Either by choice or direction, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has made himself a figure of both cultural and political relevance in a way that most of his predecessors in that role did not. Kelly has not taken James Baker’s advice, which was for chiefs of staff to consider themselves more “staff” than “chief.” Until now, Kelly’s decision to dive into the political maelstrom has been constructive. His unvarnished opinions on patriotism and traditionalism are clarifying because they articulate a worldview that is neither shared nor appreciated by Donald Trump’s critics. Kelly’s penchant for pontification has also revealed some less palatable views. Unfortunately, those opinions appear to be shared by Trump’s core supporters and perhaps even the president himself.
During an interview with Fox News Channel host Laura Ingraham, Kelly weighed in on an American cultural debate over whether to consign monuments to the Confederacy to the history books. He expressed opposition to the removal of those monuments. This is hardly a partisan point of view. It is shared, for example, by a majority of Virginians—residents of a state that went Democratic in the last three presidential elections and is represented by two Democratic senators and a Democratic governor.
Kelly called the impulse to judge our predecessors by our standards of morality and probity and not their own “very, very dangerous.” That, too, is defensible. Judging our ancestors by our own standards of conduct is not an effort to understand them better but to aggrandize ourselves. If that’s not dangerous, it’s certainly self-absorbed. But Kelly fell into the same revisionism he was denouncing in that interview when he declared Robert E. Lee “an honorable man.”
“He was a man who gave up his country to fight for his state, which in his time 150 years ago was more important than country,” Kelly said. “It was always loyalty to state first back in those days.” While it is true that citizens of antebellum America viewed the relationship between the states and the federal government differently, the notion that the states were “more important” in any objective sense than “country” is hogwash. Perhaps individual bonds to and affections for their states were stronger than they were toward a remote federal government, but, in every practical sense, the federal government was the supreme arbiter of citizenship and treason.
The states were, in the Founders’ vision, sovereign. This wasn’t just philosophy but a practical consideration, too. “[T]hirteen States are of too great extent for any general system,” James Madison wrote in Federalist 1, “and that we must of necessity resort to separate confederacies of distinct portions of the whole.” Remarking on the nature and causes of treason against that general government in Federalist 43, Madison described the authority of the federal government in pragmatic terms. “Nor would it be proper for the places on which the security of the entire Union may depend,” such as forts, garrisons, strategic cities, and any other public improvement, “to be in any degree dependent on a particular member of it,” Madison added.
“General supremacy” of a national capital—a territory with no allegiance to any one state—was paramount. This provision was a response to the prospect of rebellion. Specifically, the June 1783 revolt of some disgruntled Continental soldiers that compelled Congress to flee Philadelphia. Engaging in armed rebellion against that central government was as much an act of treason for the Founders as it was for the men of General Lee’s generation. “It belongs to us to vindicate the honor of the human race,” Alexander Hamilton wrote. “Union will enable us to do it.”
Kelly got into trouble, too, when he claimed that the Civil War was the result of “a lack of an ability to compromise.” An uncharitable interpretation of these remarks would view them as racially suspect, so that was, of course, the interpretation adopted by the unfailingly merciless mediators of our political discourse. A more generous interpretation would allow for the fact that they might simply have been historically illiterate. Of course, compromises designed to avoid a war were made; they were legislative and political, and surely Kelly is aware of them. Those attempted compromises failed to avert war, which happens when one or both sides of a dispute are uncompromising.
This benefit of the doubt may, however, be misplaced. Kelly’s unsupported comments will surely be welcomed by those seeking to rehabilitate treason and slave-holding. Furthermore, when considering remarks Kelly made regarding a more modern form of human bondage, the general’s affinities become even more suspect.
Trump’s chief of staff again played the good soldier when the subject of China was raised. Kelly insisted that China “beat us pretty badly in terms of trade,” and insisted that the nation’s $309 billion deficit with the People’s Republic represented a win for Beijing (which is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the deficit is, albeit one that’s favored by this president). Kelly revealed a more disturbing point of agreement with Trump, though, when he said he was disinclined to “pass judgment” on the government in Beijing. “I think working with people no matter who they are is better than not talking to them,” Kelly said. “They have a system of government that has apparently worked for the Chinese people.”
This is nothing short of an abdication of an American administration’s responsibility to the oppressed people of the world. The State Department’s 2016 human-rights report described China as an “authoritarian state” in which “repression and coercion” of those engaged in civil and political rights advocacy remains “severe.” Torture and execution without due process are rampant. Secret prisons are reserved for journalists, bloggers, and dissidents. Women, minorities, the disabled, and the faithful are subject to cruelty and subjugation. Perhaps President Trump and General Kelly believe it is counterproductive to antagonize the regime in Beijing, but it is something else to grovel before the Politburo as they have.
Kelly’s comments follow Trump’s decision to publicly congratulate Chinese President Xi Jinping on his “extraordinary elevation” by the Chinese Communist Party to Mao-like despotic status. What kind of an atrocious sentiment is that for the leader of an egalitarian republic to express? What kind of signal does it send to Beijing or to the fearless dissidents for whom Chinese Communism is most certainly not working?
John Kelly’s decision to weigh in on cultural and political matters has been clarifying, but that clarity is not always so laudable. The comments he made on Fox range from bewildering to reprehensible. Perhaps he should consider taking James Baker’s admonition more seriously.