White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s gruesome defense Thursday of President Donald Trump’s call to the widow of Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson was shocking.
But it should not have been a surprise. Any examination of Kelly’s past public remarks makes clear he is not a sober professional, calculating that he must degrade himself in public so he can remain in place to rein in Trump’s worst instincts behind the scenes. Rather, Kelly honestly shares those instincts: He’s proudly ignorant, he’s a liar, and he’s a shameless bully and demagogue.
The chief of staff in an administration headed by any halfway-normal human being would have said: “The president is deeply concerned by news reports that he miscommunicated his condolences when speaking with Sgt. Johnson’s wife Myeshia. He hopes to talk to her again as soon as she feels able, to apologize and make this right. And while he would have preferred that Rep. Frederica Wilson had not spoken publicly about what he intended to be a private call, he appreciates her personal connection to Sgt. Johnson and that she is mourning his loss as well.”
Instead, Kelly did not express any concern for the well-being of Johnson’s widow and family. He did not acknowledge any possibility that Trump had done something wrong, even inadvertently. He engaged in a Trumpian scorched-earth attack against Wilson, claiming to be appalled that she had “listened in” on the conversation — when obviously she could not have avoided hearing it while in a car in which it was on speakerphone — and making up a story about her statements at a public appearance in 2015. He metaphorically dug up every body in Arlington National Cemetery to use them as human shields for Trump. And he interspersed all this with rambling, Strangelovian remarks about how women, life, and religion used to be “sacred” in America but are no longer – and hence “there’s nothing in our country anymore” that indicates that it’s worthy of sacrifice.
Wilson immediately responded that Kelly “is willing to say anything” because he’s “trying to keep his job.” But in fact all the evidence suggests that she is wrong, and Kelly said what he did because he believes it.
This can be seen most clearly in a celebrated speech Kelly delivered on Veterans Day in 2010 while still a Marine Corps general. It demonstrates conclusively that, long before Kelly and Trump ever met, they were on the same page when it comes to hysteria and venom. (Kelly’s son Robert had been killed in action in Afghanistan just days before, but Kelly said identical things both before and long after his son’s death.)
So here’s Kelly’s worldview, as expressed in 2010:
1. No one outside of the military can legitimately question any of America’s wars.
“If anyone thinks you can somehow thank [members of the military] for their service,” Kelly proclaimed, “and not support the cause for which they fight — America’s survival — then they are lying to themselves and rationalizing away something in their lives, but, more importantly, they are slighting our warriors and mocking their commitment to the nation.”
Kelly’s words would be an excellent way to teach ninth graders what the phrase “begging the question” means. Critics of U.S. foreign policy of course do not accept Kelly’s axiom that the military is fighting for “America’s survival.” And indeed it appears Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson don’t either – they reportedly informed Trump that America’s military (and its intelligence and diplomatic apparatus) exist to support the expansion of U.S. corporations.
Furthermore, Trump himself famously questioned the Iraq war. Kelly has yet to speak on whether Trump, Mattis, and Tillerson are all slighting and mocking the military.
Most importantly, Kelly has all of this completely wrong. What’s most impressive and significant about the U.S. military is its 230-year unbroken commitment to civilian rule. That is, people who join the military accept that “the cause for which they fight” is not up to them. That’s truly admirable.
But Kelly would never say that, because it would make clear that criticism of U.S. wars isn’t about low-level military personnel but America’s political leadership. And he evidently does not believe current U.S. foreign policy would survive open, honest debate. So he uses the same banal, childish, crude intimidation technique beloved by right-wing militarists everywhere though history.
2. No one who is in the military ever questions any of America’s wars.
“America’s civilian and military protectors both here at home and overseas have for nearly nine years fought this enemy to a standstill and have never for a second wondered why,” Kelly said in 2010. “America’s warriors have never lost faith in their mission, or doubted the correctness of their cause.”
This is a preposterous lie. No one who’s ever been in the military, or knows more than three people who have, honestly believes this. Soldiers are thinking human beings, not mindless patrio-trons. Again, what’s most praiseworthy about members of the American military is that many do wonder why they’re doing what they’re doing, but understand that their orders ultimately come from elected civilians.
And obviously many of the most coruscating critics of America’s wars have come out of the military. Kelly should look up his fellow Marine Corps general Smedley Butler, author of “War Is a Racket.”
3. America and its wars are and have always been good.
According to Kelly’s speech, the United States has never gone to war “to build empires, or enslave peoples, but to free those held in the grip of tyrants. … The only territory we as a people have ever asked for from any nation we have fought alongside, or against, since our founding, the entire extent of our overseas empire, are a few hundred acres of land for the 24 American cemeteries scattered around the globe.”
Apparently Kelly never walked by any of the Pentagon’s Comanche, Chinook, Cheyenne, Kiowa, or Lakota helicopters and wondered, Hey, who are these things named after?
4. America is under terrifying threat from incomprehensible lunatics.
“I don’t know why they hate us, and I don’t care,” Kelly declared. “Our enemy is savage, offers absolutely no quarter, and has a single focus, and that is either kill every one of us here at home or enslave us with a sick form of extremism that serves no God or purpose that decent men and women could ever grasp.”
It should have deeply concerned everyone serving under Kelly that their commander took an insouciant pride in making no attempt to understand their foes. There’s a reason Sun Tzu said, “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles. … If you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” The joyful ignorance of U.S. elites like Kelly about both us and them unquestionably has something to do with the fact that, as Trump says, “we don’t win anymore.”
Kelly also demanded that we stand in awe of the might of Islamist terrorists. “America is at risk in a way it has never been before,” he insisted, and “future generations” will “ask why America is still free and the heyday of Al Qaeda and their terrorist allies was counted in days rather than in centuries.” The answer, said Kelly, is the valor of U.S. soldiers. However, it’s more likely history will record that — while American valor may have played a role — Al Qaeda failed to murder or enslave 300 million Americans because, as of 2001, there were maybe 200 of them. Also, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are quite large.
5. Our country is hamstrung by its sniveling “chattering class.”
“Our enemy fights for an ideology based on an irrational hatred of who we are,” Kelly said, “no matter what certain elements of the chattering class relentlessly churn out.”
Also, we are winning the war on terror but our successes are concealed “by the media elite that then sets up the know-it-all chattering class to offer their endless criticism.”
Additionally, “the chattering class and all those who doubt America’s intentions, and resolve, endeavor to make [military members] and their families out to be victims.”
The only thing left out of Kelly’s 2010 speech was a condemnation of fake news. He was even more ahead of the curve in remarks in 2007, during which he fondly remembered a time when “to stand up when the national anthem was played … wasn’t considered offensive to the sensitivities of the nation’s self-proclaimed intellectual elite.”
Kelly is right, of course, that the U.S. has an out-of-touch, disgustingly frivolous chattering class. But they are almost uniformly supportive of each new war America launches. Whenever things fall apart again and they start meekly asking questions, they’re easily whipped back into line by the kind of bullying in which both Kelly and Trump specialize.
So even before Kelly’s ugly performance Thursday, there was no reason to hope he would put any kind of brake on Trump. Kelly may be personally far more palatable; he’s certainly no mewling coward like Trump and has unquestionably put his life where his mouth is. That goes for his children as well — his other son is also a Marine — even as Trump’s kids are the living embodiment of every criticism Kelly makes about U.S. society.
But there’s a reason these two men found each other. They see the world in fundamentally the same way, and Kelly is going to help Trump do what he wants to it.