In the roughly three months since President Trump chose John F. Kelly as his second chief of staff, observers have puzzled over the retired Marine general’s occasional scowls and downcast gazes, wondering whether he and Trump, with such different styles and backgrounds, perhaps weren’t working well together.
Kelly, the military man trained to respect sharp lines of authority and tradition, uses terms like “information flow” to describe the discipline he tries to bring to a chaotic White House. Trump, the impulsive businessman and reality-show veteran, delights in flouting authority and upending norms of the presidency.
But Kelly’s extraordinary remarks on Thursday from the White House briefing room, in which he segued from defending Trump to speak of loss — both his own, of a son, and the country’s, of old civilities, all while attacking a Florida congresswoman — offered a glimpse of what the two men seem to share. Both hark back to an undefined time in America when some things were “sacred,” as Kelly put it, to a better moment that’s been lost.
In sharing his nostalgia, Kelly did not sound like the more rough-spoken Trump. But he sounded an awful lot like many of the voters who put Trump into office. Reporters who covered Trump’s campaign can attest that many of these supporters don’t share Trump’s outsize personality, and they overlook the more divisive attacks he has leveled at Gold Star parents, a federal judge of Latino descent, Sen. John McCain’s status as a war hero, and more.
Those at his rallies would often speak softly and thoughtfully to the media amid the loud music and rousing chants of “CNN sucks!” Like Kelly, many served in the military, know people who do, or live in communities where such service remains a familiar part of the American narrative.
What they have in common with Kelly, and what they celebrate in Trump, is a view of a lost past and Washington’s culpability, an affinity that allows them to ignore what they see as the few rough edges around Trump.
The moments in Kelly’s unexpected commentary that clarified that view came near the end, when he was criticizing Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat who had criticized Trump as insensitive in his call to a military widow, as an example of a larger problem with the state of American culture and politics.
“You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country,” Kelly said. “Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That's obviously not the case anymore, as we see from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life, was sacred. That's gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer.”
This is an America, wanting and coarsened, that Trump often conjures — even as his critics charge that he personifies the indictment. His slogan, “Make America Great Again,” speaks directly to the worldview. His favorite general from history, Douglas MacArthur, exemplified it.
The lost-America narrative undergirds Trump’s ongoing call to arms in the culture war — over whether professional athletes should stand and salute the flag, rather than kneel in protest over police brutality and racial injustice, during the national anthem. And it echoes in Trump’s economic arguments, his contentions that unfair trading partners, immigrants and self-serving politicians are complicit in the loss of factories that provided jobs and a vibrant standard of living.
Even in some of Trump’s coarsest campaign moments, when he seemed to be egging on supporters to violence against hecklers, he cast his motives in nostalgic terms and recalled the way men spoke and behaved before what he labels “political correctness” set in.
“Oh, I love the old days, you know?” Trump said at a rally last year in Las Vegas. “You know what I hate? There's a guy, totally disruptive, throwing punches. We're not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They'd be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”
Few people in the crowd threw punches, though many cheered.
Trump’s enthusiasm for a certain portrait of the past is not shared by many women and minorities, who instead see it as a time of inequality — when they were prevented from rising up in society and the workforce. They note that many of Trump’s targets — Rep. Wilson, the kneeling football players, the Latino judge — are women or minorities.
Kelly, like some other Trump backers, spoke in terms of morality clashes, of traits like honor and service to the country that he sees as fading.
“I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred,” Kelly said Thursday.
Kelly ignored the president’s own role in violating what he calls sacred — Trump’s past behavior with women, his attacks on the impartiality of a federal judge of Mexican heritage, his attacks on generals, intelligence agents and the FBI.
Kelly seemed to blame the Democrats for politicizing Gold Star families at their 2016 convention, by inviting to the stage Khizr and Ghazala Khan, Trump critics who lost their son Humayun in the Iraq war. It was Trump, however, who elevated the controversy by criticizing the Gold Star parents and suggesting that in business he had sacrificed too.
The president’s supporters, even when they disagree with him, often perceive Trump’s political opponents and the media as making too much of such controversies. They see Trump as simply responding to the attackers, rather than exacerbating the fight.
Kelly showed a streak of Trump’s combativeness. Rather than limit his comments to defending Trump and trying to insulate Gold Star families from politics, Kelly spent much of his appearance on harsh attacks against Wilson, whom he called “selfish” and an “empty barrel.”
On Friday, videos were released that contradicted Kelly’s condemnatory recollection of a 2015 speech by Wilson, in which he accused her of grandstanding during the dedication of an FBI facility in Miami named for fallen FBI agents.
Like Trump when confronted with the falsity of a claim, neither Kelly nor the White House on his behalf would back down.
“If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “I think that that's something highly inappropriate.”