clock menu more-arrow no yes

John Kelly has become a field commander in Trump’s culture war

The chief of staff divides America into those who “serve” in uniform — at home and abroad — and those who should shut up.

John Kelly Discusses Operational Implementation Of Trump Immigration Ban Drew Angerer/Getty Images

When White House Chief of Staff John Kelly took the podium at the Thursday afternoon press briefing to defend the controversy surrounding President Trump’s treatment of a Gold Star family, he was treated with the deference and gravitas this White House doesn’t usually receive.

It wasn’t just because Kelly is himself a Gold Star father — his son Robert was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. It was because Kelly’s reluctance to talk about his son’s death in public has become part of the legend of John Kelly — ironically, the idea that Kelly is too noble to use the death of his son to burnish his own reputation has burnished that reputation more than anything Kelly could have said.

On Thursday, there he was: a man whose White House tenure has been associated with blunt truths and (occasionally successful) discipline, talking about the thing he’d always resisted talking about in public.

But this wasn’t a 60 Minutes interview. It was a presidential press briefing.

Kelly’s appearance may have been compelling because of John Kelly, the man; but it mattered because it was one of the most powerful advisers to the most powerful man on earth, using his personal experience and gravitas to attempt to lay a political controversy to rest — by characterizing those who had raised it, including a member of Congress, as violators of something sacred.

“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've seen from recent cases,” he said. “Life was sacred. That's gone. Religion. That seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer. I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die in the battlefield, I thought that might be sacred.”

But the distinction in demeanor between Kelly and his boss — and subsequent difference in how much they’re respected by the press — masked some Trumpian tendencies of Kelly’s own. In his umbrage toward Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL), who listened to Trump’s call with the Gold Star Johnson family, he told an ugly story about Wilson’s “empty-barrel” bragging about funding an FBI office — a story that turned out to be, in many particulars, untrue.

Kelly’s tactics may not be Trump’s tactics. But his enemies are Trump’s enemies. As long as Kelly remains in this White House, he is helping to prosecute President Trump’s culture war — a war in which the other side is seen as people who don’t love or respect America enough to see it made great again.

Kelly is a more credible messenger, as far as the Washington press corps is concerned, for the message that the actions of the American state are beyond question. That doesn’t mean he’s right.

To John Kelly, there are those who serve America, and those who will never understand what that means

Kelly is the kind of military man who really wants you to know that he doesn’t like politics or politicians. Whenever Trump says that chief of staff is the best job Kelly’s ever had, he reminds him that the best job he ever had was US Marine.

As secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, he resented queries from members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus about the actions of immigration agents; as chief of staff, he consistently appears in “inside the White House” stories expressing frustration that Congress hasn’t fixed a problem yet.

It’s understandable that Kelly wouldn’t be used to the domestic political arena — after all, the adage that “Politics stops at the water’s edge” insulates career military officers from having to deal with the level of scrutiny and criticism that their domestic counterparts can face. But it’s not just that Kelly doesn’t respect the way that politics works within Washington — the time it takes to make a congressional deal, the way that embarrassing statements can get leaked to eager reporters. He actively thinks that they have America wrong, and that they will never understand it in the way those who serve it will.

President Trump generated two days of controversy earlier in the week by saying that President Obama didn’t call the families of fallen soldiers, creating a stream of follow-up questions that ultimately led a White House official (later identified as press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders) to say that Obama had not called Kelly after the death of his son. But at Thursday’s press conference, Kelly simply waved away that whole phase of the controversy: Presidents often don’t call Gold Star families, he said, and he’d actually advised Trump not to do so. Because a call from the president didn’t matter anyway:

Typically the only phone calls the family receives are the most important phone calls they could imagine, and that is from their buddies. In my case, after my son was killed, his friends were calling us from Afghanistan telling us what a great guy he was. Those are the only phone calls that really matter.

“Buddies” aren’t just the people who knew the deceased. They’re the people who served with him. That comment is a glimpse into a world where there are only two kinds of people: those who have served or have family members who do, and those who will never understand the sacrifices of the first group.

Kelly made the division clear himself when, in taking questions, he insisted on calling on only reporters who knew Gold Star families themselves. Everyone else was assumed to be part of the problem.

Kelly champions the idea that criticizing the behavior of agents of the state is criticizing America

This isn’t just a matter of simple anti-elite, anti-“chickenhawk” sentiment. In Kelly’s eyes, those who serve America understand it and those who do not simply don’t. The latter, in fact, can’t really be trusted to preserve America’s goodness.

