USA

Does Jared Kushner Matter?

The president is said to be giving his son-in-law the stiff arm. But the rot in Trump’s campaign has spread far further than that.

Senior White House Adviser and the son-in-law of President Donald Trump Jared Kushner. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It’s been a long time coming.

“The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over,” Steve Bannon told the Weekly Standard, almost three years ago—after his August 2017 ouster from the White House. “We will make something of this Trump presidency. But that presidency is over. It’ll be something else.”

Indeed, it has been. President Trump has avoided the truly calamitous: he was never shown to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s puppet (though liberal America dabbles still in fan fiction), he was never removed from office (though he suffered the third presidential impeachment in history) and unlike his five most recent predecessors, he never moved the United States into a fresh war (though in Iran, he got recklessly close). Trump has pontificated like a populist but has declined to govern like one. “I don’t think he’s capable,” Fox host Tucker Carlsonsaid in 2018, in comments that largely evaded attention. “I don’t think he’s capable of sustained focus. I don’t think he understands the system.” 

Indeed, Trump’s signature achievements have been retro and Reaganite: a tax cut and the appointment of Supreme Court justices (who nonetheless have failed to shift the balance of power in the culture war). Trump attempted a Ryanite healthcare reform he plainly didn’t believe in, telling the Australian prime minister at the time that his country has a better system (the Aussies have socialized, not privatized medicine). The president’s re-orientation of America toward great power competition with its only real rival—the fascists in Beijing—I believe in the long run will, at worst, rescue Trump from the cellar of presidential reputations. But if he fails to run on that—as all early evidence suggests he will—he risks the dark. 

More than anything, Trump’s term has been a far cry from the transpartian optimism espoused by some in the days following the 2016 election. That’s never been more clear now that the world—amidst a pandemic, a new depression and American-exported racial unease—has spun off its axis. “The conservatives are going to go crazy,” Bannon, in a sign of things to come, told Michael Wolfe of the Hollywood Reporter in the days after the 2016 election. “I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, ironworks, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution.” 

Bannon predicted to Wolfe: “We’ll get 60 percent of the white vote, and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote and we’ll govern for 50 years.” But without Bannon (though there are rumblings of reunion), Trump now attempts re-election. It’s clear any incumbent who failed to live up to his potential would struggle, or at the very least, to live up to the outsider energy that delivered him to power. And first term underperformance was also a hallmark of the last three presidents and they all managed to keep the White House. But the distinction between Mr. Trump and his predecessors—to say nothing of the condition of the country—is that the architect of his current troubles is still at the helm heading into a referendum on the whole term.

Jared Kushner—the president’s son-in-law and apparent closest consigliere—has a different vision for Trump’s presidency than almost anyone who voted for him. In an interview in 2019 with Axios’ Jonathan Swan, the senior counselor to the president ducked inquiries on birtherism and banning Muslim entry to the United States, once trademark causes for Donald Trump. “I wasn’t really involved,” Kushner told Swan. While Kushner’s dodge may seem reasonable — the “Muslim ban” and the questioning of Barack Obama’s birth certificate among the most imprudent and ugly facets of Trump’s rise — it comes as part of a worldview with no record of delivering Trump power. That’s fairly relevant as his boss and father-in-law putatively seeks another four years in office. 

But Kushner’s agenda has not been what a figure like Bannon’s would have been. The divorce, in retrospect, was probably inevitable, but on the campaign trail in 2016—with a unifying enemy like Hillary Clinton—the duo worked hand in glove. But in power, an emphasis on immigration, hardline trade practices, infrastructure investment and possibly even foreign policy restraint has been exchanged for criminal justice reform (and a fairly ham-handed entreaty to black America), tax reform, and seeming carte blanche to the Israeli right wing (with planned annexation in the West Bank so extreme even Republicans are nervous). The problem for Trump is it’s likely an agenda more popular on the Upper East Side (if only the Republican brand weren’t toxic) than in the Upper Midwest that made Trump president. 

This isn’t to say that Kushner doesn’t know what he’s doing. By most credible accounts, Washington’s most powerful figure under forty is as wily as they come. When it came to the Russia investigation, Paul Wood in the Spectatordescribes a man with ice in his veins—Kushner was “preternaturally, weirdly calm, completely and utterly unperturbed.” Some immigration hardliners in the administration report that Kushner has been most accommodating of their agenda (as the survival of the controversial Stephen Miller attests). But, at its core, Kushner’s leadership has demonstrated his comfort with victory only on certain terms; from urging an ill-advised trade cave to China to conceding authority to Iran hawks in the president’s midst, Kushner’s record is that of the finance-oriented Democrat that he was before his family was thrust into power.

Swan now reports that Kushner—Trump’s de facto campaign chief—has been benched. Also reportedly cut down to size is Kushner’s lackey Brad Parscale, the official campaign manager. It’s worth noting that neither have been fired. But with four months to go until voting, any reasonable observer can ask if any of this matters. Does Trump have the “focus” to capitalize on the dynamics in the country that gifted him the 2016 election? Some are beginning to conclude “no.” Billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who backed the president last go around, is said to be keeping his powder dry. It hasn’t helped that Trump continues to make politically perplexing choices, such as knifing Thiel-favorite Senate candidate Kris Kobach in Kansas, and wastefully engaging in a petty crusade against his former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, in Alabama. And the renewed clamor for Carlson to eventually succeed Trump in the Republican Party speaks to an energy that has already forsaken 2020. 

If Trump does go down, indeed, go down in November, populists of innumerable political persuasions—remember, the Slovenian Stalinist Slavoj Zizek once endorsed Trump (he’s a Biden backer now)—may pathetically complain that true “Trumpism” has never been tried. But they’d be right. 

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