Donald Trump is not much of a man. He feels sorry for himself, he whines, he gropes women; he bullies the weak. He brags and he lies. As a young man, this self-proclaimed athlete collected five draft deferments rather than wear his country’s uniform. He doesn’t even work out. The motto emblazoned on Trump’s bogus coat of arms should probably be “faithless,” which makes it odd that he has picked as his chief of staff a general steeled in a service whose motto is “ever faithful.” (The Trump coat of arms was reportedly lifted from another family, with the motto “integrity” replaced—inevitably—by “Trump.”)
John Kelly, retired Marine four-star and new White House chief of staff, has been throughout his career everything Trump is not: He has endured more than Trump could imagine, and has displayed virtues that Trump may not understand and certainly has not exhibited, among them candor, courage, and discipline. Which is why some observers have welcomed Kelly’s hiring as evidence that perhaps the president is learning, that maybe now we will have a disciplined White House that will focus on the business of public policy. Maybe the early morning tweets will diminish or even stop.
Trump’s pick of Kelly is probably better understood in a broader and darker context. That includes a speech that he gave the same day to New York’s Suffolk County Police Department calling on cops to bang suspects’ heads into squad cars; the brusque, uncoordinated dismissal of transgender service personnel by presidential tweet; a speech a week earlier at the commissioning of USS Gerald R. Ford urging sailors to lobby their representatives; a harangue to 30,000 Boy Scouts that included a rant about loyalty, and that earned him an astonishing rebuke from the head of the Boy Scouts of America; and a longer history of toying around the edge of inciting violence, to include the assassination of his opponent in the last election.
As the coils of the Russia investigation grow tighter, as his failures in Congress mount, Trump reaches for what he knows—demagoguery of the rawest sort. He reaches as well for what he thinks of as his base, which includes (he believes) the military, many of whose leaders are actually quietly appalled by what he represents. He has picked Kelly not because of his political or administrative skills but because he thinks of him as a “killer”—a term of praise in his lexicon, which is why he likes referring to his secretary of defense as “Mad Dog” Mattis, a nickname the former general rejects. Kelly will not organize Goon Squads for Trump, but the president would probably not mind if he did. More to the point, Kelly’s selection, and that of a foul-mouthed financier from New York as Trump’s communications director, tells us not that Trump is planning on moderating his behavior, but rather on going to the mattresses. He just may have picked the wrong guy for that mission, that’s all.
Kelly’s decision to take the job lends itself to multiple explanations. It may be an irresistible call to duty by someone who thinks of the president mainly as commander-in-chief; it may be an act of deep, quiet patriotism by someone who intends to shield the country from Trump’s lawless worst; it may reflect personal ambition, or mere hankering for as difficult a management challenge as one could imagine; or it may reflect a sneaking admiration for the boorish businessman who has successfully slapped around the politicians of left and right that many officers, and Marines in particular, despise as cowardly and corrupt. Kelly once handed a ceremonial saber to the President while unfunnily suggesting that he use it on the press. In April, he said the following: “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.’’ A less supine Congress might have noticed the discourtesy and reacted sharply to being told to “shut up.”
His occasionally contemptuous attitude towards the press and Congress, though, is only one reason why it is highly unlikely that Kelly will succeed. Trump will remain Trump, and the various denizens of the White House are unlikely to treat Kelly with much more deference than they treat one another. He will discover that he is no longer a general, or even a cabinet secretary, but a political functionary—neither more nor less.
There was a reason why he spent 42 years on active duty rather than run for mayor of Boston. He probably already knows, but if not he will soon learn, that he will be as dispensable as his predecessor, that Trump hates any of his subordinates being too powerful or too visible. And worst of all, he will soon find himself wrestling with the moral corruption that being close to this man entails. You cannot work directly for Trump while adhering to a code of honesty, integrity, and lawfulness. Sooner or later Kelly will have to defend the White House’s jabber about “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and “witch hunts.” He will have to ascribe to Trump virtues that he does not possess, and deny the moral lapses and quite possibly the crimes that he has committed.
There is one further reason to find this appointment depressing. It contributes to the continuing decay of American civil-military relations. Those of us who were relieved to see James Mattis as secretary of defense, H. R. McMaster as national-security adviser, and Kelly himself as secretary of Homeland Security, felt that way partly out of appreciation for the virtues of all three men, but also, very largely, out of relief that their sanity might contain their boss’s craziness. But it is inappropriate to have so many generals in policy-making positions; it is profoundly wrong to have a president regard the military as a constituency, and it is corrupting to have the Republican Party, such as it is, act as though generals have if not a monopoly then at least dominant market share in the qualities of executive ability and patriotism. It is unwise to have higher-level positions in the hands of officials who have openly expressed disdain for Congress—now a dangerously weak branch of government.
Trump, who has no idea how many articles there are in the Constitution, neither knows nor cares about any of the niceties of civil-military relations. To their credit, Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster have thought long and hard about these issues. But like any of us they have their individual limitations, and like any of us, their characters can be eroded by the whirlpool of moral and political corruption that is Donald Trump. The Marines live by a hard code, and John Kelly has endured tests of character more difficult than most of us can conceive. But his hardest tests lie ahead, and neither he nor anyone else can be sure that he will pass them.