Working in government is about trusting the system, and trusting those who have been around and understand the craft. But the essence of clannishness is to build a barrier between family — inside the zone of trust — and others, outside that zone.
Jared Kushner deserves a bit of sympathy. All his life he’s been serving his father or father-in-law. All his career he’s been thrust into roles he’s not ready for. His background has ill prepared him for national government. Now he is in a realm where his instincts seem to lead him astray and where there’s a chance he will end up in disgrace and possibly under indictment.
The Kushner family drama begins in the Holocaust. In 1941, Rae Kushner was living in Belarus and was among the teenage girls selected to clean blood from the cobblestones after one of the Nazi mass executions. Rae and other family members tunneled out from the ghetto and joined an armed resistance camp. After the war they eventually made it to New Jersey, where her husband set up a successful construction business that flourished under their son.
So far this is an inspiring story of family struggle and immigrant hustle. But as riches rained down on the family, so did betrayal. The feud between Jared’s father and uncle was over grabbing family money, and from the various accounts it’s hard to tell who betrayed the family most.
We do know that Jared’s father, Charles, hired a prostitute to have sex with his brother-in-law so he could send a tape of the act to his sister, and ended up pleading guilty to 18 felony counts.
“I believe that God and my parents in heaven forgive me for what I did, which was wrong,” Charles once told an interviewer, according to Politico. “I don’t believe God and my parents will ever forgive my brother and sister for instigating a criminal investigation and being cheerleaders for the government and putting their brother in jail because of jealousy, hatred and spite.”
Jared’s brother was very young while all this happened and has since gone on to a fantastically successful independent career. But Jared interrupted his studies to take over the family business. He lived out his family-first devotion, his loyalty to kith and kin.
He may have lacked wisdom but not audacity. In a Trumpian move, he sold the family’s New Jersey apartment complexes and bought 666 Fifth Ave. for $1.8 billion, then the most ever paid for a Manhattan office building. He seems to have vastly overpaid. The Met-Life building sold at roughly the same time for $600 a square foot, according to reporting in The New York Times, but Kushner bought his building for $1,200 a square foot. Kushner worked feverishly to save the deal, and has built his company despite it, but it’s been a financial albatross ever since, one reason Kushner has spent so much time looking for Chinese investors, and possibly Russian ones.
We tell young people to serve something beyond self, and Kushner seems to have been fiercely, almost selflessly, loyal to family. But the clannish mentality has often ill served him during his stay in government.
Working in government is about teamwork, majority-building and addition — adding more and more people to your coalition. It is about working within legal frameworks and bureaucratic institutions. It’s about having a short memory and not taking things personally.
Clannishness, by contrast, is about tight and exclusive blood bonds. It’s a moral approach based on loyalty and vengeance against those who attack a member of the clan. It’s an intensely personal and feud-ridden way of being.
Working in government is about trusting the system, and trusting those who have been around and understand the craft. But the essence of clannishness is to build a barrier between family — inside the zone of trust — and others, outside that zone. Consequently, Kushner has made some boneheaded blunders in the White House. He reportedly pushed for the firing of FBI Director James Comey even though anybody with a blip of experience could have told you this move would backfire horribly. He’s allowed his feud with Steve Bannon to turn into a public soap opera.
We don’t know everything about his meetings with the Russians, but we know that they, like so much other clanlike behavior, went against the formal system. We also know that they betray rookie naiveté on several levels — apparently trusting the Russians not to betray him, apparently not understanding that these conversations would be surveyed by the U.S. intelligence services, possibly not understanding how alarming they would look to outsiders.
We seem to now be entering the paranoia phase of the Trump presidency, as insiders perceive that everybody else is out to get them. As The Times’ Glenn Thrush, Maggie Haberman and Sharon LaFraniere detailed in some amazing reporting, Kushner’s role in this White House may be in peril. This turmoil was inevitable.
Our forebears have spent centuries trying to build a government of laws, and not of hereditary blood lines. It’s possible to thrive in this system as a member of a clan — the Roosevelts, the Kennedys and the Bushes — but it’s not possible to survive in this system if your mentality is entirely clannish. That mode, whether in the Donald Trump or Jared Kushner version, simply self-destructs in the formal system and within the standards of behavior that now surround us.