the border, in order to deter illegal immigration.
John Kelly has made patriotic sacrifices, and he deserves the respect due to individuals who are willing to sacrifice for what they believe in — a respect due to genuine civic heroes, many of whom have had no military experience whatsoever (though many of them, like John Lewis, have surely experienced the use of military force against them).
But John Kelly is not a noble soul. He is an angry man capable of much nastiness in his public treatment of those with whom he disagrees. He is a military man who exercises undue influence on our (shockingly disorganized) civilian government. And he is an authoritarian man who has fully aligned himself with the anti-liberal, xenophobic, and reactionary agenda of Trump. Like his boss, and like the other “adults” with whom he consorts in the West Wing, he is a danger to constitutional democracy. His public behavior is dishonorable. And what he deserves politically is not respect but vigorous criticism and strenuous opposition.
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, now available from Public Seminar Books/OR Books.