General John F. Kelly is retired from the US Marine Corps, where he commanded the Southern Command. He replaced political operative Reince Priebus as President Trump’s Chief of Staff.
The White House Chief of Staff is the highest ranking staff member in the White House, and was formalized as such in 1961. This is not a Senate confirmable position. What the Chief of Staff does varies from administration to administration but it is almost always about the same. This person can be the puppeteer, in the case of a President who is weak and in need of a guiding hand. This person is always a gatekeeper. Communication with the president is actually communication with the POTUS/COS and if the actual president is present is the decision of the Chief of Staff. If a president is not present or unable to make an important decision, it is not the Vice President who steps in, but the Chief of Staff, short term. Or, at least, this is what we have come to understand from the combination of glimpses into real life and realistic fiction about the workings of the Executive.
The Trump administration has never been in control. Trump has blundered from tweet to tweet, changing and randomizing American policy, bringing the US to what feels like the brink of a war with North Korea, destroying all of our relationships with other nations, frightening and angering most of the citizens with bone-headed domestic policy blunders, and generally being annoying. Much of this confusion and clownish governing happened prior to about two weeks ago, peaking with the rolling out of a particularly awful communications director, a character from a first draft of a Carl Hiaasen novel. And when the insanity reached that crescendo, they called in the Cavalry. Or, actually, the Marines. In the form of General John Kelly.
At the time, everyone said the same thing. The General, being a general and a Marine and all, would impose order, control Trump, bring some sense of normalcy to the White House.
But that didn’t happen. Of all the bad things that have happened in the train wreck known as the Trump administration, some of the worst things have happened since Kelly landed on that particular beach. It was after Kelly arrived that we moved to the brink of a new Korean War. It was after Kelly arrived that Trump lost the confidence even of many of his supporters with his blatant nod to the white supremacist movement. Most recently (though I’ve not checked my twitter feed in 45 seconds so who knows) we have top advisor Steven Bannon declaring his own war on All The Staff, reversing Trump’s North Korea policy, and doing an end run around the State Department to advance an entirely new policy with China. Who knows where that will go?
So, there are two facts that tell me that there is a fallacy lurking here, for which I think I have a simple explanation.
Fact 1: Everybody knows that a disciplined Marine General like John Kelly means the restoration of order. This fact is so clear and certain that after two weeks of unmitigated chaos exponentially worse than any prior two week period in the Trump Circus, it is still held on to by everyone.
Fact 2: Fact 1 is clearly untrue.
The fallacy is that being of a military background (in this case a Marine General) fully qualifies a person to know how to generate and impose, restore or maintain, and manage, order.
It could be that John Kelly was actually a lousy general, or that he is purposefully trying to Ruin America, or perhaps some other explanation pertains. But none of that seems to apply.
Rather, I think this: Order exists in the military when you get there. Ask around. You probably know people with this story. A person who is wandering, directionless, unable to maintain order in their own life, joins the military and there finds order not because the military inspires it in them, but because the military imposes it on them. This changes their life, for the better, and thereafter they can thank the already in place inherent fundamental order of the military.
Marine generals do not create order and discipline, nor do they bring it with them to unordered chaotic climes where they can put it. The military has evolved over centuries of time, and is older than most existing nations. It has the order and discipline built in, it is a hierarchical structure based on chains of command and the concept of order itself. It is not a coincidence that the essential communication, utterance, linguistic event, in the military is called an “order” an that order is obeyed on pain of punishment anywhere from doing 100 pushups up to execution by firing squad.
Marine General John Kelly moved from an environment where order is the order of the day, often in the form of orders inevitably obeyed, to a place of deprived chaos. He moved from a milieu in which his wish was someone else’s command to the job of baby sitting a psychotic megalomaniac with zero impulse control who is, in fact, his commander in chief. Having a retired Marine General put in charge of a Trump in this manner, at this time, is actually the worst possible idea. Marine Generals give orders and they are followed. A Chief of Staff for Trump can not order Trump to do anything, and is likely unequipped with the laser pointers, shiny objects, yummy cookies, and psychological tasers needed to control the stupendously horrific combination of the world’s biggest baby who happens to also be the word’s most powerful person.
I suspect Reince Priebus had more of the skills to manage Trump than Kelly will have in ten lifetimes. Controlling the staff and the communications is Kelly’s only option, and that is clearly far less than what is needed. There may be no controlling Trump in any event, but this commander will never be controlled by any general.
General John Kelly can not serve as an effective Chief of Staff on the basis of his experience in an environment of order, precisely because the remnant of that environment is the Commander in Chief that he needs to, but can not, boss around. He might have been a good Chief of Staff for other reasons, or on the basis of other experiences, but that apparently is not the case.
I believe this is the fallacy. I believe this is a deep fallacy, because it is unnoticed even though it is right in front of everyone’s face. I expect that someday we will know of a thing called the “Kelly Effect,” when someone moves from a place of great order to a place of chaos, and the chaos wins.