The Kelly Fallacy

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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.

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44 thoughts on “The Kelly Fallacy

  1. Seems to me a defendable analysis. Question: did you check facts with Mr. Kelly himself? You fill the answers in for him, but we have a saying, don’t fill in answers for another. Keep in the back of your mind that things can run different than what you expect or have expected. I follow this with great curiosity. It is a thus far not known ballgame in democratic based states.

  2. Gerrit, I checked with Wikipedia and found out that John Kelly is indeed a retired Marine General.That’s the only pertinent fact here. The cultural translation I’m talking about here is general (as it were) and has little to do with John Kelly.

    I allow for the possibility that John Kelly has the special superpower of being able to be both a successful general and an amazingly good clown wrangler. I imagine there are such folks. That he is not one of them is evidence because of the well documented events of the last two weeks.

    However, your point that we don’t yet know the outcome is valid. But, in two weeks one can start more than one nuclear war, so we do need to hold those involved responsible for handling this situation quickly. And they have not.

  3. 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.

    Possibility: Kelly was brought in for appearances only. The President and his people had no intention of changing their ways, but the PR output would be that Kelly was bringing change. (And he’s just a stooge in the game.)

    The footage of him standing off stage during Trump’s 2nd grade level press conference, arms folded, head down, indicates to me he was realizing just what a moral shitstorm he’d stepped into. I’m thinking he may decide to leave (in the not too distant future).

    I allow for the possibility that John Kelly has the special superpower of being able to be both a successful general and an amazingly good clown wrangler.

    I think this possibility is low. Not that there aren’t occasionally clown of the high level of the current president and his staff in the Marines, but when they reach this level they aren’t wrangled they are booted out.* Kelly can’t do that here.

    * Yes, there are losers of all types in all branches of the military. But the level of “clownery” and lack of ability seen in the president and those around him would be dangerous to others in the military and wouldn’t be tolerated.

  4. I was under the impression that Kelly was going to control the White House staff, but was not planning on controlling the President.

    The President will do whatever the President wants and Kelly will not be able to control him.

    I would not count that as a failure on the part of Kelly.

    Trump is in charge, and no one can control him.

    Not the Republicans.

    Not the Senate.

    Not the House.

    Not his chief of staff.

    Trump is an will follow court orders – but he will appeal everything that goes against him to the Supreme Court.

    So Trump is in charge of the executive branch of the United States and many are finding this uncomfortable – because Trump doesn’t act like any President who came before him.

    Just the tweets alone are driving some people crazy.

    Yes – Trump keeps shooting himself in the foot.

    I don’t think he cares.

    Part of his charm I guess.

    Better buckle your seat-belts – because we have 3 1/2 years left.

  5. I think of Edmund Burke: “All there is necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.”
    We have to wait and see what Kelly and others do.

  6. ” because Trump doesn’t act like any President who came before him.”

    That’s the most dishonest way of saying the president hasn’t been acting with any sense of morality or integrity I’ve ever seen.
    But then you have to consider the source of that comment.

  7. Gerrit:

    Trump cannot be “fired” – by the GOP or anybody else.

    He can be impeached by the House and if impeached, tried by the Senate – but only if he commits a high crime or misdemeanor. So far, nothing even close to that is on the table – so I don’t see impeachment in the rest of his term.

    We will have to see what Mueller finds – but so far, there seems to be less there than most thought.

    Russia is looking like a big nothing burger (so far) – so now maybe they are looking at Trump’s other business dealings? None of that has anything to do with his conduct since he became President – but we will see.

  8. Better buckle your seat-belts – because we have 3 1/2 years left.

    We’ll see.

    but only if he commits a high crime or misdemeanor. So far, nothing even close to that is on the table – so I don’t see impeachment in the rest of his term.

    You sound so sure. Yet the Russia inquiry is only now gathering momentum.

  9. “Trump cannot be “fired” – by the GOP or anybody else.”


    Congress can “fire” him.

    “Russia is looking like a big nothing burger”

    Lie. Nothing more expected from you, though, dick.

