Trump’s New Apprentice
9 months ago Matthew Taylor
We are a new blog intelligently reporting and analyzing current events through a leftist lens. We are trying to combat the digital media trends of clickbait and unsubstantiated, misleading “news” with no substance. If you want to see more journalism like this, please like us on Facebook.
On January 9, Trump announced that his son-in-law Jared Kushner will join the White House administration as a senior advisor to the president. The Washington Post reports that he “is expected to have a broad portfolio that includes government operations, trade deals and Middle East policy,” despite having precisely the same amount of experience in politics as Trump: None.
Of course, trivialities like not knowing what you’re doing have never been a deterrent for anyone involved in Trump’s political movement. The man himself has already shown a predilection for making appointments based on perceived loyalties and warmth of personal relationships rather than any sort of expertise or specialized skills.
Kushner currently owns the New York Observer and is chief executive of Kushner Companies, which deals with real estate. He has done nothing particularly innovative or remarkable in either capacity. In fact, many people from both the publishing and real estate worlds have only scathing criticism to offer when asked about him.
So even though a look at Kushner’s life reveals that the only noteworthy achievement in his 36 years was the good sense to be born to a wealthy family, mediocrity is not a disqualifying factor for a role in this White House. After all, Trump himself is perhaps the strongest one-man rebuttal of the notion that success in the USA is meritocratic.
There’s nothing to suggest that either of these men would have accomplished anything if not for nepotism from the get-go…so why change things now?
Pundits and law experts are speculating about whether this appointment will violate federal anti-nepotism laws. There are plenty of arguments from top lawyers to wade through if you’re so inclined, but the general consensus seems to be that it’s likely permissible by the letter of the law. The White House is not an agency, so its staff is exempt from federal personnel laws.
But the fact that Trump’s lawyers can identify legal loopholes and caveats as justification isn’t reassuring to anyone questioning the ethical implications of the appointment. Plenty of people are rightfully concerned about a president’s relative serving in his administration.
Compounding the anxieties, the now-familiar issue of conflicts of interest is also relevant to Kushner’s executive role in Kushner Companies and his related assets. Questions about these conflicts were only amplified after a New York Times report on a recent meeting between Kushner and a Chinese finance executive, during which the two discussed the development of a Kushner Companies property located at 666 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. (The address seems almost too on the nose.)
These qualms aside, however, many liberals are disappointingly receptive to Kushner taking on the role of senior advisor. Norman Eiser, chief White House ethics lawyer under Obama, tried to allay concerns about nepotism by saying Kushner will be “one of the more reasonable voices” in the upcoming administration.
Even New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, with his reputation for being more of an outspoken progressive than most mainstream Democrats, surprised many by announcing that he was “pleased” with the Kushner appointment. A bit strange coming from a New York progressive, since Kushner was instrumental in persuading Trump to give the role of chief economic advisor to a president of Goldman Sachs.
De Blasio’s words provoked a backlash from tenants in some of Kushner’s residential Manhattan properties—many described him as “despicable” and “disgusting.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t all that out of character for Democrats, many of whom seem disconcertingly eager in recent months to lavish praise on anyone less unabashedly awful than Trump. Just look at the way some liberals got nostalgic for Mitt Romney while Trump was campaigning. Or Hillary Clinton’s tweets about past Republicans:
The week after 9/11, George W. Bush went to a mosque and declared for everyone to hear that Muslims 'love America just as much as I do.'
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) August 25, 2016
These were probably well-intentioned attempts to underscore the ways in which Trump is uniquely racist and xenophobic even by Republican standards, but they also inadvertently exposed the fact that centrist Democrats give too much credence to rhetoric alone. Bush’s statement on September 11, after all, doesn’t have much heft when counterposed with his war in Iraq.
It’s easy to get caught up in Trump’s brazen rhetoric, but polite language has been used to justify countless decisions that jeopardize the very communities and people Trump most often speaks against. The performative aspect of politics is seductive and potent, but performance and charisma often function to obscure the horrific agendas and actions of powerful people who are more inclined toward subtlety than Trump is.
