Hopefully, New York Times readers were sitting down when they read that Donald Trump’s chief of staff shares many of Donald Trump’s political and cultural hang-ups. The news seems to have come as a shock to the paper of record’s journalists.
The Times noted that Kelly has made it clear to the public and the press in recent weeks that he “is more aligned with President Trump than expected” and has “waded deep into the culture wars in a way few chiefs of staff typically do.” Well, not too deep. Last month, two administration officials told CNN that Kelly was not pleased by his boss’s decision to incite an irresolvable cultural feud with professional football players over the issue of excessive police force targeting African-Americans. Kelly did, however, tell the network that he was “appalled” by the fact that NFL players had allowed Trump to goad them into kneeling for the national anthem. “Every American should stand up and think for three lousy minutes,” Kelly remarked with soldierly bluntness.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Times that to understand Kelly it’s important to know where he comes from. “In addition to being a Marine, he was born and raised in Boston,” Panetta said. Kelly grew up in a working-class neighborhood with traditional views about what the Times described as “God and country.” When Kelly erroneously scolded African-American Trump-critic Rep. Frederica Wilson for showboating at the dedication of an FBI facility in her district, Kelly’s critics cited that Boston-based upbringing as evidence of his latent racism. Mutual character-assassination attempts aside, Panetta’s suggestion that Kelly’s critics should devote themselves to a better understanding of Trump’s chief of staff would serve the president’s critics well. Not only is he more articulate than the president he serves, Kelly exhibits views shared by many Trump voters.
Kelly provided the public with a window into his personal views on cultural matters last week amid a stirring 18-minute oration on what happens to soldiers who have been killed in action, including his son who died on deployment in Afghanistan. Amid a stream-of-consciousness exposition on the ills that plague American society, Kelly launched into a lecture about the traditional values that modern elites and taste-makers not only do not share but seem to resent. Among the lost American virtues he mourned were respect for women, the sanctity of human life, sacrifice and service to one’s country, and the civilian world’s dedication to honoring that sacrifice.
Right away, the liberal pundit class went to work demonstrating why Kelly was right about bygone values like chivalry, piety, and patriotic self-sacrifice. “Generations of general officers like Kelly cultivated the exclusively male warrior Marine ideal at the exclusion of women,” read former Marine Kate Germano’s Washington Post op-ed. “It’s time for the media and the public to stop giving Kelly a values pass simply because he is a retired general officer.” The Week’s Scott Galupo attributed Kelly’s frustrations with society to his advanced age. “But the sum total of Kelly’s rhetoric amounts to a rhetoric-class grade of F for ‘Inapposite Handwaving,’” he wrote. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent joined an army of liberal commentators who observed—accurately, as it happens—that none of Kelly’s cherished values appear to be shared by Donald Trump.
These analyses miss the point. When Donald Trump campaigned on the shallow promise of making America great again, what made his message resonate was not an accompanying detailed plan for increasing quarterly GDP growth or augmenting the deployable blue water Navy to pre-Cold War levels. Trump’s message was a posture; one of defiance toward the set of mores that are considered inviolable among urban, coastal bastions that enjoy disproportionate cultural influence. And Trump has governed as he campaigned.
Because Kelly is a more coherent advocate for the values Trump has bizarrely come to represent, it would serve Trump critics to internalize the message that even Kelly couldn’t say. For example, the kind of “respect for women” Kelly grieved for is a code of conduct that requires men to treat women differently, both inside the workplace and out. It was an anti-egalitarian code that could not survive democratic trends in American private life. This code prescribed inequality, and many Americans did not mourn its demise. But not all.
For Kelly’s generation, when your country calls you, you serve. To survey the liberal opinion landscape is to be privy to an endless cascade of op-eds calling on administration officials to resign if they have “a conscience.” To display reverence for men and women in uniform is to “fetishize” soldiering, read one op-ed in Kelly’s hometown paper. This unduly elevates military service over other occupations like “nurses, schoolteachers, addiction counselors, community organizers, social workers, coaches,” and “probation officers.”
This week, an undocumented 17-year-old girl in federal custody won her legal fight to have an abortion 16 weeks into her pregnancy. “Justice prevailed today for Jane Doe,” the American Civil Liberties Union announced triumphantly. Perhaps Jane Doe’s rights are preserved, but many who share Kelly’s despondency don’t believe justice was served for everyone involved in this dispute. One party’s rights were not considered. “We will not stop fighting until every woman has access to abortion care,” the ACLU declared. At least this advocacy group is united in agreement that abortion rights are uninfringeable. They’re no longer so sure about little things like the universal right to free speech and expression codified in the First Amendment.
Liberals seem to believe that Kelly’s values—service, honor, and not being abusive toward women—are superficially universal values. Who doesn’t exemplify those bare minimum standards of human decency? But treating women equally is not the same as chivalry. Similarly, veneration for the military is not the same as respect for service. And abiding religiosity in others is not the same as godliness. Trump is an imperfect vehicle to register dissatisfaction with the prevailing liberal cultural ethos, but he’s all that his supporters have got. And because they, like Kelly, long ago lost hope that the cultural changes they resent could be reversed, Trump has out-performed their expectations.