John Kelly Is No-Nonsense. Can He Run an All-Nonsense White House?

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Will the former Marine general go into culture shock after exposure to the Trump White House? Photo: Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images

When word arrived that Donald Trump had hired DHS Secretary (and retired Marine General) John Kelly to be his White House chief of staff (suggesting by implication that Reince Priebus has hit the bricks), the first thought many had was of the welcome discipline a career military man might bring to his new surroundings. Indeed, that was his new boss’s hope, according to the Washington Post:

One outside Trump adviser said that the president is drawn to the discipline that Kelly and his other advisers who are former military officers bring to their roles.

But perhaps the more pertinent question is how Kelly comes to grips with the indiscipline of the Trump White House, where an aversion to decorum and norms of presidential behavior most definitely starts at the top.

Marines thrive on clear assignments and fixed objectives. Trump changes direction without warning every other day and oscillates constantly between his various obsessions.

Marines are no-nonsense. The Trump White House is all-nonsense.

By most accounts, the president actually enjoys a fractious atmosphere of competing power centers, extreme insecurity, and the occasional stab-in-the-back (so long as the back is not his own). Perhaps a military man can help stop leaks and keep people more or less focused on the jobs they are actually supposed to be doing. But the idea of this president’s White House operating like a strictly hierarchical, interdependent unit goes against everything we know about the commander-in-chief and his preferred environment.

It has been often noted that Trump likes to surround himself with ex-generals, though it is unclear whether that signifies respect for the uniform, a taste for violent people, or incipient caudillo tendencies. In Kelly’s case, the president pretty clearly feels a bond with him because they share a strong interest in border security, which remains the administration’s signature preoccupation. But there’s a great psychological distance separating 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from a federal cabinet agency, and it’s probably easier to deal with Trump from afar. It is not at all the same as having the rapport a president and chief of staff need.

In some respects, hiring Kelly to run — if that is not too strong a word — this White House is like bringing in a button-down corporate CEO to head up a motorcycle gang. Whatever his issues, Reince Priebus had spent years tugging the forelock of the many fools and knaves he had to ask for marching orders, money, and personal patronage. The military has its own culture of ass-kissing, careerism, and coattail-riding, but it’s mostly logical and barnacled with tradition. My fear for General Kelly is that he will spend two weeks in the Trump White House and go into profound culture shock. The place resembles a battle-ready military formation about as much as Anthony Scaramucci resembles a communications director.

Can a No-Nonsense Marine Run An All-Nonsense White House?