FiveThirtyEight, a website that apparently still exists, has a deeply depressing story out Tuesday on White House Chief of Staff John Kelly by politics writer Perry Bacon Jr. The piece is essentially a mea culpa, where Bacon admits that he and much of the political media got Kelly all wrong, and that he is Actually Bad.
You might say, at least this Bacon chap admits and realizes his mistake now. To this I say, no. It is way too late to get any credit for that. It should have been clear immediately, but it definitely should have been clear every single day after that.
Perhaps the most baffling and horrifying part of his piece:
Kelly seems to have deeply-held views, particularly on immigration, that he has asserted—and they are not those of the McCain-like GOP establishment. Unlike past chiefs of staff, he hasn’t been careful to avoid bombastic comments. There was the attack on Wilson. But more recently, Kelly suggested that undocumented immigrants who had not yet signed up for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program were “lazy.” He has also praised Confederate general Robert E. Lee. You might even call Kelly’s rhetoric Trumpian.
Sorry, but... Are you fucking kidding me? He seems to have horrible, definitely not moderate views on immigration (which, to be clear, are also garbage)? How could you not realize this until now, given that he had been the head of the Department of Homeland Security—you know, the one in charge of ICE—before becoming chief of staff? How could you not realize that joining the administration of Donald Trump would mean that Kelly would almost certainly acquiesce to those views rather than reshape the entire administration, even if he did secretly want to slow Trump’s draconian immigration policies? Or that, much more likely, Kelly wanted to join the Trump administration because he agreed with those horrible policies—which were arguably the foundation of Trumpism both in the election and the administration—and not in spite of them?
The biggest mistake these pundits made is in credulously assuming that being a Serious Military Man meant that, almost by definition, Kelly would be an apolitical and sensible operator, who could therefore restore sanity to an insane administration rather than simply enabling that insanity. Bacon, to his credit, touches on this too, saying that “perhaps we had trouble envisioning a decorated general hailed as a ‘beacon of discipline’ as someone who thought and acted like the president.”
Yes, who could have predicted that becoming a general in America might mean you’re at least a bit of a fascist? But the political pundit class has serious trouble expressing anything other than deferential respect for the military and the assumptions underpinning American imperialism. Bacon, for example, also said he thought Kelly “was one of several former generals in Trump’s orbit who might push the president to embrace more traditional Republican stances, particularly on national security policy.” Ah yes, those great traditional Republican stances on national security, like endless and bloody wars in the Middle East and waterboarding alleged enemy combatants who haven’t been charged with any crimes.
That’s not even considering the wealth of evidence from Kelly’s long career as a right-wing militarist. Take this delightful Kelly quote from 2010, which Jon Schwarz at The Intercept surfaced in October:
“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.”
Basically: If you don’t love the wars we send our troops to die in, you don’t love the troops. Nope, definitely not fascist.
At Southcom, Kelly quickly developed a reputation for opposition to Obama’s intended closure of Guantánamo Bay. Kelly confronted a widespread hunger strike by the detainees, protesting the limbo of their treatment and the physical pain of being forcibly tube fed, which had prompted international attention.
Kelly’s response was a press blackout. Guantánamo and Southcom officials stopped providing updates to reporters on the detainees participating in the protest, either on the number of striking detainees or their conditions. To avoid discussing the hunger strike and its rationale, they introduced a euphemism when asked about it: “long-term non-religious fasting”.
The pundit class cannot divorce itself of the notion that being in the military means a commitment to Duty and America—and therefore not the interloper Trump, who to them doesn’t count as a representation of America the world power, but an aberration and an anomaly. If Kelly the military man is steering the ship, of course he will restore order to a chaotic White House (as if that’s an outcome we should all find desirous anyway).
To be fair, Bacon’s breakdown of exactly why journalists failed so badly in covering Kelly accurately is quite good—he notes, for example, that the DC press corps’ overwhelming white and male makeup probably skewed the coverage in Kelly’s favor, too. But it’s another sad reminder that for all the introspection and as many of these analyses as you want to write, there aren’t really any consequences for those who shape these narratives in such powerful and powerfully wrong ways. And it’s difficult to say if this kind of postmortem analysis does anything to prevent such catastrophically wrong takes the next time around.
Everyone who wrote that Kelly would bring moderation and sanity to the White House will almost certainly keep their well-paid jobs and continue patting themselves on the back for writing about the administration like they’ve shipped off to fucking Vietnam. (I am not in favor of firing pundits who get things wrong, depending on the thing in question; the pundits who cheered on the Iraq war, for example, stick out as a pretty good exception.) The New York Times, who ran the headline “John Kelly, New Chief of Staff, Is Seen as a Beacon of Discipline,” will continue to beg for and gain subscribers by positioning itself as part of the resistance. And no amount of self-reflection on the part of the media can erase the effects of the six months of fawning coverage that came before.