Jared Kushner, Quiet American
On Politics and Optics
On June 19th, Jared Kushner made his first public statement since taking the position of Donald Trump’s senior advisor. The remarks themselves, while strangely ignorant, were unexceptional. Rather, it was the revelation of Kushner’s voice, adenoidal, unexpectedly puerile, that gave rise to such media headlines as Jezebel’s “BREAKING: This Is How Jared Kushner’s Voice Sounds.” Though he holds a pivotal position within the administration and has been the subject of substantial attention over the last several months, it seems that few beyond his circle and the world of New York City real estate had ever heard him speak.
And yet, despite his silence, or more likely because of it, Kushner was initially invested with enormous public confidence. In March of last year, Vanity Fair referred to Kushner as “The Anti-Trump Trump” and speculated that “maybe some of Kushner’s impeccable manners will rub off on [Donald Trump].” Immediately following the election, Jonathan Mahler and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times guardedly praised Kushner’s “steadying hand” and Annie Karni of Politico similarly framed Kushner as “a moderate voice in Trump’s circle.” MSNBC’s Willie Geist called him “a smart and reasonable guy.” Even New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said of Kushner, “compared to many other people who’ve been named to other positions, I find him to be a lot more reasonable and a lot more moderate.” Though belief in his political centrism and capacity to palliate Trump is now surely gone, the willingness to project onto Kushner a temperance that he did little to earn and does not seem to possess speaks to a troubling tendency of the public — to equate the appearance of moderation with moderation itself.
Of course, as recent revelations show, Kushner is far from innocuous. On March 23, The New York Times Magazine published an investigation of the Kushner company’s neglectful and draconian management of a slew of “distress-ridden, Class B” apartments across various cities. As the article reported, Kushner has made a habit of suing his low-income tenants, often on specious charges. While it has been known for some time that Kushner failed to disclose several meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak and Sergey Gorkov, CEO of Vnesheconombank, The Washington Post recently reported that these meetings have fallen under the FBI probe. On May 26, The Washington Post also broke the story that Kushner had proposed the creation of a secret line of communication with Russia during a meeting in December with Kislyak, a proposal that purportedly dismayed the ambassador. Responding to the news, former acting CIA director John McLaughlan stated, “if an American intelligence officer had done anything like this, we’d consider it espionage.”
With the accumulation of these disclosures, the image of an inoffensive, centrist bureaucrat has faded. Instead, Kushner now cuts a figure strikingly like that of another reserved Harvard man, Graham Greene’s mannerly spy, Alden Pyle, from the 1955 novel The Quiet American. Like Kushner, Pyle is a well-bred, East Coast scion who finds himself immersed in circumstances far exceeding his capabilities. Like Kushner, he also sports a disarmingly retiring façade that hides what former CIA director General Michael Hayden called “ignorance, chaos, hubris, suspicion.”
The setting of The Quiet American is French Indochina in the early 1950s, where Pyle has come as a CIA operative to support the fight against the Viet Minh. As Greene describes Pyle’s East Coast posture, “He belonged to the skyscraper and the express elevator, the ice-cream and the dry Martinis.” In Saigon, Pyle meets his antithesis, the weathered and cynical British journalist Thomas Fowler. Together the men vie for the affections of Fowler’s lover, Phuong, and wrangle over politics. Entirely lacking in local expertise, Pyle foolishly throws in his lot with General Thé, a rogue combatant not above using terrorist tactics. Aiding Thé, Pyle orchestrates a bombing that goes catastrophically awry, killing dozens of civilians. In the aftermath, Pyle refuses to acknowledge that his ignorance and intemperance have had catastrophic results. As writer Pico Iyer notes of the novel, “It points out that innocence and idealism can claim as many lives as the opposite, fearful cynicism.”
A political neophyte tapped to take on such enormous political challenges as brokering peace in the Middle East and ending the opioid epidemic, Kushner, like Pyle, has demonstrated an astonishing capacity to betray decency, as well as his own values, in the defense of an autocrat. Despite prior support of Hillary Clinton and Obama in 2008, Kushner has expressed a seemingly inexhaustible willingness to defend his father-in-law. This is perhaps best on display in Kushner’s Observer op-ed from July of 2016, in which he declares, “My father-in-law is not an anti-Semite. It’s that simple, really. Donald Trump is not anti-Semitic and he’s not a racist.” As Trump’s advisor, Kushner also supported Trump’s decision to carry out the disastrous raid in Yemen as well as Trump’s Muslim ban and the firing of FBI director James Comey.
