John Kelly, Robert E. Lee, and the incredibly dangerous fallacy of 'trusting the generals'

Trump Kelly Monuments
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly during a briefing at the White House.

Give John Kelly credit for this: The man knows how to change the subject! On Monday night, the former Marine general who now serves as President Trump’s chief of staff went on official state media the Fox News Channel on the most fraught day of his boss’ high-wire presidency  with news of criminal changes against three former Trump campaign aides and new evidence that Team Trump may have colluded with Russia in a scheme to illegally influence the 2016 election. But by the time Kelly was done exchanging words with the ever-delightful Laura Ingraham, the top White House aide had most of Twitter consulting Civil War history books instead of debating the nuances of the Trump-Russia scandal.

With the fate of monuments and statues honoring the leaders of the Confederate uprising in the news — indeed, according to Trump himself, a cornerstone of Republicans’ efforts to retake the governor’s mansion in Virginia next week — Kelly launched one of the most misguided assaults of his long and formerly praiseworthy public career, mangling the vital American history of slavery and the 1861-65 War Between the States in the process.

“I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” Kelly told Ingraham. “He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days.  Now it’s different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”

No.

There are two very important things to unpack here. The first is that this wrong-headed, fundamentally dishonest and arguably dangerous version of American history — coming from the top aide to the 45th president of the United States — cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged.

The Civil War was not the result of “a lack of an ability to compromise,” but because 11 American states were determined to fight — to the death, if necessary — to defend a way of life in which an oligarchy of plantation owners became wealthy by enslaving human beings based upon the color of their skin. This was confirmed in the infamous “Cornerstone Speech” delivered in March 1861 on the eve of the Civil War by the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, who declared, clear as a bell:

Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

The newish United States of America had — contrary to Kelly’s misinterpretation — already compromised again and again and again with this vile and most immoral non-truth of racism and human enslavement, in the 3/5ths clause of the Constitution, in the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, and in similar deals until the point when — after the nation elected a not especially radical opponent of slavery named Abraham Lincoln as president — Southerners finally decided to quit the Union and point their cannons north. There was no compromise left — and frankly there never should have been a compromise with slavery in the first place.

Robert E. Lee commanded an army that slaughtered tens of thousands of our ancestors up here in the North to defend the Confederacy’s cornerstone of white supremacy. That alone would make Lee not an honorable man — even if his troops hadn’t captured free blacks as far north as Pennsylvania and shipped them back into servitude, if Lee hadn’t routinely ruptured the families of the slaves that he personally owned, and even if he hadn’t ordered (and perhaps taken part in) the brutal, violent whipping of two of his slaves who escaped.

When Kelly and his boss Trump talk about the bogus “honor” of  Lee, when they claim that monuments to Lee and other Confederate heroes (a.k.a. insurgents who fought and slaughtered American citizens) are a vital part of our “heritage” and float the idea that a decent civilization could have somehow kept compromising with slave masters, they are endorsing an America ruled by white supremacy. Not the kind that wears a hood and burns crosses in the front yard, perhaps, but the kind that’s more pervasive, is more insidious, and has held sway throughout American history. Kelly’s comments on Ingraham’s show weren’t a “dog whistle” to Trump’s rabid supporters, but more like a loud, annoying Amber Alert of white nationalism buzzing in America’s pants.

Whatever good deeds Kelly may have done during his Marine career, he has not been the “force for stability” or “the adult in the room” or “the good guy” in the Trump White House. He is not a good guy, period, but a pit bull defender and simpatico ally of the most dangerous president in U.S. history. During his short stint as secretary of Homeland Security, Kelly was a serial human rights violator who “unleashed” the agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and Border Patrol, turning them into national goon squads that burst into schools and courtrooms, seeking the undocumented and that most recently “cracked down” on a 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy as she was rushed into surgery. Promoted to the critical job of Trump’s top deputy and gatekeeper, Kelly joined with his boss in lying about and slandering a black congresswoman who dared to criticize the president and question his version of events — part of a deeply troubling pattern in the Trump White House of publicly bullying critics who are not white and not male.

But there’s a second thing that’s even more deeply troubling in Kelly’s latest remarks. The retired general is saying, essentially, that you should respect Robert E. Lee — despite the awfulness of the actual cause Lee was fighting for — because you should respect the uniform, and the military ideal of unquestioning valor for “his state” that Lee represented. It’s no coincidence that the White House also claimed that it’s not appropriate to question Kelly because of his military background, when press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said “if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.”

That’s authoritarianism, and it’s increasingly the Trump way of running this country, whether it’s encouraging cops to rough up criminal suspects, or unleashing ICE and its questionable tactics, or bullying and attacking a free press. Trump — who’s made no secret of his desire to host a military parade of the type that once feted Soviet dictators in Red Square — had steadily amped his trust and willingness to hand control to a cadre of military and ex-military men that includes Kelly, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and his national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster. Trusting the generals — even when they spread falsehoods — is becoming the guiding principle of our current government.

And that comes as we’re entering a dangerous time for the future — indeed, the fate — of this country. Monday’s indictment of three Trump election aides, including onetime campaign manager Paul Manafort, with a guilty plea from a lower-level staffer who lied about an apparent collusion scheme with Russia, has enraged the president, who — with his top aides — is deflecting with half truths and lies about Hillary Clinton, Russia, and uranium. There remains the possibility that Trump will try to fire special counsel Robert Mueller or pardon his inner circle, as he successfully did with his ally Joe Arpaio,  which would trigger the biggest constitutional crisis since, well, 1861.

The values that Kelly tried to sell Monday night when he touted the virtues of Lee and the Lost Cause — blind respect for the military, unquestioning acceptance of authority, compromising moral principle to continue a world based on white supremacy — are the exact same values the White House is going to rally around to keep Trump’s regime in power during the rocky weeks ahead. America can survive only if we continue to question blind authority and those parts of our “heritage” that aren’t worth preserving. That’s why we can’t allow John Kelly to run roughshod over the truth — especially when he’s riding Robert E. Lee’s horse.

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