White House

John Kelly and the Rise of Courtly Government

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly in the Oval Office, November 30, 2017. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
The president’s inner circle is far too powerful.

I have before me a photograph taken on July 31, 2017. It depicts the inauguration of General John F. Kelly as White House chief of staff, which is apparently a thing we do now.

The photo depicts a stoic-looking Kelly standing in the Oval Office, surrounded by President Trump and a gaggle of White House big shots, as he places his hand on a Bible held by a full-dress Marine and repeats an oath administered by a robed judge. It was a considerably grander ceremony than the modest one Mike Pompeo got last week when he was sworn in as the nation’s 70th secretary of state, which should tell you something about the executive-branch pecking order.

At their best, American conservatives have a fine-tuned sensitivity for the “anti-republican.” Republicanism, in this small-r sense, is a defense of the fundamentally anti-aristocratic nature of the American founding, with particular opposition towards any monarchical drift in the executive branch that would elevate it above the other two. It’s a sentiment as cautious of style as power, since one so easily begets the other. The good republican is thus skeptical of everything from unilateral war-making to the excessive pageantry of the State of the Union. To this list, I’d add another trend worth ditching: our collective obsession with White House personnel, which is fast becoming a decadent parlor drama of characters whom we should not tolerate being as famous or powerful as they are.

In a monarchical regime, policy is made in the royal court. Because the leader runs everything, true power can be exercised only by those in close physical proximity to the prince through flattery, manipulation, and other tricks of persuasion. A political system with regular elections and multiple poles of authority is theoretically the antithesis of royalist government, yet many of the latter’s characteristics will inevitably reemerge in any government that becomes too top-heavy. As America’s presidency becomes ever more bloated with expectation, fame, and legislative deference, features of courtly government have thus risen in sync. A CNN story on the day of Kelly’s swearing-in noted that President Trump’s inner circle of White House “assistants” had grown to 26 from 22 under Obama, who in turn had grown it from 17 under Bush. No wonder the chief chamberlain is such a big deal.

Worries about the extra-constitutional power of the president’s personal aides — who, unlike other senior figures of the executive branch, are neither interviewed nor confirmed by the Senate — is nothing new. Since at least the time of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, the theme has been a standard trope of presidential journalism and partisan outrage. Yet because the current president has been framed as uniquely monarchical in temperament, and our Internet-based journalists so obsessive in their quest for endless content about his wild regime, the current moment is leading us towards an unprecedented normalization of courtly government.

As he is the exalted head of the Trump court, every thought and action of John Kelly is considered national headline news. He has become one of the most obsessively covered figures of the administration — through reports crafted mostly from gossip and leaks, since despite its profile, his office is not technically accountable to the public. We get breathless stories about whether Kelly calls the president names behind his back, whether he likes his job, which co-workers he hates, whom he likes, and what he’s like as a boss. Random conversations, debates, discussions, arguments, and outbursts of which Kelly is a part are painstakingly recreated, no matter how trivial. A particular low was an April 7 story in Axios that may as well have been headlined “the time Kelly was a bit cranky at work.”

The trouble with republicanism is that it’s hard to restore once lost.

Obsessive Kelly coverage is rationalized on the grounds that he is head puppeteer of a team of characters who themselves attempt to puppeteer the president, and this is simply how Americans should understand their government to work. And indeed, in a personality-obsessed culture accustomed to thinking of the president as an all-powerful celebrity-in-chief, courtly rule may seem not only sensible, but exciting and entertaining — “like a soap opera,” as everyone likes to say. One can all but take it for granted that eccentric and colorful courtiers such as Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, and “Javanka” have better name recognition than any cabinet secretary or congressional leader.

The trouble with republicanism is that it’s hard to restore once lost, and harder still in a nation where the ever-growing size and complexity of government is easily evoked to justify greater centralization and top-down management, and whose media prefer to keep news of government simple by focusing on a few engaging personalities supposedly able to make final, unilateral decisions of great consequence.

Donald Trump’s presidency is oft-framed as being in an unprovoked war with presidential “norms,” those standards of etiquette and propriety expected to keep power disciplined and modest. Yet the true danger of Trump for those who desire a genuinely constitutional, republican form of government — and seek to dodge the royalist kind — has always been the degree to which his administration is given fresh rationalization by American politics, and indeed broader American society, to further erode republican norms that were already in a state of decay.

At present, the notion of a pliable, kingly president steered by a powerful court of much smarter aides appears a pragmatic idea with resonance across the political spectrum. The long-term consequences of continuing to normalize this trend will be felt just as widely.

J. J. McCullough is a columnist for National Review Online and the Global Opinions section of the Washington Post.

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