  10. “So far, nothing even close to that is on the table ”

    Emoluments, conspiracy with a foreign power, election fraud, incompetence, insanity, but apart from all THAT, what does reality have on donald trump?

    Fraud? Oh shut up.

  11. AS a general, you impose order because you demand it happen.

    As chief of staff to trump, he can’t demand shit. Probably the closest gotten was trumps’ scripted speech about how nazis are nothing the USA stands for blah blah blah. And that was likely a demand, and therefore liable to be Kelly’s demand. And that pissed off trump so much that his off-script meltdown that had Kelly hanging his head in shame was trump giving a big F-U to Kelly for making demands (that to trumps mind clearly did not work, people still asked what the fuck he’s on, likely the carrot dangled to trump to make him sit up and notice that the flapping of the pieholes in front of him needed to be listened to).

    And Kelly can do bugger all.

  12. “…Part of his charm I guess…”

    By all means, let’s romanticize the juvenile, snotty blitherings of a playground bully gone senile. Holy crap on a cracker.

  13. >Trump is an will follow court orders

    Sure about that? His hero is Andrew Jackson.

    > but only if he commits a high crime or misdemeanor.

    A vague term that can be interpreted any way Congress wants. If there were a secret ballot Trump would be convicted right now. They are just hunting for a charge big enough to get away with it.

  14. While it is true that the structure of the military demands order and that no one individual is responsible for that culture, it is also true that some managers are better at adhering to these rules than others.

    Given a generic political apparatchik and a high-ranking military officer I would suspect the military officer to be more likely to instill and demand order from an organization.

    Your analysis also fails to take into account any information contrary to your position. One of Kelly’s first acts was to fire Scaramucci. He also backed McMaster’s firing of Cohen-Watnick. One his 2nd or 3rd day on the job he specifically talked about respecting the chain of command.

    ‘Order’ does not equate to ‘good policy’ or ‘wise decisions’ – that’s a completely different animal. One can devise stupid policies in an orderly fashion.

    Order and the chain of command really do not include Trump himself; the President sits at the top of the CoC so it’s difficult to see how the President deciding to blast out another insane tweet is somehow disorderly vis a vis respecting the chain of command.

    I find Kelly’s whole mythos as some sort of truth-teller more problematic. Why, because he wrote a book on Vietnam that was critical of the officer corps? Jesus, David Halberstam published that book while the war was still ongoing.

  15. MikeN says “If there were a secret ballot Trump would be convicted right now.”

    I disagree – but respect your right to your opinion.

    I think that a majority of house members would actually need to believe a high crime or misdemeanour had taken place before they would vote to convict (or rather indict).

    Not only would most republicans not find this, but at least 1/2 of the democrats would also fail to find this (in my opinion).

    The democrats which actually believe you can indict based on what Trump has done thus far is fairly small. One or two (like Maxine Waters).

    Most need actual evidence and not just allegations.

    But that is just my personal opinion.

  16. Many blogs commented on a [hoped for?] “soft coup” where Kelly and Mattis would bring some sanity into the WH. This was in the midst of the Korean fiasco – so there was some rationale for that “hope its a coup” dream . Trump’s tweets even sounded measured for a couple days. But then his vacation tweets- nope. No soft coup here kids.
    My guess is that there may have been a nanosecond of reality check wherein the POTUS thought something like “I am really really a fuck up and this job is way to bigely for me” and – given his fetish for uniforms and tanks and stuff- decided that he himself needed a Big Handsome Soldier to fix things up….like his measured tweets , that turned out to run counter to his entire life’s default mode: “all my whims shall be catered to NOW’ Kelly can’t be around much longer. The WH already has a higher turnover than my local 7-11. Be high hilarity if so much of consequence wasn’t at stake…

    interesting that some are reporting Pence is scurrying back and a Camp David confab is scheduled soon . Wonder when we get our “third world banana republic ” sash…..

  17. “>Trump is an will follow court orders

    Sure about that? His hero is Andrew Jackson. ”

    Sure about that? Not only, but that’s a nonsequitur “mike”.

