Media Spent Months Lionizing General Who Defended Slaveholders' Revolt
According to corporate media, the top general who just complimented the commander of the slavery-defending Confederacy is the greatest hope to rein in President Donald Trump’s extremism.
Since retired Marine Corps four-star Gen. John Kelly was promoted to White House chief of staff in July, pundits have insisted that the former head of the Pentagon’s Southern Command is a positive, moderating influence on the far-right president.
Kelly swiftly dispelled such a notion in an October 30 interview with right-wing Fox News host Laura Ingraham. Kelly spoke highly of Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate army that fought to preserve chattel slavery during the Civil War.
“Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” Kelly insisted. “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.”
The White House chief of staff went on to rewrite the history of the Civil War, claiming it was caused not by slavery, but rather by “the lack of an ability to compromise.” Kelly added that “men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”
Historians angrily pushed back against Kelly’s historical revisionism. Columbia University professor Stephanie McCurry told the Washington Post (10/31/17) the chief of staff’s statement reflects “the Jim Crow version of the causes of the Civil War,” adding that “it tracks all of the major talking points of this pro-Confederate view of the Civil War.”
John Kelly’s comments came as a shock to corporate media. Yet many of these same news outlets have spent the past three months lionizing General Kelly and hoping that he would exercise more control over the president—effectively welcoming a gradual military takeover of the civilian government.
In fact, even in its report on Kelly’s Confederacy statement, the Washington Post (10/31/17) noted that he was “long seen as a force of order and discipline in the White House.”
This impression, crafted by conservative and liberal media outlets alike, began as soon as Kelly was promoted at the end of July.
International news agency Reuters (7/30/17) immediately published a wire story headlined “Republicans Call on New Trump Chief of Staff to Fix White House Chaos.”
The New Yorker (7/31/17) announced, “Anthony Scaramucci’s Ouster May Show That John Kelly Has the Rare Ability to Rein in Trump.” Author Ryan Lizza wrote:
Kelly seemed to be suggesting that he was one of the few people who might be able to tame Trump and get him to back off some of his most cartoonish policy ideas, even the ones that were core campaign promises. Kelly did not seem delusional.
HuffPost (7/31/17) challenged the idea that Kelly could rein in Trump, but not the notion that Kelly was himself a moderating agent: “John Kelly Is Supposed to End White House Chaos — But His Boss Is the Chief Chaos Agent.” It did
Even more effusively, a CNBC piece (8/4/17) explained “Why John Kelly’s Military Leadership Skills May Play a Critical Role in Trump’s Success.” In a borderline dystopian conflation of corporate and military authority, one article bullet point read, “Major multinational corporations, Wal-Mart as one example, have had CEOs who served in the military and applied military lessons to their company’s business.”
A mere week after his promotion, Bloomberg (8/6/17) reported that “Kelly has moved swiftly to bring order to a chaotic and unruly White House.” This article, which was republished by the Boston Globe(8/6/17) with the headline “New Chief of Staff Moves to Rein in White House Chaos — and Trump Tweets,” likewise approvingly noted that Kelly had supported National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, another of the former generals that Trump has surrounded himself with.
By September, CNN (9/20/17) approvingly reported, “Trump Remains Trump but Evidence of Kelly’s Reign Is Emerging.” The story highlight read, “Kelly’s efforts to rein in an unruly West Wing have started to show results, GOP sources say.”
In October, however, some media began to have second thoughts. The New York Times (10/25/17) conceded, “Pitched as Calming Force, John Kelly Instead Mirrors Boss’s Priorities.” Reporter Peter Baker wrote:
For all of the talk of Mr. Kelly as a moderating force and the so-called grown-up in the room, it turns out that he harbors strong feelings on patriotism, national security and immigration that mirror the hard-line views of his outspoken boss.
When John Kelly joined Trump in attacking a congresswoman, The Intercept‘s Jon Schwarz (10/21/17) pointed out, “It Didn’t Just Start Now: John Kelly Has Always Been a Hard-Right Bully.”
Even Bill Maher, the bellicose anti-Muslim HBO host whose program acts as a kind of manifesto for milquetoast neoliberalism, lamented that Kelly “was supposed to be the ‘Trumpminder,’ but now he acts like Trump” (Mediaite, 10/20/17).
The signs had been coming for some time. Far-right media kingpin and former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon spoke highly of Kelly (Washington Examiner, 9/10/17). But Bannon, the head of the white supremacist–collaborating “platform for the alt-right” Breitbart, added that the general was unlikely to rein in Trump.
To be clear, some journalists and writers did push back from the beginning. The day Kelly was promoted to chief of staff, the New York Times (7/28/17) published an op-ed warning “The Generals Can’t Save Us From Trump.” John Nichols of The Nation (7/28/17) also stressed that Kelly “is an outspoken and over-the-top Trump loyalist,” referring to him as “Donald Trump’s new enabler in chief.” And the Guardian (8/21/17) ran an opinion piece warning, “Before you start hoping the generals will deliver us from that guy in the White House, be careful what you wish for.”
But these were the exceptions, not the norm. In media, the general consensus was, well, leave it to the generals.
Corporate media have frequently lavished praise on Donald Trump when he is expanding US wars and bombing foreign countries, declaring that his warmongering suddenly makes him “presidential” (FAIR.org, 8/24/17).
Even many prominent figures in the anti-Trump self-declared Democratic “Resistance” have done the same, cheering on the far-right billionaire-in-chief when he is waging war, and praising the senior military officials he has appointed to the helm of the civilian government.
John Kelly’s remarks complimenting Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — a military leader who spilled blood in an attempt to save slavery — serve as a stark reminder that stacking the government with hard-line military officials is not a solution to Trump’s right-wing extremism. It is, in fact, a key part of the problem.