There was quite the online kerfuffle about yesterday’s David Brooks’s column on the cultural barriers put in place by the educated elites in this country. Brooks argued that “The educated class has built an ever more intricate net to cradle us in and ease everyone else out. It’s not really the prices that ensure 80 percent of your co-shoppers at Whole Foods are, comfortingly, also college grads; it’s the cultural codes.”
I agree with my Post colleague Tim Carman that outside The Anecdote That Shall Not Be Named, the column was “an otherwise temperate take on the restrictions and social codes that keep the middle class in its place.” As a fully paid-up member of this class, there clearly are expected modes of behavior, and not knowing the unspoken rules of the game acts as a barrier to those trying to enter the meritocratic class. It can still be done, but it’s like learning an additional language.
There is a flip side to this argument, however. It is not just that social codes and mores can act as a barrier to upward mobility by some. It is also possible that some people successfully enter the meritocracy through the mastery of these codes rather than mastery of any substantive set of skills.
To see what I mean, consider the reaction yesterday to the political dumpster fire that is Donald J. Trump Jr. In their write-up, my Post colleagues Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker offer up a Trump staffer’s defense of DJT Jr.: “One White House official went so far as to stop communicating with the president’s embattled son, although this official spoke sympathetically about his plight, casting Donald Trump Jr. as someone who just wants to hunt, fish and run his family’s real estate business.” In other words, Trump Jr. is not that bright and so should be treated as such. The New York Post editorial is pretty blunt on this point; it’s titled, “Donald Trump Jr. is an Idiot.”
Based on my own conversations, it would seem that most traditional D.C. wonks look at most of the Trump family and see a bunch of wealthy, not-very-bright boors who do déclassé things like eat their steaks well-done and with ketchup. Indeed, there is a whole conservative genre defending the Trumps for some of their gauche tendencies. Most of the Trumps gleefully ignore the cultural codes that Brooks describes, because they are rich enough to not care.
Then we get to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, and the narrative switches.
The rest of the Trumps might scream bridge and tunnel, but Jared and Ivanka have undeniably mastered the cultural codes of the educated class. It is hard to read a profile of either of them without words like “polished” or “poised” appearing.
Take the opening sentences to Jill Filipovic’s Politico essay from May: “Ivanka Trump is the poised, polished face of a chaotic White House, a bright young mother who many suspect is a voice of reason and moderation among the Steve Bannon acolytes in the West Wing, whispering socially liberal values in her daddy’s ear.” Look at the Post’s Style Section profile of Ivanka from this month: “Ivanka Trump’s office: clean, white, quiet. A zone of punctual start times and promptly offered water bottles, and a conference table at which she conducts meetings. A short, winding walk away from her father’s Oval Office downstairs.” Or as T.A. Frank noted in Vanity Fair, “let’s agree that one of the finest qualities of Jared Kushner is his tailoring. The fit is so good. Even with bespoke work, that’s hard to achieve.”
Let me posit that in mastering the cultural codes of the educated class, Kushner and Ivanka somehow fooled even veteran D.C. observers into presuming that they might actually be qualified and competent as well. Which all evidence suggests is not true.
The same Post profile of Ivanka contains this extraordinary paragraph:
She is learning to more carefully weigh the consequences of her opinions, which impact not the family business, but the country and the world. Unlike in business, where she felt comfortable exchanging off-the-cuff opinions with her father, she now tries not to respond too quickly. She waits until he has asked her opinion multiple times on the same issue, taking that as a cue to its importance, and then she reaches out to subject-matter experts to help her develop a reasoned position.
I suppose asking experts is better than winging it, but traditionally, White House staffers are already experts on policy. It would appear that the only thing Ivanka Trump is an expert at is self-promotion.
Similarly, Kushner seems like he’s in way over his head. He was the one who thought firing FBI Director James B. Comey would not be problematic. He was the one to suggest a back-channel with Russia to be run out of the Russian embassy. Oh, and he forgot to mention on his disclosure forms that he attended the meeting with a Russian lawyer arranged by Trump Jr. We don’t even know whether he’s kept his security clearance.
Mike Allen’s morning report in Axios demonstrates the degree to which Kushner seems spectacularly out of his depth:
Several top officials describe Jared Kushner in very similar ways: a good guy with good intentions, now under rising scrutiny because of a combination of naivete and hubris….
“Everything is being treated as bigger than it is, but he’s in the big leagues now,” said a Republican friendly to Kushner. “He’s trying to bravado his way through his lack of experience.”…
The view in Kushner’s orbit is that the brutal new revelations are more P.R. problems than legal problems. And if he makes progress with his Middle East peace efforts, perceptions would be very different.
How to put this gently: this is not just a P.R. problem, and if Kushner is placing all of his bets on forging peace in the Middle East, then he’s even more naive than Allen’s report suggests.
Cultural codes are powerful, but they cut both ways. They make it easy for wonks to belittle fools and knaves like Trump Jr. But they also cause Washington elites to overestimate the talents of those who have cracked the cultural codes. This might explain why so many continue to pin so much hope on two people who are radically unqualified to work at the White House.