  18. “but respect your right to your opinion.”

    But your opinions ARE like assholes. And therefore nobody cares. Yours is a meaningless phrase.

  19. ” One of Kelly’s first acts was to fire Scaramucci. ”

    Trump was against the mooch because he was on the TV more than trump. It was the reason why Spicer was removed: his appearing on TV more than trump.

  20. People are starting to realize that Trump is a Nazi, that he is likely a traitor, that his demeanor is vindictive and childlike and wholly inappropriate to the highest office in the land. It is clear to me that his continual lying provides sufficient cause to remove him from office. Serial lying is indicative of a serious behavioral or cognitive disorder, or both. Trump is not likely to last the summer as President IMO.

    After he is removed, I’m sure that there will be books written about Trump and how he managed to deceive and manipulate so many people through his skilled distortion of cultural norms of loyalty, and of the human desire for security.

    Simple formula for winning conservative loyalty. Distracting hair. OK signs. Open palms. Say something hurtful and childish about the opposition. Repeat until your followers will follow you to the waters of the Lethe.

  21. But republican voters still support him because “both sides are the same” and “at least he’s OUR bigoted white supremacist imbecile”.

  22. SteveP:

    You should look up what is required to remove Trump from office.

    Most of your list is not relevant.

    Treason (if proved) would qualify.

    Lying under oath wasn’t enough to get Bill Clinton removed as President (but he did get disbarred for it).

    It is ok to wish for Trump’s removal – but so far there is nothing which has popped up which qualifies as a removal level event.

    Maybe Mueller will turn something up – but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  23. (but he did get disbarred for it)

    This is one of the best things about you rickA — the lies you repeat are so blatantly false that it only takes a moment to find out.

    While Clinton can no longer practice law in front of the highest court, it’s not accurate to say that he was disbarred from either the Supreme Court or from practicing law in Arkansas. Clinton’s license was suspended in Arkansas, but he was not disbarred, and while Clinton did face the possibility of being barred from arguing in front the U.S. Supreme Court (which he had never done), he resigned before the ruling was handed down.

  24. I guess to a modern Republican, being a serial or pathological liar is not a disqualifier for being president. That, I think, is one of the main reasons that scientists have such a hard time tolerating Trump. Science requires the accurate reporting of observations, and that is just about the complete opposite of how Trump behaves. Lying is not tolerable in the world of science, and when it is discovered, it is punished. Again, as I said, if the adults in the room decide that Trump has exceeded his shelf life, he will be dumped. If enough people in the government decide to interpret Article 2 or the 25th amendment in a manner that necessitates his removal, he will be removed. They will not consult blogging here. I’m pretty sure that the wheels have all come off of Trump’s wagon, and that he will quite likely be gone before the summer is over. This is not a wish. It is a speculation based on the observation of Trump’s increasingly erratic behavior, of his stupid tendency to viciously gore his own party, of his siding with outright Nazis , oh right, and did I mention the Mueller probe?

    Factors such as the half-life of public outrage, competing news,and the strength of his hold on his supporter may affect his completion date, but his term is likely nearly over.

  25. I normally avoid responding to the likes of RickA, but since he has claimed to be a lawyer his false statement about the unimpeachability of Trump should be challenged.

    Congress itself will decide what constitute high crimes and misdemeanors, and its decision and judgment cannot be appealed.

  26. dean – You are correct – his license was suspended for five years. I was wrong. Thank you for correcting my mistake. The important point is even lying under oath wasn’t enough to remove Clinton as President.

    magma – I agree that Congress gets to decide what constitutes high crimes and misdemeanors and treason and bribery for that matter. I didn’t say Trump was unimpeachable – I merely pointed out nothing yet has risen to that level.

    The House can vote out articles of impeachment on a simple majority. Than the Senate tries the President, with the Chief Judge of the Supreme Court presiding (so kind of an appeal). Ultimately, it takes a 2/3’s super majority of the Senate to vote to convict the President of the articles of Impeachment.

    It is certainly possible – but very very tough.

