Even in these tortured times, it is worth devoting a small sliver of outrage to the fact that Jared Kushner—whose only qualification to senior-advise the president on policy is that he is married to the president’s daughter—seems to have taken, per the Guardian, $90 million in foreign funding since 2017 from an “opaque offshore vehicle.” This influx comes via a stake he kept in a real estate company after assuming his government post, and given that the cash has come in via the Cayman Islands (via Goldman Sachs), we have no idea who is actually enriching this public official who is meant to be working for us. Wherever that lovely money is coming from, we would also do well to remember that Kushner was initially refused a security clearance by career White House staff vetting him for precisely these reasons. But never mind. We are meant to feel only gratitude to the unqualified family members who step in to serve. He has surely accomplished many, many things from his high perch, things that not one person alive can yet name.
Somehow nepotism seems to rankle more than grift alone. Steve Mnuchin’s jet-setting trip to view an eclipse from Fort Knox at taxpayer expense was exponentially more annoying because his wife hitched a ride. Elaine Chao would be front-page public corruption news in any moment other than this, for having brazenly directed resources overseen by her office, the Department of Transportation, to the state in which her husband, Mitch McConnell, holds office (perhaps this one isn’t making a bigger splash only because McConnell’s shamelessness knows no bounds). And then there’s the unfortunate news that Yale Law School’s Amy Chua, who insisted that Brett Kavanaugh will be great for feminism because he has been great to her daughter, has now secured for her daughter the selfsame clerkship for which this transaction was crafted. In America, it matters less that a justice campaigned for a spot at the court on the promise of ending legal abortion, and burdening a migrant teen’s legal right to abortion, than that he recognizes the sterling career promise in the children of other elites.
We all believe our children to be extraordinary. Most of us would move mountains to help them excel. But that doesn’t mean the world should dance with joy when rich children are foisted into leadership roles because elites have traded favors. And one wants to be extremely careful when one mistakes transactional American elitism for patriotism, intellectual rigor, or doing justice. At minimum, one ought to be aware that the American public appreciates greed for its own sake vastly more than it respects hollow nepotism. Because it increasingly seems that one tiny quirk of the American tolerance for greed is that it may prove to be nontransferable: We don’t mind so very much that grifters are gonna grift, but we do appear to balk at allowing their children to inherit the earth.
It’s worth recognizing that currently, the United States of America is not just in thrall to the billionaires. It’s in thrall to the children, and the wives, and also the pool boys of the billionaires. And while many voters may not have minded electing a tax evader who treated the bankruptcy courts like a Slip ’N Slide, they may at some point balk at the idea that his grown children were also born to rule (and be enriched while so doing). Americans are—without a doubt—in love with their own children, in love with the idea of their offspring’s staggering perfection, and seemingly willing to do just about anything to vault their children into the elite stratosphere. Part of the original promise of America was supposed to be that any child could reach the upper echelons of our meritocratic society, provided they were smart enough and worked hard enough. That’s the plot of Hamilton, and also the CliffsNotes for the American Revolution. And yet, the brazenness with which current elites are rigging the system to protect their own may be enough to shatter this delicate lie for good.
Perhaps voters who were willing to look past Donald Trump’s moral and personal and financial failings because he was a “good businessman” in 2016 might also accept that taxpayers should, in fact, have paid the $1,223,230 for VIP accommodations for his adult children in London last week, despite the fact that two of them play no role whatsoever in the administration (though they do represent Trump’s businesses). Maybe they will conclude that it’s simply a problem for ethicists to mull, and resolve. Or maybe they will realize that they could be thinking about it, and pushing back against it, as well. Unlike the 448-page Mueller report, it takes all of 20 seconds to question why taxpayers keep putting money into Eric Trump’s pocket.
I love my children and find them to be generally excellent, and when the time comes to say whatever I must to secure great jobs, benefits, treasure, and perks for them among elites, you can be sure I will be tempted. But the problem with the Trump administration’s seemingly bottomless capacity to fill the swamp with money and influence is that the swamps are now noticeably teeming with unfit, uninteresting, and unqualified children and spouses. And it’s not clear, at least to me, that Americans like Kushner more than their own perfect offspring. They may even start to resent these grifter-adjacent offspring for taking the baubles and perks, and many millions of dollars in emolument-units, away from their own mortgage payments and college funds.
George Washington warned against nepotism in America, refusing to give his own family members plum jobs and commissions precisely because that represented everything the revolutionaries loathed about Europe. Even before taking office, he assured a friend that he would “discharge the duties of the office with that impartiality and zeal for the public good, which ought never to suffer connections of blood or friendship to intermingle.” He told another friend that he “would not be in the remotest degree influenced, in making nominations, by motives arising from the ties of amity or blood.” Even the Framers, all of whom were enmeshed and co-mingled and conflicted with other elite framers, understood that their children weren’t princelings and their families weren’t monarchs.
That’s a far cry from where we are now: in a place where every time a Trump family member sneezes, another Trump family member gets to put fresh hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place. Americans tend to balk at dynasties—whether its Clintons following Clintons or Bushes on the heels of Bushes. Even as we understand that Kennedys get better tables and people have been buying their children into Ivies long before Lori Loughlin got caught doing it, we don’t comfortably accede to the idea that those children should rule over us. The Trump family took something American elites have done in stealth and discretion for decades and tried to turn it into a sales pitch: “Nobody does nepotism like we do nepotism.”
I wonder whether the public is sold. Because it’s probably not a coincidence that as the Trump children thrive and the McConnell-Chao partnership thrives and Bill Barr’s son-in-law at the White House counsel’s office thrives, the rest of America’s children are falling behind by virtually every measure. And it’s not just about who gets into the elite preschools and high school and universities, and who ends up running our institutions. It’s also about the fact that it’s too soon to talk about school shootings and too late to talk about teacher unions and too pointless to talk about the attempts to strip millions of children of their health care. It’s about the fact that while elites shape the world for their own children to thrive, seven migrant children died in government custody in the past year alone.* If it is still true that the measure of any society is how it treats its children, we have arrived at the perfect resting place for the kakistocracy in which we now reside. The children of the elites will lead us while the children of the most vulnerable are unceremoniously advised to get out of the way.
The idea of American meritocracy was imperfect from the founding, but it’s never been as transparently laughable as it is today. It was, at least, a hope, even as huge swaths of the population were denied access to hope. But the idea that life could be better for all of our children has been the fundamental engine of American optimism forever. Perhaps voters who agreed to allow a pretend billionaire to lead them, and who remain unaffected by his petulance, his lies, and his childish insults, may actually be moved to wonder why it is that his children and grandchildren deserve a better life than theirs.
Correction, June 13, 2019: An earlier version of this article misstated that seven migrant children had died in government custody this year. Seven migrant children died in government custody in the past year.