Every day is a lesson with the Trump administration, and every day the lesson is the same: there are no secretly decent people working in this White House. Everyone helping further the Trump agenda took the job because they’re as immoral as the man they signed up to work for. The righteous Trump adviser discreetly Jedi-mind-tricking honorable decisions from a dishonorable man is a media-conjured fantasy. Still somehow, when he took on the role of Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly was dubbed the “adult in the room” by a press endowed with an endless capacity for wishful thinking.
The title didn’t even jibe with Kelly’s performance in his most recent job, a six-month stint as the head of Homeland Security. While leading the department, Kelly proved Trump’s trusty anti-immigration collaborator, demanding ICE agents criminalize immigrants to scaremonger support for raids; proposing immigrant children be separated from their parents; and seething through a speech in which he advised politicians critical of his ramped-up deportation policies to “change the laws” or “shut up.” (A subsequent line that could make Stephen Miller’s dead eyes momentarily flicker declared the U.S. under attack from multitasking immigrant boogeymen “raping young girls at knifepoint, dealing poison to our youth, or killing just for fun.”) And after presenting Trump with a ceremonial saber at a Coast Guard event, a hot mic caught Kelly joking that the president could “use that on the press, sir.”
It should have been obvious that Kelly’s promotion to chief of staff was a high-five for a job well done and confirmation of his wholehearted support for Trump’s far-right views. Instead, Kelly’s firing of the "Mooch” was treated as evidence of his moderate credentials that outweighed his resume. Kelly reportedly kicked off his tenure by suggesting the number of refugees let into the country be lowered to “between zero and one.” Within 90 days of his appointment, he had fabricated an easily discredited story intended to make a black congresswoman look bad, while in a self-contradictory bit of political theater, he simultaneously bemoaned that women aren’t seen as “sacred” like they were back when he was a kid. Kelly followed that move with a defense of slaveholders and Confederate monuments.
This week he pulled a twofer, vigorously nodding to racist stereotypes by (twice) labeling Dreamers “lazy,” then publicly defending a Trump aide he had long known was accused of abuse by multiple women.
It seems totally reasonable to take Kelly at all of his words, and his actions. He appears to sincerely believe women should be treated the way they were during his childhood in the 1950s, and he doubly believes that where black women are concerned. He has been fully transparent about considering wife-abuser Rob Porter a “man of...honor” and calling slaveholding Confederate Robert E. Lee an “honorable” man. Kelly thinks brown immigrants are no-account layabouts, but thinks it critical to defend mediocre white men who lack the sticktoitiveness to read a 10-page document. Kelly has spent a career in the military, during which time he likely had to field reports of sexual or domestic abuse, which he likely handled exactly the way he’s handled Porter’s case, which is to do nothing at all. That’s who John Kelly is, and from the looks of it, always has been. He and Trump make a great team because they recognize all the terrible priorities and ideas they share. There was never any good reason to think otherwise.
The biggest question here involves the repeated tendency to even fleetingly consider members of Trump’s A-team as outliers in this administration. From “moderating” Ivanka to the so-called “axis of adults” comprising Rex Tillerson, H.R. McMaster and James Mattis, we seem to share a collective desperation to unearth the do-gooders hiding in the upper ranks, discreetly undoing the evil machinations they see taking place around them. But those covert operatives just don’t exist, at least not amidst Trump's inner circle.
It would be great if the realization that Kelly is yet another all-in Trump flunky would wear away at the pervasive American tendency to see military service as an infallible sign of character. Discipline and fealty to authoritarian institutions aren't necessarily equivalent with moral leadership and certainly don’t indicate empathy or moderation. By the same token, it seems silly that so many want to assign noble motivations to those joining the leadership of an administration with such clearly stated, thoroughly awful motives. One does not actively do the day-to-day, high-level work of helping Trumpism succeed without being down for the cause. Pretending otherwise is pure self-delusion, the kind that fails to acknowledge just how bad things are. And that kind of denial impedes the clarity of thinking needed to cope with, and even push back on, the ugly political truth.
At some point, after John Kelly is fired, demoted or just pushed into the background, a new name will emerge and with it, new hopes of the person being a “rational” force and a “compassionate” leader. That won’t be true, either. There’s no needle in the haystack, just hay. Racist, misogynist, xenophobic hay.