And speaking of subtlety, that is really the only major factor that sets Kushner apart from Trump. In Kushner, it manifests as the tendency to be quiet and unassuming.
Tablet Magazine describes Kushner’s guarded public persona, his “reluctance to delve beneath the surface” as a characteristic noted by most journalists who have tried to profile him. Descriptions range from “soft-spoken and restrained” to “notoriously private.” In this sense, he could hardly be more different from Trump.
But when you look past self-presentation (or performance), this father and son in-law are very much the same. It’s not as though there is a whole lot of depth beneath Kushner’s elusiveness; his worldview and modus operandi are strikingly similar to Trump’s.
And it tells us a lot about our next president that this is the relative he chose to be part of his administration, particularly in an advisory role. Ideally, an advisor should compensate for a leader’s weaknesses or oversights. (Given that Trump’s only real demonstrable talent is media manipulation, it is difficult to imagine an advisor fully up to the task.) But Kushner doesn’t have much to offer in that respect; he shares most of the traits that make Trump so despicable and unfit to be a leader.
As Jon Schwarz writes at The Intercept, “Kushner seems to be a Trump Mini-Me — like his father-in-law born to real estate wealth and not particularly talented at anything, but with a family taste for power and personal vengeance.”
Given Trump’s ego and his similarities to Kushner, it seems entirely plausible that he’s keeping his son-in-law close more as protégé than advisor. At the very least, as a ‘yes man’ who will interject only to temper down the most outrageous of Trump’s impulses.
But still…why Kushner, rather than one of Trump’s own children?
Of course we can only speculate, but there is (unsurprising) evidence to suggest that Donald Trump wasn’t a particularly pleasant or nurturing father. Ivanka, Kushner’s wife, is his obvious favorite child. Yet according to a New Yorker profile, even she discovered in her youth that “to get that on his parental radar…you had to go to him.” And even then, as a family friend of the Trumps said, “It’s a close family in many ways—except it’s all about Donald all the time. Donald only thinks of himself. When you say, ‘Donald, it’s raining today,’ he says, ‘It doesn’t matter, I’m indoors.’ ”
Then there are claims that his relationship with Donald Trump Jr. has been outright abusive in the past. Days before the election, a man who attended the University of Pennsylvania with Donald Jr. posted on Facebook, describing an incident where Trump hit his son in front of classmates during their freshman year of college. The man also claimed that Donald Jr. had an alcohol abuse problem likely related to his troubled and even hateful relationship with his father:
“I was hanging out in a freshman dorm with some friends, next door to Donald Jr.’s room. I walked out of the room to find Donald Trump at his son’s door, there to pick him up for a baseball game. There were quite a few students standing around watching, trying to catch a glimpse of the famed real estate magnate. Don Jr. opened the door, wearing a Yankee jersey. Without saying a word, his father slapped him across the face, knocking him to the floor in front of all of his classmates. He simply said “put on a suit and meet me outside,” and closed the door.”
“Donald Jr. was a drunk in college. Every memory I have of him is of him stumbling around campus falling over or passing out in public, with his arm in a sling from injuring himself while drinking. He absolutely despised his father, and hated the attention that his last name afforded him. His nickname was “Diaper Don,” because of his tendency to fall asleep drunk in other people’s beds and urinate. I always felt terrible for him.”
Kushner is a young man in the Trump family, but in contrast with the actual sons, he doesn’t come with the burden of a lifetime of accumulated resentments. He is likely to reinforce Trump’s beliefs, telling him what he wants to hear and challenging him rarely.
And that’s precisely the kind of person Trump likes to be around. The fact that Kushner is a young relative who Trump can mentor surely adds to the appeal. Last summer, the New York Times described Kushner as a “de facto campaign manager” for Trump. Perhaps now his role will be de facto son.
