President Trump’s turn toward a general who radiates a calm sense of command signals he is truly distressed. North Korea’s missile tests, massive legislative failures and record-low poll numbers would rattle anyone, but must surely be worse for a man whose constant claims to confidence and success suggest that he is, in fact, deeply conflicted about his own competence.
In addition, for a man who prizes loyalty and surrounds himself with family instead of those with policy expertise, Donald Trump’s elevation of John Kelly to a position in which Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner will report to him instead of directly to the President further speaks to a sense of inner panic. A respected Marine Corps general, Kelly is expected to bring order to a White House that is perhaps the most chaotic and dysfunctional in history but is so burdened by infighting and intrigue that officials generally avoid uttering obvious truths, except when they leak to reporters.
Given his limited public persona, on the other hand — which consists of little more than brags, insults and crude observations — Donald Trump’s true moods and motives can be difficult to discern. Trump can seem like a human sound system with the volume set so high every note just sounds like noise.
With so much dissonance, one bizarre week in the Trump presidency can blend into another and eventually they all seem the same. They are not. Last week stands apart: sexual innuendo in a speech to Boy Scouts, urging police to rough up suspects, suddenly barring military service for transgender Americans, revolving-door turmoil in the West Wing. It all points to a President/performer who knows he is losing his audience and can’t figure out how to give them what they want.
When pressed to the edge of panic, Trump will modify his behavior. In the 1990s, for example, he became a quieter, less braggadocious Trump when his casinos went bankrupt and his airline business failed. The first sign that Trump was in panic mode last week came as he brought Anthony Scaramucci onto the stage, naming him White House communications chief. In Italian theater, a scaramuccia is a menacing court jester who inevitably falls from grace and Trump’s jester fit the archetype perfectly, ousting Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus before — in a stunning bit of political theater, “The Mooch” and his profane, on-the-record tirade became a bigger laughingstock than the men at whom he had aimed his blade.
Spicer and Priebus were easy prey because the dramatist (read President) had introduced them to us as characters who would inevitably be killed off.
As Priebus and Spicer were humiliated and driven away, you could almost hear the snickers in the audience. The dismissal of the preening Scaramucci, on the other hand, came with the power of a lightning strike. Then, as the smoke cleared, the world could see the figure of John Kelly, the new chief of staff. The President’s affection for military men was noted during the 2016 campaign, when he talked about Gen. George “Blood and Guts” Patton as if he were a perfect hero and not the troublesome brute whom Eisenhower called a “problem child.” However, the President’s fascination with strong military men goes back much further and is far more primal.
As an unruly boy, Trump was suddenly sent away by his father to attend a military school renowned for its harsh discipline. (As he told me, it was the kind of place where the grown men in uniforms “smacked you around.”) At the academy, Trump adopted a barking World War II veteran named Theodore Dobias as a substitute father. As Dobias once recalled for me, Trump was “the most manipulative” boy he ever encountered and through his wheedling and pleasing, got everything he wanted. Before he was finished, Trump was marching down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, sun glistening off the brass of his uniform, at the head of the corps marching in the Columbus Day parade.
Although young Trump escaped serving through a series of academic and medical deferments, the President was so enamored of the military style that 50 years later, he would speak lovingly to me of Brasso polish and spit-shined shoes. As Kelly takes charge, he doesn’t need to show up in a uniform bedecked with medals to keep the President’s admiration and support. As Trump accepted Kelly’s demand that his buddy Scaramucci be dismissed, he demonstrated he is willing to give the general what he wants, including respect — and, perhaps the obedience of his own children, in exchange for his leadership.
As he sets to work, Kelly for his part will undoubtedly seek to end the deception and bumbling that have characterized the White House under a President whose impulse is to deny and distort whatever facts displease him. Kelly no doubt considers this work an act of public service for a country which, under President Trump, is fast losing credibility around the world.
His biggest challenge resides in the fact that most of the turmoil can be traced to a President who is, himself, undisciplined. The good news is that Trump has allowed himself to be controlled by military men in the past. However, any hope in this history must be tempered with the fact that the panicking President does not wear integrity well and can be expected to revert to chaos as soon as he feels comfortable again.