“We don't look down upon those who haven't served,” Kelly said at the end of the presser. “In a way we're a bit sorry because you'll never experience the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kind of things our service men and women do.”

In fact, he said at another point, they “volunteer to protect our country when there's nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that self-service to the nation is not only appropriate but required. That's all right” (emphasis added).

So when Kelly waxed nostalgic about the days when certain things were “sacred” — women, religion, and battlefield sacrifice — he wasn’t just echoing the complaints of so many who support Donald Trump because they too feel America is no longer great. He was saying that there are Americans who have kept the flame of American greatness alive — those who serve the country for a living — and that the best thing the rest of America can do is keep a respectful distance.

Panetta And Dempsey Attend SOUTHCOM Change Of Command Ceremony Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Maybe it’s an understandable bit of chauvinism from a career Marine. But that doesn’t stop it from being a worrisome attitude when it becomes an unquestioning fealty to anything those people can do while in uniform. Kelly’s rhetoric can be reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s character Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men — “I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it” — but Jessup was the villain.

Furthermore, to Kelly, the caste of those who serve America goes beyond members of the military to those who protect against threats “at home” — the people he was leading as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

At DHS, Kelly routinely expressed frustration with anyone who questioned the actions of DHS staff — whether they were Customs and Border Protection officers detaining people at airports under Trump’s first travel ban, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials detaining immigrants who were supposed to be protected from deportation under the DACA program.

In a speech at George Washington University in April, Kelly blamed this for DHS’s notoriously low morale: “When you discourage, when you disable, when you unjustly criticize and default to believing the initial reports as opposed to defaulting to believing the stories told by my professionals, what else do you expect?”

“Defaulting to believing” one side of a story is not how the press works. It’s not how political debate works. Politics is literally, on one level, asking and answering questions about the actions of agents of the state. But Kelly sees no distinction between questioning the action and questioning the person. It’s a revival of the George W. Bush-era idea that “respecting the troops” meant supporting the war, updated for a 21st-century sense that because the enemy is everywhere, America’s “front lines” are populated not just by soldiers but by law enforcement.

No matter how Kelly feels about Trump, he’s prosecuting Trump’s culture war

This is the attitude of those who have criticized, or even threatened to abandon, the NFL over the decision of some players to kneel during the national anthem as a protest for racial justice and against aggressive policing.

It’s the attitude that not only does it breach the mystical unity of the American nation to be reminded of politics, i.e., disagreements over the actions of the American state, but that it is a specific insult to the individuals who serve as agents of that state. That protesting police is the same as disrespecting the troops and the flag itself. That no matter how respectfully the protest is conducted, the fact that it is a protest is an insult: “Kneeling,” President Trump said this week, “is basically sitting.”

Trump didn’t start this culture war — the ingredients have been there ever since the Dixie Chicks were blackballed by country radio and their listeners because their lead singer criticized George W. Bush at an overseas concert. But he has ascended to the nation’s most powerful office for the purpose of waging it.

It’s obvious, at this point, that Trump sees his job as serving the people who voted for him and being mean to those who don’t. And it appears to be true that for many of his supporters, Trump’s actions as head of government matter less than his actions as head of state — i.e., the man with the most powerful microphone — and the people he’s sticking it to.

Yes, it’s ironic that so much of what Kelly appears to despise about contemporary politics and society is embodied in his own boss. But as long as Kelly remains in the White House, it does not matter.

Maybe he thinks Trump is doing the right thing by putting the right people in charge. Maybe he sees Trump as a unique danger to the Republic and thinks therefore it’s particularly important for him to serve as an adult in the room. Maybe he thinks all politicians are really this bad. Maybe he suspects that a decadent, disrespectful America has simply gotten what it deserves.

What is going on inside John Kelly’s head does not matter as long as he is willing to stand at the podium in the press room and tell members of the press that they and the political debate they engage in are not just frivolous but corrosive to the republic, and that there is a truer form of patriotism — one embodied in the agents of the state — that they should not question and whose messengers they must respect.

The press is used to deferring to the military, and to those who have lost children in war. They’re willing to let Kelly attack them in ways they wouldn’t be willing to countenance from other Trump officials. But what Kelly is saying doesn’t come from his experience as a Gold Star father. It comes from the way he sees the world — and his own agenda to make America great again.