From Steve Bannon to Jeff Sessions to Michael Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump’s official advisers and would-be Cabinet appointees have justifiably raised alarms across the political spectrum. But the most powerful — and perhaps the most dangerous — figure in Trump’s orbit will probably not have a title and almost certainly never cash a federal paycheck. He wouldn’t need them anyway: Jared Kushner is independently wealthy — and Ivanka Trump’s husband won't have to run for anything in order to influence the national agenda. He just needs to pick up the phone.
Trump’s personality veers between blustery buffoonishness and desperate, barely concealed neediness. His thirst for approval has shown up in his post-election “pivots” regarding Obama (“I really enjoyed him a lot”), Hillary Clinton (“I don't want to hurt the Clintons, I really don't”), and the New York Times (“A great, great American jewel”). He is a giant emotional toddler, such easy prey to flattery and cajoling that even his own staff has joked that, when it comes to policy, “he echoes the last person with whom he spoke.” Kushner is in a position to be that person every fucking night.
Solving the mystery of why and how Kushner came to be Trump’s favored confidante and consigliere — more prominent even than Trump’s own flesh and blood — would require a necessarily messy detour into the psyches of both men. Some have posited that they share a deep-seated insecurity about their position in the world, having been born into wealth yet wanting a level of respect that money can’t buy. (Though they have certainly tried to buy it.) Both went about proving their worth by making a name for themselves in real estate, albeit in the shadow of fathers who made their fortunes with far lesser means. They both seem largely driven by revenge — Trump’s whole campaign was a rebuke to Obama, and Kushner's long game appears to have ended in disposing the Trump transition team of Chris Christie, the man who sent his father to jail for illegal campaign donations and witness tampering.
Presumably, Kushner also thinks Ivanka is hot.
They have made pains to demonstrate their differences. Kushner, notes a recent Forbes profile, is “controlled, understated, and calm ... Trump's office is wall-to-wall Donald [whereas] the headquarters of the Kushner companies is sparse and sober.” But these contrasts are largely superficial. The one truly deep distinction seems to be that Kushner is an Orthodox Jew, whereas Trump is a nominal Presbyterian and a functional atheist.
During the campaign, Trump surrogates made good use of that fact, brandishing Kushner’s religion to ward off allegations that the campaign had been sullied by the anti-Semitism of its far right supporters. The appointment of alt-right avatar Bannon — and the puerile glee the neo-Nazis have taken in Trump's election — has reinvigorated those charges, and Kushner has once again offered himself as a character witness for both Bannon and Trump.
Kushner has bristled at the charge that Bannon is the leader of a white nationalist faction. “He's an incredible Zionist” and, he told Forbes, “What I’ve seen from working together with him was somebody who did not fit the description that people are pushing on him. I choose to judge him based on my experience and seeing the job he’s done, as opposed to what other people are saying about him.”
When called upon to defend his father-in-law, Kushner offers a similar argument but uses a bizarre hypothetical: “If I know somebody and everyone else says that this person’s a terrible person ... I’m not going to start thinking that this person’s a terrible person or disassociating myself, when my empirical data and experience is a lot more informed than many of the people casting these judgments. What would that say about me if I changed my view based on what other people think, as opposed to the facts that I actually know for myself?”
The fragility of his logic makes me worry for the country, and makes me somewhat concerned about when his children become teenagers — it's the benevolent myopia of the easily snowed, and the words of a man more concerned with his own self-image than, you know, the facts at hand. Because the problem with waving away “what other people think” is that such testimony isn’t always hearsay or gossip, it's often another form of “empirical data.” For one thing, sometimes the contrary evidence comes from the subject himself. It was Bannon who claimed allegiance with the alt-right, after all.
There is even more value in listening to the experience of others, especially those whose lives and opinions are different from our own. Understanding their perspective is how we learn to see what has been in front of our faces all along, but have grown blind to or ignored because, well, it's easier that way. And as for the distance between Trump’s stated goals and xenophobic utterances and whoever it is that Kushner sits across from the dinner table at night, well, which one is going to show up for work?
Kushner’s insistence on taking into account only the behavior that he’s personally observed may be based in reality but it’s useless as a measure of character. Character, the saying goes, is how you behave when no one is looking, which is another way of saying character is what is constant about us. We know a person’s character by how much we change it according to who we’re with. If character were measured only by how we behave in front of our in-laws, heaven would be full and hell would be Thanksgiving — to the extent they aren’t already one and the same.
Kushner’s incuriosity about and blind loyalty to Trump are exactly the qualities that endear him to the president-elect and are exactly what make him so dangerous to the rest of us. One can and should be frightened of Bannon’s ambitious bigotry and Sessions’s hostile xenophobia and even Reince Priebus’s mealy establishmentarianism — but these are philosophies that can be identified, attitudes that Trump can choose to adopt or push back on. He can define himself against them or by them. Kushner, on the other hand, has no clear fixed principles or concrete beliefs. He has not said much about why he thought his father-in-law should be president; according to Forbes, he went “all-in” after one “raucous” rally in Springfield, Illinois, where he observed, “People really saw hope in his message.”
You might assume there was something especially profound about what Trump said back in Springfield. The rally was almost exactly a year ago and Trump did give that speech an unusual spin: He called for a Starbucks boycott — damn those secular humanist seasonal cups! — and promised, “If I become president, we're all going to be saying Merry Christmas again.”
So it seems unlikely that Kushner found himself swept away by Trump's vision; rather, I suspect Kushner heard the roar of the crowd. Like many Trump supporters, he bought into the idea of a Trump movement, not any particular Trump message. And while this might seem like good news — No wall! No deportation force! — don't forget that a cult of personality is far more detrimental to democracy than any single ideology. Ideologies are constrained by a shared understanding among supporters; a personality cult is constrained only by the leader's imagination.
Such dazzled enthrallment makes Kushner not an adviser so much as a mirror — one that reflects back at Trump only what Trump wants to see. Kushner's closeness to Trump makes them an inner circle of two — something even darker and more claustrophobic than an echo chamber, an airless embrace with no room for doubt. Even the best intentions spoil in such an environment; imagine what someone with bad intentions could do.