Michael Gross, a writer well-acquainted with the Trump family, said, “[Kushner is] just like Trump in a way. He had this ambition to cross the river and make a mark. And yet he remained, and remains, something of a cipher. Obviously, the question is: Is there a there there?”
From the beginning, money from Kushner’s daddy—real estate baron Charles Kushner—has paved the way. Kushner’s father ‘donated’ $2.5 million to Harvard right around the same time that his son was admitted.
A defender of our wealthy overlords might argue that perhaps young Kushner’s admission to Harvard was a matter completely unrelated to his father’s selfless act of philanthropy. But a former official at Kushner’s high school suggested otherwise:
“There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard. His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not.”
All of this is, of course, reminiscent of the oft-referenced “small loan of a million dollars” that Trump got from his own father. The main difference is the accessibility of the facts; a ProPublica editor struggled to access information about the quiet Kushner/Harvard bribe, while mainstream news stations blared opinions and ‘hot takes’ on the Trump loan. Two expressions of the same story: young mediocrities getting ahead thanks to their fathers.
Kushner’s academic dullness wouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has paid attention to the New York Observer in the years since Kushner bought it. (Two former writers for the Observer give their insights about the paper’s struggles with Kushner at Tablet and Slate.)
In the past decade, he managed to turn the paper into a disreputable tabloid, at its worst even functioning as overt propaganda for the Trump campaign. Despite not reading the paper (“I don’t really think I’m your target audience,” he once admitted to the staff), Kushner still pressured writers to soften the edges around its signature snarky style, aiming instead for something much more “anodyne,” as a former writer put it. He even went so far as to censor stories that might offend his powerful friends and acquaintances.
By all accounts, he didn’t ever appreciate the Observer‘s editorial style. Years after buying it, he told an interviewer that he initially “found the paper unbearable to read. It was like homework.” But his interventions made for an inferior paper. As one editor said:
“Jared didn’t understand what made the Observer valuable. With the reconfiguration, it was almost like we had to have two things going on: communicate to the sophisticated audience that loved it, but also communicate to Jared in a form he could understand.”
As someone who has struggled to work in the editorial world with bosses who understand nothing beyond marketing and business development, I’m quite familiar with these frustrations. And that’s why I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Kushner is “an unenthusiastic reader, with little use for newspapers, let alone books.”
Yet another trait he shares with Trump, who boasts that he never reads books because he is too busy. In fact, he is skeptical of people who study or read rather than making decisions the way he does: “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”
And he is quite confident in his own uninformed instinct; by his own estimation, he’s quite brilliant. He even has the unverifiable testimonials to back it up: “A lot of people said, ‘Man, he was more accurate than guys who have studied it all the time.’ ”
This lack of curiosity about the world and aversion to seeking out new perspectives is common among charlatan businessmen and the lazy, unskilled wealthy class. But people who are supposed to lead and govern should perhaps be inclined to cultivate an understanding of the world beyond their self-indulgent, egomaniacal fantasies.
These two men are oblivious even of elementary facts about the United States government. When Trump’s transition team first visited the White House, Kushner asked how many of the current staff would remain when Trump takes power. Clearly he was too preoccupied with petty revenge plots against Chris Christie to familiarize himself with some of the rudimentary goings-on of a presidential transition.
It’s one of many indictments of Trump that he chose Kushner as an advisor rather than someone with demonstrable knowledge and experience (though let’s be honest, any experienced person Trump might like would have been awful too). And it is also an indictment of anyone who would call themselves ‘progressive’ to say that there’s cause to be optimistic about Kushner.
There is no reason to be hopeful about Kushner’s role in the White House just because he gives off the appearance of being more level-headed than his father-in-law. He is a vindictive, petty, mediocre man whose status is attributable completely to his father’s wealth. To argue otherwise is to be persuaded by performance and by differences that are purely cosmetic.
We are a new blog intelligently reporting and analyzing current events through a leftist lens. We are trying to combat the digital media trends of clickbait and fake, misleading “news” with no substance. If you want to see more journalism like this, please like us on Facebook.