    It would be easier if the Democrats took over the Senate and House after the 2018 elections, but still very very tough (unless the Democrats had 2/3’s of the Senate).

  27. RickA – perhaps you ought to read the 25th Amendment. Nothing to do with impeachment is required to remove the President.

    “Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.”

    Given that even prominent Republicans are now saying Trump is not competent to be President, how far are we realistically from his inability to carry out his duties? If his political staff starts resigning en masse as have some of his commissions that might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

  28. “I was wrong.”

    Oddest admission of lying I’ve ever seen.

    “The important point is even lying under oath wasn’t enough to remove Clinton as President.”

    Correct, since the issue was over something that wouldn’t have been investigated for anyone else.

  29. Kevin #29:

    Yes, I am aware of the 25th amendment.

    However, Trump can fire every principal officer of the executive departments – they all serve at the pleasure of the President.

    The 25th amendment was designed for medical disability – coma or something similar.

    Not bad PR or mean tweets.

    The Republicans I have heard are criticizing the Presidents words, not saying he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.

    The two things are very very different.

    I think we are very very far from the 25th amendment coming to the rescue.

  30. > I didn’t say Trump was unimpeachable – I merely pointed out nothing yet has risen to that level.

    >I agree that Congress gets to decide what constitutes high crimes and misdemeanors.

    I think these are contradictory statements. Indeed you unwittingly acknowledge it with
    >It is certainly possible – but very very tough.
    impeachable, able to be impeached, possible to be impeached.

  31. MikeN #32:

    I also said “Treason (if proved) would qualify.” in #24.

    So I never said that Trump couldn’t be impeached – I even gave an example of an event which if proven would qualify for impeachment.

    I just don’t see anything publicly available which rises to the level of an impeachable event so far.

  32. RickA – you need to read Senator Bob Corker’s words on Trump’s competence and stability. He isn’t talking about merely Trump’s words.

    ‘Competence’ is also used by courts to determine ability to make legal, medical, and/or financial decisions for themselves. When one seeks legal guardianship it is usually because a family member is no longer competent to make these decisions. IANAL, but I’ve had to participate in two guardianships in the last 6 months.

    Obviously ‘stability’ has nothing to do with his words, but his very character. An unstable person is ……????

  33. #26
    Thats an intersesting observation about the required integrity of science.
    Its got me wondering how many people have had an initial career in politics and then gone ” stuff this job ” and moved into a career in science. Fuck all i bet.

  34. “MikeN #32:

    I also said “Treason (if proved) would qualify.” in #24.”

    Irrelevant as an answer to #32, dumbfuck.

  35. Even lying under oath wasn’t enough to remove Clinton as President. Trump will likely resign before his term is up. He doesn’t need the job and he is probably tired of the hysterical far left people.

  36. Those hysterical far left people like Orrin Hatch? Ileana Ros-Lehtinen? Marco Rubio?

    But what is more interesting is that you think Trump is such a weakling that he can’t handle criticism from a small group of people. I do realize that for you anything left of the alt-right is “far left”, and that you thus have a feeling you are completely surrounded, but to the rest of the world even the average Democrat is right-wing, so that’s have far right you must be to be a Republican in our view…

  37. “Even lying under oath”

    Has not gotten people fired from Trump’s team. Note the multiple: PEOPLE. And not forgetting Pat Michaels who lied to congress but because he was invited to speak by republicans he was not charged.

    Trying to get people charged for crimes is something republicans do, BUT ONLY TO THEIR OPPONENTS. Criminality in their side is 100% absolutely fair “because they do it too”. Doesn’t stop you morons complaining about it, though, despite insisting it’s fine because both sides do it.

  38. And what the fuck billbob? “HRC LOST GET OVER IT!” then “WADDABOUT BILL CLINTON!!!”.

    What a fucking baby you are.

  39. “I do realize that for you anything left of the alt-right is “far left”,”

    And everything far left is communism. Reds under the bed, remember. Gotta be shit scared or there’s no reason for the rightwingnutjob to live.

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