Kushner additionally reproduces Pyle’s tendency to tread into moral and legal grey areas. He was intimately responsible for securing the recent $100 billion Saudi arms deal, a deal that, as Mother Jones reported, may have broken international law. His recklessness was, of course, also on display in his alleged proposal to Kislyak in early December regarding the secret communication line, a proposal that increasingly raises concerns of treason. More recently, as details have emerged regarding the extent of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, critics have raised concerns that the campaign’s data operation, which Kushner ran in Texas, may have been a site of Russian collusion. As Kate Brannon asked in Newsweek, “What role did far right U.S. news organizations play? Did they knowingly take ‘any actions to assist Russia’s operatives’?” Conservative author Max Boot speculated further on a recent MSNBC appearance: “CNN reported that the Russians orchestrated a massive propaganda and advertising campaign on Facebook to try to help Donald Trump get elected. Well, who was the head of data analytics for the Trump campaign? Yes, that would be Jared Kushner.”
My point in pursuing this comparison is to suggest that the initial assumptions of Kushner’s centrism are evidence that we’ve failed to absorb Greene’s warning. Pyle is charming a dilettante whose capacity for destruction is occluded beneath a winning façade. Kushner, likewise, was afforded a degree of trust on little more than his demeanor and pedigree. He went on to support many of Trump’s most destructive and foolhardy decisions and, if the allegations are to be believed, he illegally colluded with Russia on his father-in-law’s behalf. While Kushner had experience in the business world, the goodwill invested in him was almost certainly not for his résumé but for the perception of his temperament. During and after the campaign, Kushner, along with his wife Ivanka, became a place for those fearful of a Trump Presidency to project hopes for moderation. The public may now be disabused of his innocence, but what Kushner represents, the public’s willingness to put undue faith in appearances, is certainly not going away.
George W. Bush effectively expressed such a sentiment in 2001 when he said of Vladimir Putin, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.” How, Bush seemed to ask, could such an ordinary looking person be anything but reasonable? A similar sensibility seems to inform the media’s strange fascination with attractive bigots. In recent years, numerous features have fawned over the “young, educated, and glamorous” Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, granddaughter of Front national leader Jean-Marie Le-Pen, while also critiquing her racism. It isn’t hard to imagine that this is also what accounts for the sustained interest in Richard Spencer, a genuinely uninteresting and unremarkable white supremacist who has been controversially referred to as “dapper” and “young and articulate and handsome.” Such fascination, it would appear, lies in the refusal to accept that monsters can be handsome.
Because he was a clean-cut, attractive young man with a beautiful family who didn’t shout, or indeed speak at all, the public was extraordinarily willing to regard Kushner as a potential conservator. And yet, observers should have, and could have, known better. Indications of Kushner’s malice were available long before the election. It was long known, for instance, that Kushner was an abominable landlord with little regard for the safety or well-being of his tenants. Regarding a lawsuit over the squalid conditions at 101 MacDougal St., owned by Kushner, the New York Post colorfully referred to the building as “a sewage-spewing powder keg waiting to explode.” It was also evident that Kushner used the New York Observer to bolster and defend Trump and to target Trump’s enemies like New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Senator Marco Rubio. A blog post published in the summer of 2016 by Elizabeth Spires, a former editor at the Observer, also revealed that Kushner had led an ultimately failed crusade to bury Richard Mack, a real estate developer who held some of Kushner’s debt. While none of these elements are terribly unusual and indeed pale in comparison to what Kushner has alleged to have done subsequently, they do demonstrate that Kushner’s legacy of intemperance stretches back well before the 2016 election and was apparent to anyone willing to look.
At the conclusion of The Quiet American, Pyle refuses to break with General Thé, a position that cements Fowler’s decision to abet his murder. As Green writes of Pyle, “He was impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.” When I read this, I’m reminded of the photograph of Jared Kushner’s April visit to Iraq. Surrounded by armed and uniformed soldiers, Kushner, in fashionable sunglasses and khakis, could be on his way to a regatta if not for the flak jacket strapped over his blazer. Armored by the vastness of his unknowing, he seems to nod his head, mouth closed.