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“[L]et him who aspires to such station, and is not one of the Medici, favour Liberty and the popular Power.”

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Photo: Alex Brandon, AP
Photo: Alex Brandon, AP

With only superficial changes, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld‘s new piece in Politico could have appeared—at one time or another—in a pro-government outlet in, say, Azerbaijan, North Korea, or Syria. Simply  substitute Jared Kushner’s name for that of Ilham Aliyev, Kim Jung-Un, Bashar al-Assad, or some other princeling—and we’re in business.

Honestly, the whole thing is such a dumpster fire that it’s hard to know where to begin.

By virtue of their close relationship with the president, Jared and Ivanka are able to speak truth to power without fear of suspect motives. This is a major advantage of family enterprises. The great merchant banking families were able to cover the globe, operating in distant seaports, with primitive communication and painfully slow transportation by dispatching family members as their emissaries in these far off lands. With shared values, deeper bonds of trust, greater respect for risk taking, and longer time frames, family dynastic wealth has been a huge force in the success of global enterprises. Today, companies like Ford, Wal-Mart, Mars Inc., and Campbell Soup still benefit from large family stakes and faith in the mission of the enterprise.

If I were setting out to defend the transformation of governance—in the world’s oldest extant democratic republic, no less—into a family business, I would probably not start out by genuflecting toward the Medici or invoking the same features of kinship-based trust networks that work well for organized criminal enterprises. But, then again, I’m not the Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies & Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management at the Yale School of Business.

What follows—after some noncommittal material about possible conflicts of interest and the fact that observant Jews don’t work on the Sabbath—is a long list of inexperienced people that held powerful positions in the White House. Sonnenfeld sprinkles in examples of insular and inbred administrations. The fact that many of these arrangements—the Nixon administration, the early Clinton years—proved deeply dysfunctional seems besides the point.

For Sonnenfeld Kushner is just like Kissinger—except for the record of scholarship and policy profile—or Harry Hopkins—except for a twenty-some year history in government and non-government service to the public welfare. Also, experienced hands in the Bush Administration brought us Iraq, Thus, nepotistic self-dealing at the highest levels of American government is totally fine. Because reasons. It’s particularly rich to read all of this forty-eight hours after we learned that Kushner met with Russian officials—and failed to disclose those meetings on the application for his security clearance. That’s enough, by the way, to get people stripped of their clearances and fired.

But, not to worry, because Sonnenfeld assures us, based—as best I can tell—on no evidence other than his conversations with Donald Trump, that Kushner is the bee’s knees.

Perhaps, too, it is time to stop the needless bomb-hurling at Kushner, a trustworthy, objective, smart, fresh voice working in the national interest, who unlike some of his colleagues in the White House, appears to work effectively and quietly with real facts and analysis rather than with public pronouncements, tweets, “alternative facts,” or threats.

As Daniel Drezner puts it:

I suppose that this might be amusing as a clickbait-y exercise in counter-intuitive punditry. Except that it’s actually rather frightening. No matter how smart, or capable,  Jared Kushner is…. well, it doesn’t actually matter. Indeed, I agree with Sonnenfeld that I’d rather have Kushner making policy than Bannon or Miller. So what? There are plenty of smart, capable, and even qualified people who could fill Kushner’s roles without eroding the foundations of our system of government. Essays like Sonnenfald’s normalize the destruction of norms that keep the United States from sliding into an outright kleptocracy, oligarchy, or banana republic.

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